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The Impact of Social Darwinism During the Industrial Revolution

Karre has a BA in History and MA in Political Science. Her emphasis is on religion, human rights and social reform movements.

The industrial revolution changed the United States in more ways than could have been expected.

The industrial revolution changed the United States in more ways than could have been expected.

Natural Selection in Social and Cultural Settings

The end of the American Civil War had unintended and unanticipated results. Changes spread quickly throughout the country; the rise of manufacturing workers and the number of factories, the move towards urban living, and immigration all happened suddenly and drastically. The idea of an American republic that had kept the country together for decades was once again under attack.

Immigrants were seen as causing the republic to decline and tenets of republicanism, in general, were being challenged. Jeffersonian thoughts regarding land ownership, particularly through agriculture, no longer held true because of the urbanization of society.

Most noticeably, the discrepancies between income and opportunity and a traditional America versus the New America were about as impactful on society as industrialization itself. The effectiveness of democratic governance was being challenged by a new industrial organization that led to mega-corporations ruling without any anti-trust laws or oversight; they could do what they wanted and were unstoppable.

New Perspectives on American Life

These problems brought about a new outlook on life: the concept of social Darwinism. Interpretations of Darwin's writings and thoughts have changed throughout the centuries, though they all are grounded in his influential 1859 book The Origin of Species. Social Darwinism, at least during this era, claimed survival of the fittest based on natural selection in social and cultural settings.

According to historians Thomas C. Cochran and William Miller in their book The Age of Enterprise: A Social History of Industrial America, social Darwinism gave “cosmic significance . . . to the process of industrialization.” This is also cited by Philip Abbott in his work Political Thought in America: Conversations and Debates.

According to Richard Hofstadter in the book Social Darwinism in American Thought, major American business leaders were attracted to this notion almost instinctively. Let's look at a few of the prominent business leaders and authors during this time and how they responded to this idea.

Herbert Spencer

The English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer had, prior to Darwin’s work, coined the term "survival of the fittest" to describe the evolution of societies. He viewed Darwin’s ideas of natural selection as confirmation of his own.

Spencer provided two natural laws. The first was the law of equal freedom, stating that every man has the freedom to do whatever he wanted as long as he did not infringe upon the rights of others. The second was the law of conduct and consequence. When applied to liberalism, this meant that if individuals received benefits or suffered from consequences of their own doing, those actions most advantageous to the environment would mean that the fittest would survive.

Spencer viewed these as God’s natural laws. Spencer believed that industrialization was a hybrid of suffering from the strains of the evolutionary transition happening and that those strains would cause some militant societies. Tyranny from the government would then be increased.

Most Americans were resistant to Spencer’s ideas, believing they were somewhat anarchist. William Graham Sumner, a social scientist and the first American to hold a professorship in sociology, interpreted that Spencer (and thus Darwin) refused to accept industrialization as the progress of freedom. He believed that God could give distributive justice and God had not provided for everyone.

Sumner did not glorify industrialists but also did not see a way out of it. He thought that dignity was not cohesive with hard work and that over time, citizens would expect more of their government. He claimed that while individuals want perfect happiness and individual creativity, nature only cared about maintaining the human race. In this sense, Spencer was a social Darwinist and his outlook was bleak.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie provided some alternatives to social Darwinism, or more correctly, saw the rise of the fittest. He emulated the rags-to-riches concept from the beginning; he rose from the lowliest form of work (he was born in Scotland in a weaver's cottage) to the top of the industrial food chain. He believed the conditions of industry were a given. While there was great inequality in the hands of a few, what's hard on the individual is ultimately best for the race, even if the majority did not benefit. Whether this was right or wrong, he felt it was a waste of time to criticize the inevitable.

Finally, Carnegie had three theories of the administration of wealth: first, that wealth could be left to families, which would ultimately lead to the dissolution of fortunes; second, that wealth could be left for public purposes; and third, wealth could be given to charities.

Eliminating inherited wealth would allow Americans to receive the benefits of an industrial society and still receive the benefits of equality of opportunity. He believed that the new capitalist should attempt to incorporate principles of republicanism.

Horatio Alger

American author Horatio Alger, mostly known for his young adult novels that often emphasized rages-to-riches themes, wrote about how to apply the concept of social Darwinism. He believed that no matter how modest a person’s origins, they could rise to fame and fortune in America.

But to him, this rise basically leads to middle-class, white-collar positions, even after a long struggle for survival. In essence, he led people to believe that a middle-class position was the best they could do. Alger did not believe the world owed anyone a living and that survival of the fittest was not about natural ability, but instead about how to use the ability given at birth.

Populism and Progressivism

Generally, during this era, two main responses to social Darwinism arose. One was populism and the other was progressivism. Now, let's talk about each.


American farmers suffered from industrialization as well as the notion of social Darwinism. Farming had become commercialized, and so farmers were now also required to be businessmen, which resulted in populism.

One scholarly view of populism was the rejection of social Darwinism as well as modernity. Another view set out was populism as simply a critique of social Darwinism and capitalism in general. Hofstadter claimed a soft and hard side of populism; there was a look back at a Republican America with longing, yet acknowledging how farmers were able to gain positions of power within the government and the capitalist system.

Hofstadter saw William Jennings Bryan, a United States Representative from Nebraska (1891–1895) and the country's Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, as a country bumpkin. On the other hand, Goodwyn saw him as an opportunistic politician who dissipated the democratic potential of the populist movement.

Bryan held two principles: natural law and Christian faith. Bryan attempted to transform Alger’s thinking, stating there were many forms of businessmen (including the farmer) and that each was contributory and should be measured accordingly. He wanted a capitalistic order where everyone could participate fairly, economically, and politically.


Another response to social Darwinism was progressivism. Hofstadter argues that progressivism was psychological, a revolution that offered ceremonial solutions to problems. One progressive thinker, Jane Addams, an advocate for world peace and a leader in the movement for suffrage for American women, was a reformer who took progressivism as a means of helping others rise above their current situations.

Her Hull House catered to new immigrants to America and led to the establishment of shelters for battered women, housing reforms, voter registration centers, child care services, and meeting places for union workers. To Addams, social problems that progressives focused on were urban corruption, poor housing, and working conditions.

Herbert Croly, editor and co-founder of The New Republic, held political positions influenced by European thought, which made him stay somewhat distant from the progressive movement. He combined moral fervor and analytic reasoning, pointing out the pros and cons of the founders. His political agenda involved regulating corporations and unions, a national inheritance tax, and business initiatives.

He also called for new leadership that would not make reforms by extending democracy as those were corrupted by Jefferson in particular. He believed that industrialism was here to stay and could offer new opportunities for creating leadership and bureaucracy.

Tying It All Together

The success of the progressive movement was limited due to the new order and those in immensely privileged positions. Hofstadter argues that though they suffered anxieties over industrialism, progressives were a privileged group of people who found both important and comfortable positions in this new structure of society.

The populist movement was like a marooned society, left on its own. Both concepts enhanced the appearance of republicanism as an ideology of protest and nostalgia that was directed toward groups who had been left behind economically and politically in the industrialized world.

Overall, both movements were looking to find opportunities for groups of people to adjust, survive, and ultimately flourish in the new America.

Further Reading


  • Abbot, P. (2009). Political Thought in America: Conversations and Debates (Fourth). Waveland Press.
  • Cochran, T. C., & Miller, W. (1943). The Age of Enterprise A Social History of Industrial America.
  • Hofstadter, R. (1973). Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Pr.