Authors: William Graham Sumner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American sociologist

Author Works


A History of American Currency, 1874

Andrew Jackson as a Public Man, 1882

Discipline, 1883

What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, 1883

What Is the “Proletariat”?, 1886

What Is Free Trade?, 1886

Legislation by Clamor, 1887

Alexander Hamilton, 1890

Robert Morris, 1892

The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over, 1894

Earth Hunger: Or, The Philosophy of Land Grabbing, 1896

Advancing Social and Political Organization in the United States, 1897

The Conquest of the United States by Spain, 1899

The Bequests of the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth, wr. 1901, pb. 1933

War, 1903

Economics and Politics, 1905

Folkways, 1907

Science of Society, 1927 (with A. G. Keller)


William Graham Sumner’s father, Thomas, a Lancashire artisan who came to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1836, was a self-educated man who acquired the lessons of the English classical economists through practical experience and became a railroad mechanic in Hartford, Connecticut. One of three children, William developed a profound respect for the man who worked, saved regularly, and expected nothing from the government but to be left in peace. After William’s mother, Sarah Graham, died in 1848, his father married Eliza Van Alstein, whom William disliked even though she was greatly responsible for funding his college education. She died in 1859, and William got along better with his father’s third wife, Catherine Mix.{$I[AN]9810000309}{$I[A]Sumner, William Graham}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Sumner, William Graham}{$I[tim]1840;Sumner, William Graham}

Sumner entered Yale University in 1859. After graduating in 1863 he studied theology, languages, and scientific method in Geneva, Göttingen, and Oxford. In 1866 he returned to Yale as a tutor. Ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal church in 1867, Sumner was named assistant to the rector of Calvary Church in New York City in 1869. In July of that year he was ordained as priest, and the following year he was assigned to a pastorate in Morristown, New Jersey. On April 17, 1871, he married Jeannie Elliott.

Sumner’s interests in social and economic questions outgrew his religious calling, so he left the clergy in 1872, returned to Connecticut, and accepted a position as professor in the Department of Political Economy at Yale. In 1873 he was elected as Republican alderman in New Haven. Yale administrators had expected Sumner to be an orthodox theologian, but he shocked them by attacking governmental subsidies in the form of protective tariffs and by converting to evolutionism in 1875. That same year he taught the first “sociology” course ever offered by a university. His textbook selection–Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology (1873)–was the subject of a major controversy about academic freedom in 1879. In 1890 Sumner became a member of the Connecticut State Board of Education. He began speaking against American imperialism abroad during and after the Spanish American War. A former student, Thomas Beer, remembered him as

. . . a prodigious personality, something cold and massive and autocratic. He came stalking into the classroom with a sort of “Be damned to you” air. . . . We respected and admired him, however little we appreciated him. If he had been seriously threatened with expulsion from Yale in 1899, when he blew up imperialism, there would have been an academic revolution.

Sumner gradually began to focus less on theological concerns and to turn his attention to the public affairs of the post-Civil War period. His faith in his father’s concept of the Protestant ethic led him to relate the successful middle-class property holder with a moral and natural superiority. He fortified his belief in classical economics with the writings of Spencer and Charles Darwin. It was Spencer who first used the phrase “survival of the fittest” and applied it to economics. Sumner accepted these conclusions and became an outspoken opponent of reform laws, protective tariffs, anti-trust legislation, and any form of socialism.

For Sumner the first prerequisite to an understanding of political economy is a willingness to look at the world the way it is, not the way it could or should be. According to Sumner, state interference is never justified. Social reformers and humanitarians take away honestly earned money from the thrifty, hardworking middle class and give it to those who pay the least and benefit the most: the poor and the unfit. He was convinced that catering to the poor and the weak would carry “society downward and favors its worst enemies.”

Sumner was an avowed critic of American imperialism and war, mainly because they represented and required the inflexible and centrally controlled state he opposed. He denounced the Republican platform of 1900 as nonsense and predicted for the United States in the twentieth century “war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery.”

Sumner’s sociological and anthropological study Folkways is considered to be his most significant and influential book. Its direct and honest approach had a great impact on the early twentieth century United States. His short, biting essays, however, also continue to be effective, relevant, and capable of provoking intelligent and rational debate. In 1909 Sumner retired from Yale, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and became president of the American Sociological Society. In diminishing health after 1890, he suffered a major stroke on December 26, 1909, and died while giving a public lecture in Englewood, New Jersey, on April 12, 1910.

BibliographyCurtis, Bruce. William Graham Sumner. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An intellectual biography with a good bibliography.Garson, Robert, and Richard Maidment. “Social Darwinism and the Liberal Tradition: The Case of William Graham Sumner.” South Atlantic Quarterly 80, no. 1 (1981). A study of the philosophical basis of Sumner’s writing.Healy, Mary Edward. Society and Social Change in the Writings of St. Thomas, Ward, Sumner, and Cooley. 1948. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. A comparative study.Lee, Alfred McClung. “The Forgotten Sumner.” Journal of the History of Sociology 3 (Fall/Winter, 1980/1981). A sociological profile.Pickens, Donald K. “Westward Expansion and the End of American Exceptionalism: Sumner, Turner, and Webb.” Western Historical Quarterly 12, no. 4 (1981). Discusses Sumner’s influence on American self-image.Pickens, Donald K. “William Graham Sumner as a Critic of the Spanish American War.” Continuity 11 (1987). Sumner’s political views are analyzed.
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