The Industrial Revolution and Social Darwinism

Updated on February 4, 2017

Natural Selection in Social & Cultural Settings

The end of the Civil War had unintended and unanticipated results. Changes such as the rise of manufactured workers, the number of factories, the urban movement, and immigration had been sudden and drastic. The republic idea had kept America together but was once again under attack. Immigrants were seen as helping the republic decline and tenets of republicanism were being challenged. Jeffersonian thought of land ownership, particularly through agriculture, no longer held true because of the urbanization of society. Most noticeably in the discrepancies between income and opportunity and the traditional America versus the New America was the size of industrialization. Democratic governance was challenged by industrial organization mega-corporations ruled without any anti-trust laws or regulations. In essence, they could do what they wanted and were unstoppable.

With these problems came a new outlook on life: The promise of Social Darwinism. Based on Darwin’s 1859 The Origin of Species, Social Darwinism claimed survival of the fittest based on natural selection in social and cultural settings. According to Cochran and Miller, social Darwinism gave “cosmic significance…to the process of industrialization.” (Abbott 174) According to Hofstadter, American business leaders were attracted to this notion instinctively. Herbert Spencer had prior to Darwin’s work, used the term survival of the fittest to describe the evolution of societies. He viewed Darwin’s natural selection as confirmation of his own. Spencer provided two natural laws: the law of equal freedom which stated that every man has freedom to do whatever he wanted as long as he did not infringe upon the rights of others; and the law of conduct and consequence, which meant that, applied to liberalism, if individuals received benefits or suffered from consequences of their actions, 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 evolutionary transition 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 anarchists. Sumner interpreted Spencer (and thus Darwin) refused to accept industrialization as a progress of freedom. He believed that God could give distributive justice and God had not provided for everyone. Sumner did not glorify industrialists but did not see a way out of it. He thought that dignity was not cohesive to 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 for maintaining the race. In this sense, he was a Social Darwinist and his outlook was bleak.

Carnegie & Alger

Carnegie provided some alternative to Social Darwinism, or more correctly, a rise of the fittest. He created the rags-to-riches theme in the beginning, in the lowliest form of work and rising to the top of the industrial food chain. He believed the conditions of industry were a given and while there is a great inequality in the hands of a few, what is hard on the individual is best for the race, but that even those not fit did benefit from those few. He felt it was a waste of time to criticize the inevitable. Finally, Carnegie had three theories of administration of wealth: 1) wealth could be left to families, which would ultimately lead to the dissolution of fortunes; 2) wealth could be left for public purposes; 3) wealth could be given to charities. Eliminating inherited wealth would allow Americans to receive benefits of an industrial society and still receive benefits of equality of opportunity. The new capitalist should attempt to incorporate principles of republicanism.

Alger wrote on how to apply Social Darwinism. He believed that no matter how modest a person’s origins, he can rise to fame and fortune in America. But 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 this was the best they could do. Alger did not believe the world owed anyone a living, survival of the fittest was not about natural ability but how to use the ability given.

Herbert Spencer

Populism & Progressivism

Two main responses to Social Darwinism arose. One was populism and the other progressivism. American farmers suffered from industrialization as well as the notion of Social Darwinism. Farming had become commercialized, and so farmers were now businessmen. The result was populism. One scholarly view of populism is the rejection of Social Darwinism as well as modernity. Another view set out is that populism was simply a critique of Social Darwinism and capitalism in general. Hofstadter claims a soft and hard side of populism, wherein there was a look back at the Republican America with longing, but yet farmers gained positions of power within the government and capitalism. Hofstadter sees William Jennings Bryan as a country bumpkin, and Goodwyn sees 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 by stating that 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 status revolution which offered ceremonial solutions to problems. One progressive thinker, Jane Addams was a reformer who took progressivism as a means of helping others rise above their current situations. Her Hull House, 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 was urban corruption, poor housing, and working conditions. Herbert Croly had a political position that was influenced by European thought, which made him stay distant from the progressive movement. He combined moral fervor and analytic reasoning and pointed 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 reform by extending democracy because those were corrupted by Jefferson in particular. He believed that industrialism, here to stay, could offer new opportunities for creating leadership and bureaucracy.

Tying It All Together

The success of the progressive movement was limited because of their privileged position in the new order. Hofstadter argues that though they suffered anxieties over industrialism, they were a privileged group of people who found important and comfortable positions in this new order. The populist movement was like a marooned society, left on its own. Both enhanced the appearance of republicanism as an ideology of protest and nostalgia and that was directed towards groups who had been left behind economically and politically in the industrialized world. However, both movements allowed for the opportunities for groups of people to adjust, survive and flourish in the new America.

Andrew Carnegie


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