Plunging Sumner’s Essays

Sumner, William Graham, and Robert C. Bannister. On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992.

Sumner’s reputation as an American “sociologist”—few sociologists would find him comparable—who triumphed Herbert Spencer’s philosophies and looked at social traditions as embedded within Darwinian theories, really only captures a brief moment of his scholarship, when he was at his most polemic. His early writings in no way seem to anticipate his turn to Spencer, nor do his later writings seem dependent upon Spencerian theory. When divided along the phases of his long life, indeed, his various ideas and insights seem to have few threads that can be pulled through all of them, and though Spencer certainly appears frequently in his polemics, Spencerianism is not one of these threads.

In contrasts to Spencer’s rigid individualism, Sumner’s early writings as a preacher are in fact critical of these ideas, as seen in a sermon called “Individualism” in which Sumner declares: “the most unfortunate effects of individualism, however, are those which are produced on social relations, for individualism is of course destructive to society” (8). To Sumner,

society is based on duty, that is upon the idea that each individual is under obligation to forgot something of his own rights, or interests, or pleasure for the common good. Individualism lays all the stress upon rights; it teaches each individual to claim all the rights which he possesses over against other men, and to demand that they be paid in full. (8)

Sumner not only sees individualism as immoral to the individual, but for a nation in general, when he criticizes China for having “severed themselves from the rest of the human race to the utmost of their ability, and they are still striving to ward off the influences from without while profiting to a certain extent by commercial relations. The unnatural struggle produces continual discord and confusion” (30). Indeed, Sumner proposes a solidarity of the human race, claiming that “each man serves himself best in serving the whole” (36).

Sumner’s phase of life after his life as a preacher is perhaps thought best as “Sumner the economist” rather than Sumner the politician, preacher or sociologist. In this phase he is utterly Spencerian, and translates many of his optimal ideas about human solidarity into one of a duty to the mechanics of capital, where in “The Philosophy of Strikes,” he debases the “existence of classes who are corrupted by these diseases of character” which he defines as diseases of “self-denial,” of “mere day-dreaming” and “an overheated imagination.” Indeed, in these lesser classes who are apt to strike, Sumner finds

classes of persons who are whining and fault-finding, and who use the organs of public discussion and deliberation in order to put forth childish complaints and impossible demands, while they philosophize about life…Of course, this whole tone of thought and mode of behavior is as far as possible from the study manliness which meets the problems of life and wins victories as much by what it endures as by what it conquers. (128)

If the men of labor are whiny and as far as possible away from “sturdy manliness,” then the men of capital, particularly of those “men of industry” who have proof of their victories by being at the top, are the pinnacles of manliness. Sumner then seems to find strikes evil in all their forms, as they are against the mechanics of society, and “for men to band together in order to carry on an industrial war…is only a way of courting new calamity” (132).

For Sumner, the logical conclusion of what the strikers, and particularly the Knights of Labor, had began, would end in what he calls a plutocracy: “a political for in which the real controlling force is wealth” (143). He uses Western Europe as his primary example, where “popular doctrines of the last hundred years have spread the notion that everybody ought to enjoy comfort and luxury—that luxury is a sort of right” (143). Again, the language or rights is antagonized here, but it does not seem to be in connection with the individualism he spoke of as a preacher, rather, the right to luxury for Sumner is a right that takes away from the hard working middle class. He finds this type of government perhaps in the progressive movement of his time and in the strikers, who he believed used capital “politically,” and that “instead of employing laborers, he enlists lobbyists. Instead of applying capital to land, he operates upon the market by legislation” (146). The strike is to Sumner a political gesture, one that threatens violence or disruption of the overall market, impinging upon the State’s ability to keep the peace. Capital, for Sumner, is to be used for the gain of more capital, as he claims that “speculation is a legitimate function in the organization, and not an abuse or a public wrong. Trusts…are evidently increasing” (147). The creation of trusts, of speculative capital, are simply ways of the strong displaying their dominance, while strikers and the Knights of labor seek to corrupt the political system. Indeed, Sumner sees nothing inherently wrong with inequality, and that claiming it as a right is in fact the real wrong being done. As he says, “what law of nature, religion, ethics or the state is violated by the inequalities of fortune?” (154), and seeks to overturn the idea that even though many of the millionaires seem to have amassed great wealth very quickly,

the millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done…it is because they are thus selected that wealth—both their own and that entrusted to them—aggregates under their hands…they may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society…this will bring discipline and the correction of arrogance and masterfulness. (155)

Socialism, as a project that to Sumner claims a right to full equality, is an ideology that deliberate seeks to overturn the survival of the fittest, and therefore stagnate the development of the race. “competition,” sumner says, “is a law of nature. Nature is entirely neutral…she grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind” (164). If the progressive agenda were to be established, Sumner fears that “we shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty” (164-5), a destruction upon the basis of unfair tax laws, where “a law may be passed which shall force somebody to support the hopelessly degenerate members of society, but such a law can only perpetuate the evil and entail it on future generations with new accumulations of distress” (167). Though Sumner here may sound like the spokesman for a certain class, the law of primogeniture is one of his most consistent enemies, since leaving inheritance for the child would be against natural selection, and “he would do far better for his children to leave them poor” (176). In other words, under the Sumnerian utopia, everyone would begin at rock bottom, and those who rise to the top would be the “fittest.” This also means that the Philanthropist, naturally, is “only cultivating the distress which he pretends to cure” (182).

At a time when “social reform is the most barren and tiresome subject of discussion” (203), Sumner believes, it is “the weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists…the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient” (208). For Sumner, the efforts of humanitarians are being wasted “on a worthless member of society,” while the “Forgotten Man,” who “is the simple, honest laborer, ready to earn his living by productive work…[who]is independent, self-supporting, and asks no favors…[who] does not appeal to the emotions or excite the sentiments” and who “only wants to make a contract and fulfill it,” is, as the name suggests, forgotten. The main conceptual division here is between the obligation of the middle-class to support the poor, and the contractual agreement between two individuals to support one another. For Sumner the rule of obligation suggests a “sentimental relation” that attempts to “supersede(s) the free relation” (210). If, for the poor man, “a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be” since “Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way” (212), by contrast, the “captain of industry,” is the ethical and efficient great leader who nature has set on a role of control over the masses, who Sumner, like Bellamy, defines as “the industrial army,” where the entrepreneur is the general.

Sumner meets the territorial expansion of the United States in the late 19th century with a retraction on his polemic position, and takes a stance more reminiscent of his preacher days, insisting that “so long as there is a government on the islands, native or other, which is competent to guarantee peace, order and security, no more is necessary, and for any outside power to seize the jurisdiction is an unjustifiable aggression” (267). Indeed, after the Spanish-American war, Sumner believed that Spain had actually won by dispelling the European injunction to accumulate colonies overtook the United States: “we are submitting to be conquered by [Spain] on the field of ideas an policies,” where “expansion and imperialism are nothing but old philosophies which have brought Spain to where she is now” (272). Sumner is prescient in this case, foreseeing that “they like their own ways, and if we appear amongst them as rulers, there will be social discord in all the great departments of social interest. The most important thing which we shall inherit from the Spaniards will be the task of suppressing rebellions” (277). Sumner posits that Spain itself was not made richer by its conquests, but that the Kingdom had been at fault by “confusing the public treasury with the national wealth,” and that if we were to set up markets in the Phillipines and force them to buy our products, we would be reenacting the same mistakes that led to the Cuban revolution against Spain. Expansion to Sumner also seems simply un-American, and that “we cannot get a penny of revenue from the dependencies…without burning up all our histories, revising all the great principles of our heroic period” (285) since it was taxation without representation that led to our own revolution. Though Sumner’s intentions here seem admirable from this historical distance, his fear of colonization of the Philippines is congruent to his fear of “bad stock” coming to the United States. As he says, “three years ago we were on the verge of a law to keep immigrants out who were not good enough to be in with us. Now we are going to take in eight million barbarians and semi-barbarians, and we are paying twenty million dollars to get them…we cannot treat [the negro] one way and the Malays, Tagals, and Kanakas another way” (293).

Perhaps the only time Sumner can actually be called a sociologist is in his last work Folkways, where he introduces the concepts of folkways and mores. The ancient folkways are often insisted upon by “the ghosts of ancestors” who “would be very angry if the living should change the ancient folkways” (358). These folkways were originally produced by the ancestors “for warding off pain and ill,” and Sumner defines them as acts of ritual shrouded in myth, which are with us today in the form of social “mores.” Sumner fuses these concepts with Veblen’s ideas of pecuniary emulation, namely that leisure classes “have led the way in luxury, frivolity, and vice, and also in refinement, culture, and the art of living” but that the masses “accept life as they find it, and live on by tradition and habit…the great mass of any society lives a purely instinctive life just like animals” (362). For Sumner this impulse to accept life as it has come is “due to inertia,” where “change would make new effort necessary to win routine and habit” and is “therefore irksome.” For the common man, as Sumner puts it, being born into a habit is simply taken as the best habit available, since it has stood the test of time, and that “for the people of a time and place, their own mores are always good, or rather that for them there can be no question of the goodness or badness of their norms” (364). Despite this insight, Sumner seems to believe that he can see past these mores, using—predictably—natural selection, which is itself a ideology embedded into his own time and place. “’Good’ mores” he says, “are those which are well adapted to the situation. ‘Bad’ mores are those which are not so adapted” (365). This way out of the mores is possible only though “conscious reflection,” which Sumner calls “the worst enemy of the mores, because mores begin unconsciously and pursue unconscious purposes…their expediency often depends on the assumption that they will have general acceptance and currency, uninterfered with by reflection” (366).


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