William Graham Sumner
Sepia-toned, half-length photographic portrait of William Graham Sumner in a three-piece suit
Born(1840-10-30)October 30, 1840
DiedApril 12, 1910(1910-04-12) (aged 69)
Academic background
Alma materYale University
Academic work
School or traditionClassical liberalism
InstitutionsYale University
Doctoral students
Notable students
Main interestsSociology
Notable works
  • What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883)
  • Folkways (1906)
Notable ideas

William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 – April 12, 1910) was an American classical liberal social scientist. He taught social sciences at Yale, where he held the nation's first professorship in sociology. He was one of the most influential teachers at Yale or any other major school. Sumner wrote widely within the social sciences, with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology. He supported laissez-faire economics, free markets, and the gold standard. He adopted the term "ethnocentrism" to identify the roots of imperialism, which he strongly opposed, and as a spokesman against it he was in favor of the "forgotten man" of the middle class, a term he coined. He had a long-term influence on conservatism in the United States. He was the Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Sciences at Yale University.


Sumner wrote an autobiographical sketch for the fourth of the histories of the Class of 1863 Yale College.[1] In 1925, the Rev. Harris E. Starr, class of 1910 Yale Department of Theology, published the first full-length biography of Sumner.[2] A second full-length biography by Bruce Curtis was published in 1981.[3] Other authors have included biographical information about Sumner as shown by citations in this "Biography" section.

Early life and education

Sumner was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on October 30, 1840. His father, Thomas Sumner, was born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1836. His mother, Sarah Graham, was also born in England. She was brought to the United States in 1825 by her parents.[1] Sumner's mother died when he was eight.[4]

In 1841, Sumner's father went prospecting as far west as Ohio, but came back east to New England and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, in about 1845. Sumner wrote about his high regard for his father: "His principles and habits of life were the best possible." Earlier in his life, Sumner said, that he accepted from others "views and opinions" different from his father's. However, "at the present time," Sumner wrote, "in regard to those matters, I hold with him and not with the others." Sumner did not name the "matters."[5]

Sumner was educated in the Hartford public schools. After graduation, he worked for two years as a clerk in a store before going to Yale College from which he graduated in 1863.[5] Sumner achieved an impressive record at Yale as a scholar and orator. He was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in his junior year and in his senior year to the secretive Skull and Bones society.[6]

Sumner avoided being drafted to fight in the American Civil War by paying a "substitute" $250, given to him by a friend, to enlist for three years. This and money given to him by his father and friends allowed Sumner to go to Europe for further studies. He spent his first year in the University of Geneva studying Latin and Hebrew and the following two years in the University of Göttingen studying ancient languages, history and Biblical science.[7] All told, in his formal education, Sumner learned Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and German. In addition, after middle age he taught himself Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Danish, and Swedish.[8]

In May 1866, he went to Oxford University to study theology. At Oxford, Henry Thomas Buckle planted the sociology seed in Sumner's mind. However, Herbert Spencer was to have the "dominating influence upon Sumner's thought."[7]

Tutor, clergyman and professor

Except for a stint as a clergyman, Sumner's whole career was spent at Yale.

While at Oxford, Sumner was elected a tutor in mathematics. He was made a lecturer in Greek at Yale, beginning in September 1867.[1][7]

On December 27, 1867, at Trinity Church, New Haven, Sumner was ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church. In March 1869, Sumner resigned his Yale tutorship to become assistant to the Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church (Manhattan).[5] In July 1869, Sumner was ordained Priest.[9]

From September 1870 to September 1872, Sumner was Rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, N.J.[5] On April 17, 1871, Sumner married Jeannie Whittemore Elliott, daughter of Henry H. Elliott of New York City. They had three boys: one died in infancy, Eliot (Yale 1896) became an officer of the Pennsylvania Railroad; Graham (Yale 1897) became a lawyer in New York City.[10]

Robert Bierstedt writes that Sumner preached two sermons every Sunday at the Church of the Redeemer. They "stressed without surcease the Puritan virtues of hard work, self-reliance, self-denial, frugality, prudence, and perseverance." Furthermore, writes Bierstedt, "it may be said that Sumner spent his entire life as a preacher of sermons." However, Sumner "preferred the classroom to the pulpit," so he left the ministry and returned to Yale in 1872 as "professor of political and social science" until he retired in 1909.[11] Sumner taught the first course in North America called "sociology."[12]

Other than what he said in the ordination service, there is no information about what motivated Sumner to be ordained. At his ordination, Sumner said that he thought that he was "truly called" to the ministry.[13]

Sumner did not make known, at least publicly, his reasons for leaving the ministry.[14] However, he and historians suggest that it might have been a loss of belief and/or a dim view of the church and its clergy.

Clarence J. Karier says, "Sumner found that his deity vanished with the years." "I have never discarded beliefs deliberately," Sumner said later in life, but "I left them in a drawer and, after a while, when I opened it there was nothing there at all."[15] Harris E. Starr found that Sumner "never attacked religion" or "assumed a controversial attitude toward it." At the same time, Starr found that during Sumner's time as a professor he stopped attending Trinity Church, New Haven, where he had been ordained Deacon. After that, Sumner attended church only occasionally. However, in the closing years of his life, he baptized a little grandson, and not long before his death he attended New Haven's St. John's Church[16] to receive Holy Communion. Starr wrote that these two events "suggest that deep down in his nature a modicum of religion remained."[17]

In his book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), Sumner argued that the "ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich" worked "to replunge Europe into barbarism." Furthermore, Sumner asserted, that this prejudice still lives, nourished by the clergy. "It is not uncommon," he said, "to hear a clergyman utter from the pulpit all the old prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich, while asking the rich to do something for the poor; and the rich comply."[18]

For exact and comprehensive knowledge Professor Sumner is to take the first place in the ranks of American economists; and as a teacher he has no superior.[19]

The Yale University Library's guide to Sumner's papers ranks him as "Yale's most dynamic teacher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Students clamored to enroll in his classes."[6] Sumner's "genuine love for aspiring students, commanding personality, wide learning, splendid dogmatism, and mastery of incisive English" makes it easy to understand his reputation.[20]

Sumner himself described his life as a professor as "simple and monotonous." "No other life could have been so well suited to my taste as this," he wrote in his autobiographical sketch.[10]

In spite of Sumner's description of his life as "simple and monotonous," he was "a champion of academic freedom and a leader in modernizing Yale's curriculum." This led Sumner into conflict with Yale's President, Noah Porter who, in 1879, asked Sumner not to use Herbert Spencer's Study of Sociology in his classes. "Sumner saw this as a threat to academic freedom and bluntly refused Porter's request. The faculty soon split into two factions one supporting and the other opposing Sumner's defiance." Sumner stood his ground and won out.[6]

Until his 1890 illness, Sumner wrote and spoke constantly on the economic and political issues of the day. His "acidic style" outraged his opponents, but it pleased his supporters.[6] The rest of Sumner's life at Yale was routine.[21] In 1909, the year of his retirement, Yale awarded Sumner an honorary degree.[21]

Although Sumner was a professor of political science, his actual involvement in politics was limited to two things he reported in his autobiographical sketch. In 1873–1876, he served as an alderman in New Haven. In 1876, researching the contested presidential election, he went with a group to Louisiana to find "what kind of a presidential election they had that year." Sumner said that was his "whole experience in politics." From this experience, he concluded, "I did not know the rules of the game and did not want to learn."[10]

Retirement and death

Sumner's health deteriorated steadily beginning in 1890, and after 1909, the year of his retirement, it "declined precipitously."[6] In December 1909, while in New York to deliver his presidential address to the American Sociological Society, Sumner suffered his third and fatal paralytic stroke. He died April 12, 1910, in Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.[21]

Sumner spent much of his career as a muckraker, exposing what he saw as faults in society, and as a polemicist, writing, teaching, and speaking against these faults.[22] In spite of his efforts, his career ended with pessimism about the future. Sumner said, "I have lived through the best period of this country's history. The next generations are going to see wars and social calamities."[15]


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."[23] Sumner was active in the intellectual promotion of free-trade classical liberalism. 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 1899 he delivered a speech titled "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale University.[24] In what is considered by some to be "his most enduring work,"[23] 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."[23] 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 titled "sociology" in the English-speaking world. The course focused on the thought of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, precursors of the formal academic sociology that would be established 20 years later by Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and others in Europe.[25] He was the second president of American Sociological Association serving from 1908 to 1909, and succeeding his longtime 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.[26] 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 this has led many to associate Sumner with social Darwinism.

In 1881, Sumner wrote an essay titled "Sociology." In the essay, Sumner focused on the connection between sociology and biology. He explained that there are two sides to the struggle for survival of a human. The first side is a "struggle for existence,"[27] 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.[27] The first is a biological relationship with nature and the second is 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.[27] Sumner believed that man could not abolish the law of "survival of the fittest," and that humans could only interfere with it and in so doing, produce the "unfit."[27]

According to Jeff Riggenbach, the identification of Sumner as a social Darwinist[28]

... 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."

Historian Mike Hawkins, however, argues that it is accurate to describe Sumner as a social Darwinist because Sumner draws directly upon evolutionary theory to explain society and dictate policy.[29]

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 social 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.[27] It was believed that primitive cultures would have war as a "struggle for existence,"[27] but Sumner believed that war in fact came from a "competition for life."[27] 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 their different ideologies. Sumner explained that the competition for life was the reason for war and that is why war has always existed and always will.[27]

"The Forgotten Man"

The theme of "the forgotten man" was developed by Sumner over a series of 11 essays published in 1883 in Harper's Weekly, and further developed in two speeches delivered that year.[30] Sumner argued that, in his day, politics was being subverted by those proposing a "measure of relief for the evils which have caught public attention."[31] He wrote:

As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be 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 the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. ... [W]hat I want to do is to look up C. ... I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, 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.[31]

Sumner's "forgotten man" and its relationship to Franklin Roosevelt's "forgotten man" is the subject of Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man.[32]


Sumner's popular essays gave him a wide audience for his laissez-faire advocacy of free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard. Sumner had a long-term influence over modern American conservatism as a leading intellectual of the Gilded Age.[33]

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.

The World War II Liberty Ship SS William G. Sumner was named in his honor.

Yale University has maintained a professorship named in Sumner's honor. The following have been the William Graham Sumner Professor of Sociology at Yale University:


Sumner's works number "around 300 items" including books and articles on "economics, political science and sociology."[39]

Books and pamphlets

Collected Essays

Periodical Publications (not in collections)


  1. ^ a b c A History of the Class of 1863 Yale College: Being The Fourth Of Those Printed By Order Of The Class (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1905), p. 165.
  2. ^ Harris E. Starr, William Graham Sumner (H. Holt and Company, 1925) and Directory of the Living Graduates of Yale University (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1910), 289.
  3. ^ Bruce Curtis, William Graham Sumner (Twayne, 1981).
  4. ^ Robert Bierstedt, American Sociological Theory: A Critical History (Elsevier, 2013), 1.
  5. ^ a b c d A History of the Class of 1863 Yale College: Being The Fourth Of Those Printed By Order Of The Class (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1905), p. 166.
  6. ^ a b c d e Yale University Library, "Guide to the William Graham Sumner Papers MS 291"
  7. ^ a b c Robert Bierstedt, American Sociological Theory: A Critical History (Elsevier, 2013), 1–2.
  8. ^ Maurice Rea Davie, William Graham Sumner: an essay of commentary and selections (Crowell, 1963), p. 6
  9. ^ H. A. Scott Trask, "William Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialism"
  10. ^ a b c A History of the Class of 1863 Yale College: Being The Fourth Of Those Printed By Order Of The Class (New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1905), p. 167.
  11. ^ Robert Bierstedt, American Sociological Theory: A Critical History (Elsevier, 2013), 3.
  12. ^ Bert N. Adams and R A Sydie, Classical Sociological Theory (SAGE, 2002), 82.
  13. ^ The Episcopal Church's 1789 Book of Common Prayer was in use when Sumner was ordained. (See Episcopal Church "History: Timeline" Archived 2017-08-15 at the Wayback Machine) In that Prayer Book's ordination rite, Sumner was required to say that he thought he was "truly called". (See the 1789 Book of Common Prayer according to the Protestant Episcopal Church, 334, 338
  14. ^ "Sumner's reasons for leaving the clergy ... has been the subject of considerable speculation." Robert C. Bannister, On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner (Liberty Fund, 1992), Introduction.
  15. ^ a b Clarence J. Karier, The Individual, Society, and Education: A History of American Educational Ideas (University of Illinois, 1986), 110.
  16. ^ St. John's Episcopal Church, New Haven, Conn.
  17. ^ Harris E. Sta, William Graham Sumner (H. Holt and Company, 1925), 543.
  18. ^ William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883), 44–45.
  19. ^ The Challenge of Facts: and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914), 12.
  20. ^ Howard Saul Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, Social Thought from Lore to Science, Volume 2 (D. C. Heath, 1938), 956.
  21. ^ a b c Robert Bierstedt, American Sociological Theory: A Critical History (Elsevier, 2013), 8.
  22. ^ Gordon D. Morgan, Toward an American Sociology: Questioning the European Construct (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997), 17, n28.
  23. ^ a b c Raico, Ralph (2011-03-29) Neither the Wars Nor the Leaders Were Great, Mises Institute
  24. ^ William G. Sumner, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain", Yale Law Journal, v. 8, no. 4 (Jan. 1899) 168–193.
  25. ^ "Sociology - Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  26. ^ Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1979, p. 98.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860–1945: nature as a model and nature as a threat. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 109–110.
  28. ^ Riggenbach, Jeff (April 22, 2011). "The Real William Graham Sumner". Mises Daily. Ludwig von Mises Institute.
  29. ^ Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, Mike Hawkins, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 109-18
  30. ^ "The Forgotten Man by William Graham Sumner". Swarthmore College. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  31. ^ a b The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, p. 466
  32. ^ "Amity Shlaes: The Forgotten Man". Mises Institute. 2009-08-31. Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  33. ^ Robert Green McCloskey, American conservatism in the age of enterprise, 1865–1910: A study of William Graham Sumner, Stephen J. Field, and Andrew Carnegie (1964)
  34. ^ "Education: Keller's Last Class", Time (New York). January 26, 1946; Albert Galloway Keller papers, Sterling Memorial Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University
  35. ^ Terrien, Frederic W. "Who Thinks What About Education", The Public Opinion. Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 1954), pp. 157–168; Maurice Rae Davie papers, Sterling Memorial Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University
  36. ^ "In Memoriam: Albert J. Reiss Jr". Yale Bulletin & Calendar. New Haven, CT: Yale University. 34 (29). 19 May 2006. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  37. ^ "Richard Breen is named the Sumner Professor of Sociology". Yale University. February 25, 2011.
  38. ^ Smith, Philip (July 1, 2015). "Letter from the Chair". Yale University. Archived from the original on July 26, 2015.
  39. ^ Maurice Rea Davie, William Graham Sumner: an essay of commentary and selections (Crowell, 1963), 5.

Further reading