William Graham Sumner

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William Graham Sumner

Birthdate: (69)
Birthplace: Paterson, Passaic County, New Jersey, United States
Death: April 12, 1910 (69)
Englewood, Bergen County, New Jersey, United States
Place of Burial: Guilford, New Haven County, Connecticut, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Sumner and Sarah Graham
Husband of Jeanne Whittemore Elliott
Father of Eliot Sumner and Graham Sumner

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About William Graham Sumner


William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 – April 12, 1910) was an American academic and "held the first professorship in sociology" at Yale College. For many years he had a reputation as one of the most influential teachers there. He was a polymath with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology. He is credited with introducing the term "ethnocentrism," a term intended to identify imperialists' chief means of justification, in his book Folkways (1906). Sumner is often seen as a proto-libertarian. He was also the first to teach a course entitled "Sociology".


Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Sumner graduated from Yale College in 1863, where he had been a member of Skull and Bones. During the late 1860s Sumner was an Episcopalian minister. In 1872, Sumner accepted the chair of Political Economy at Yale University.


Sumner was a staunch advocate of laissez-faire economics, as well as "a forthright proponent of free trade and the gold standard and a foe of socialism." Sumner was active in the intellectual promotion of free-trade classical liberalism, and in his heyday and after there were Sumner Clubs here and there. He heavily criticized state socialism/state communism. One adversary he mentioned by name was Edward Bellamy, whose national variant of socialism was set forth in Looking Backward, published in 1888, and the sequel Equality'.


Like many classical liberals at the time, including Edward Atkinson, Moorfield Storey, and Grover Cleveland, Sumner opposed the Spanish-American War and the subsequent U.S. effort to quell the insurgency in the Philippines. He was a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League which had been formed after the war to oppose the annexation of territories. In his speech "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," (considered by some to be "his most enduring work") he lambasted imperialism as a betrayal of the best traditions, principles, and interests of the American People and contrary to America's own founding as a state of equals, where justice and law "were to reign in the midst of simplicity". In this ironically titled work, Sumner portrayed the takeover as "an American version of the imperialism and lust for colonies that had brought Spain the sorry state of his own time". According to Sumner, imperialism would enthrone a new group of "plutocrats", or businesspeople who depended on government subsidies and contracts.


As a sociologist, his major accomplishments were developing the concepts of diffusion, folkways, and ethnocentrism. Sumner's work with folkways led him to conclude that attempts at government-mandated reform were useless.

In 1876, Sumner became the first to teach a course entitled "sociology" in the English-speaking world, though this course focused on the thought of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, rather than the formal academic sociology that would be established 20 years later by Émile Durkheim in Europe. He was the second president of American Sociological Association serving from 1908 to 1909. and succeeding his long time ideological opponent Lester F. Ward.

In 1880, Sumner was involved in one of the first cases of academic freedom. Sumner and the Yale president at the time, Noah Porter, did not agree on the use of Herbert Spencer's "Study of Sociology" as part of the curriculum. Spencer's application of supposed "Darwinist" ideas to the realm of humans may have been slightly too controversial at this time of curriculum reform. On the other hand even if Spencer's ideas were not generally accepted, it is clear that his social ideas influenced Sumner in his written works.

Sumner and Social Darwinism

William Graham Sumner was influenced by many people and ideas such as Herbert Spencer and his supposed social Darwinist ideologies.

In 1881 Sumner wrote an essay entitled “Sociology”. In the essay Sumner focuses on the connection between sociology and biology. He explains that there are two sides to the struggle for survival of a human. The first being a “struggle for existence”, which is a relationship between man and nature. The second side would be the “competition for life” which can be identified as a relationship between man and man. The first being a biological relationship with nature and the second being a social link thus sociology. Man would struggle against nature to obtain essential needs such as food or water and in turn this would create the conflict between man and man in order to obtain needs from a limited supply. Sumner believed that man could not abolish the law of “survival of the fittest” we could only interfere with it and produce the “unfit”.

According to Jeff Riggenbach, the identification of Sumner as a Social Darwinist

is ironic, for he was not so known during his lifetime or for many years thereafter. Robert C. Bannister, the Swarthmore historian, . . . describes the situation: "Sumner's 'social Darwinism,'" he writes, "although rooted in controversies during his lifetime, received its most influential expression in Richard Hofstadter ['s] Social Darwinism in American Thought," which was first published in 1944. . . . Was William Graham Sumner an advocate of "social Darwinism"? As I have indicated, he has been so described, most notably by Richard Hofstadter and various others over the past 60-odd years. Robert Bannister calls this description "more caricature than accurate characterization" of Sumner, however, and says further that it "seriously misrepresents him." He notes that Sumner's short book, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, which was first published in 1884, when the author was in his early 40s, "would … earn him a reputation as the Gilded Age's leading 'social Darwinist,'" though it "invoked neither the names nor the rhetoric of Spencer or Darwin."

Sumner was a critic of natural rights, famously arguing

"Before the tribunal of nature a man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast; his right to pursuit of happiness is nothing but a license to maintain the struggle for existence..."

—William Graham Sumner, "Earth-hunger, and other essays," p. 234.


Another example of Darwinist influence in Sumner’s work was his analysis of warfare in one of his essays in the 1880s. Contrary to some beliefs, Sumner did not believe that warfare was a result of primitive societies; he suggested that “real warfare” came from more developed societies. It was believed that primitive cultures would have war as a “struggle for existence”, but Sumner believed that war in fact came from a “competition for life”. Although war was sometimes man against nature, fighting another tribe for their resources, it was more often a conflict between man and man. For example one man fighting against another man because of his ideologies. Sumner explained that the competition for life was the reason for war and that is why war has always existed and always will.


Sumner's most popular book is Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals (1907). Starting with four theoretical chapters, it provides a frank, objective, and candid description of the nature of many of the more important customs and institutions in societies past and present around the world. The book promotes a sociological or relativistic approach to moral behavior, as expressed in his thesis that "the mores can make anything right and prevent condemnation of anything." (p. 521)

The Forgotten Man

Graham argued that in his day, politics was being subverted by those proposing "measure of relief for the evils which have caught public attention." He wrote,

As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X... What I want to do is to look up C... I call him the forgotten man... He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, the social speculator, and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.

—Summer, p. 466 of The Forgotten Man and Other Essays


Sumner's popular essays gave him a wide audience for his laissez-faire: advocacy of free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard. Thousands of Yale students took his courses, and many remarked on his influence. His essays were very widely read among intellectuals, and men of affairs. Among Sumner's students were the anthropologist Albert Galloway Keller, the economist Irving Fisher, and the champion of an anthropological approach to economics, Thorstein Bunde Veblen.



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William Graham Sumner's Timeline

October 30, 1840
Paterson, Passaic County, New Jersey, United States
October 18, 1873
Age 32
New Haven, New Haven County, Connecticut, United States
October 25, 1876
Age 35
April 12, 1910
Age 69
Englewood, Bergen County, New Jersey, United States
Guilford, New Haven County, Connecticut, United States