11/2/10 - social darwinism

In today's excerpt - social Darwinism. The greatest U.S. economic crisis prior to the Great Depression itself was "the Panic of 1873," a depression that lasted from 1873-1879. It brought unprecedented unemployment to the country, and unloosed a nationwide hysteria known as "the Tramp Scare." Thousands unemployed "tramps" crossed the country looking for work that wasn't to be found. Instead of reacting with aid and compassion, cities and states passed harsh "anti-Tramp" laws and labeled the unemployed as morally inferior. Conveniently, Charles Darwin's brand new theory of evolution was available could be freely adapted to the social world to provide justification for this scorn:

"Impressed with what they took to be the hard, scientific fact of natural selection, many prominent American intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen followed [leading intellectual] Herbert Spencer in wanting to extend Charles Darwin's insights on nature to society. To those who enjoyed the benefits of American prosperity, unrestrained capitalism appeared a law of nature, and one that should be obeyed by all and not altered, as to do so would undermine social progress. Daniel S. Gregory's popular Christian Ethics argued that 'The Moral Governor has placed the power of acquisitiveness in man for a good and noble purpose,' so that interfering with greed was actually a sin. Not surprisingly, the rich and their acolytes crafted an ideology from this perception that equated wealth with morality and poverty with a defective character. No one gave voice to this belief system better than the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous—and highly paid—minister in America: 'The general truth will stand, that no man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault—unless it be his sin.'

"Though it had its origins in England with Spencer's writings, social Darwinism became an obsession among educated Americans in the late 1870s. While scholars place the first use of the phrase 'social Darwinism' in Europe in 1879, it is telling that the phrase actually first appears in the public press in the United States in 1877—and then in the context of the tramp menace. The Nation converted to social Darwinism in 1877, its editor, E.L. Godkin, declaring that nothing of value 'is not the result of successful strife.' Those who are successful in life deserve their wealth, while trying to lift up the weak undermines this natural struggle and thus social progress. ...

"So popular had evolutionary theory become in 1877 that The Congregationalist complained that too many 'preachers seem to think it their duty to give their congregations dilutions of John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer,' the leading promoters of Darwin's work. They noted with concern that Harvard students are now expected to read Spencer. Later in the year, Harvard's professor John McCrary, who held the chair in geology, resigned in opposition to this cult of Herbert Spencer. But his was a lonely voice, as readings of Spencer became common at high school exercises throughout the country, even in Milwaukee. Despite their rejection of evolution, most Protestant ministers and intellectuals were entranced by social Darwinism. The Reverend William A. Halliday used Darwin to point out that progress is certain, but that not everyone advances together; 'the survival of the fittest is nothing the unfit can cheer about.' ...

"[Yale professor] William Graham Sumner found in Spencer scientific justification for his extreme version of laissez-faire. Sumner could thus claim it was a fact, 'fixed in the order of the universe,' that government intervention threatened to disrupt the workings of natural selection—from the eight-hour day to public education, protective tariffs to the post office, they all thwarted progress. Appearing before the House of Representatives, Sumner was asked, 'Professor, don't you believe in any government aid to industries?' To which he emphatically replied, 'No! It's root, hog, or die.' ... Meanwhile, Henry Ward Beecher turned to Spencer to argue that economic success is evidence of the working of both God's will and natural selection. Given that double authority, no one should attempt to ameliorate economic inequality. Science proved God's will in making certain that 'the poor will be with you always.' "


Michael A. Bellesiles


1877: America's Year of Living Violently


The New Press


Copyright 2010 by Michael A. Bellesiles


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