Social Darwinism In American History

.. economically, Social Darwinism buttressed the views of those who wished to defend the laissez-faire system. These individuals believed in an economic system in which a few individuals, rather than the government, make the majority of the decisions. One of the most influential Social Darwinists in America was Professor William Graham Sumner of Yale. He spread is views through widely read books and articles and “converted his strategic teaching post in New Haven into a kind of Social Darwinian Pulpit”(Hofstadter 51).

He believed in the success of the capitalist society in which he lived to be a “fulfilment of the classical ideal of Free competitive order” (Hofstadter 52). He is quoted as saying: “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forwards and favours all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favours all its worst members”(Hofstadter 51) His statement embodies the belief that, in business, it is inevitable that the “fittest” will survive if left to push themselves without restrictions. Sumner stressed that a laissez-faire system in economics would be in the best interest of both the rich and the poor. Andrew Carnegie, a successful businessman, also preached this idea.

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In his article entitled “Wealth”, he expresses his strong beliefs in Social Darwinism as “not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the [human] race..” (Carnegie 1). Carnegie explained that in the great scheme of things it would be beneficial for both the rich and the poor if the majority of a nations wealth were to accumulate in the hands of a few successful “superior” men. His argument was that only the intellectually superior could possibly know how to distribute wealth wisely and only these individuals could reach the top of society, both economically and socially. If the world was left to the laissez-faire system, the inevitable triumph of the “superior” race would come about faster and would benefit the “inferior” race through the circulation of greater wealth. Carnegie stated that, “individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of wealth, and the Law of Competition.. are the highest results of human experience”, reaffirming his belief in the evolution and progression of human civilisation (Carnegie p.3).

Carnegie, Sumner, and many other influential men in America stressed the idea that domination by the fittest is of the greatest benefit to society as a whole. The views of Social Darwinists were used to justify the accumulation of wealth within the hands of a few that were believed to be intellectually superior. Political Issues The capitalistic views influenced by Social Darwinism not only affected the handful of rich business owners, but also affected the minds of the working class. Although the working class felt threatened by these large businesses, they also strove harder to become a part of the upper class. The working class was, in a sense, inspired by the capitalistic minds of the wealthy. The government did little to stop the large corporations from growing and devouring one another. A series of weak presidents occupied the White House such as Andrew Johnson, who was nearly thrown out of office due to his failure to compromise with Congress, and Ulysses S.

Grant, who did nothing to prevent the scandals that disgraced his administration. There was also an imbalance between the control of the Senate and that of the House of Representatives within Congress. The House of Representatives was inefficient and disorderly and, as a result, they seemed to encounter severe difficulty in accomplishing everyday situations. The Senate, on the other hand, was seen as orderly, intelligent and therefore superior to the House of Representatives. The Senate was also generally comprised of wealthy white men who derived their wealth from capitalistic corporations such as banking.

Consequentially, the power of the United States government favoured free trade and the general wealth of the country was left in the hands of a few businessmen. Questions of state and local importance were to determine who controlled the federal government. The influence of Social Darwinism led the American people to believe in a free enterprise economy. The large businesses dominated the smaller businesses because they were able to sell products to the public at much lower prices. The Government of the United States helped these large corporations to grow.

They shielded them from foreign competitors by placing taxes on imports. The government also protected these large corporations from domestic competition by enacting certain revenue taxes that forced small competitors to pay more taxes than large competitors. The railroads contributed to transfer of wealth to the larger corporations by carrying larger corporations products at cheaper rates than their smaller competitors. Later, due to a shift in public opinion, the government passed acts that were designed to handicap the large companies, eliminate monopolies, and restore competition. Unfortunately, these laws were rarely enforced. For example, the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act declared illegal “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations” (1890 Sherman Trust Act). The act was meant to regulate operations of corporate trusts.

The act was worded vaguely and consequently, many of the large corporations were able to work around it. Over the following 10 years, only 18 cases were prosecuted under the act. Darwins theory of Natural Selection may have worked as a concept involving animals, but when applied to the social world it ultimately resulted in an imbalance. Socially, the American people used Darwins ideas in order to justify their racist and sexist feelings. Economically, Darwins ideas were used by those who wished to justify capitalism.

The United States Government was weak and chose not to take control of the increasing excesses. Excesses of Social Darwinism later resulted in economic collapse and a dislocation of large numbers of the American people. In reaction to these events, the United States Government passed laws attempting to create a better balance between the interests of large and small businesses and between business and labour, and to eliminate other social inequalities. Although Social Darwinism encouraged the economic growth of the United States at a time when this growth was needed and allowed people to create new inventions, it also resulted in the Great Depression. It led to excesses that needed to be corrected if the country was to progress over the long term and if the democratic ideals of individual freedom and equality were to be upheld. (2,180 words).


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