More Footnotes to Social Darwinism: Firing on Fort Sumner

The Claremont Review’s Charles Kesler once quipped that “Social Darwinism” is the only kind of Darwinism that liberals oppose, and there is a lot to this, starting with the fact that, as I argued here a few days ago, liberals are the true Social Darwinists of modern times.  Eldon Eisenach, one of the more interesting historians to have written about Progressivism in recent decades, noted in the early 1990s that “We have wrongly taught that ‘social Darwinism’ is inherently conservative, just as ‘rights talk’ is inherently liberal.  Progressives, from the most scientific-technocratic to the most radical-socialist, conceived of their projects as having coherence and meaning because they were located within a social evolutionary framework.”

One of my faithful correspondents suggested I say a bit more about William Graham Sumner, one of the purported “conservative” Social Darwinists of the 19th century.  Certainly Sumner is “conservative” in some ordinary senses of the word, but not when it comes to understanding or supporting the American political tradition, or the principles of the American Founding, which he openly and forcefully rejected.  Consider, for example, this passage from Sumner:

It does not appear that anybody payed any attention to the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence when it was written or that anybody except Thomas Paine then held to the dogmas of democracy.

To argue such is blithely to ignore not only the narrow issue of the close attention paid to the wording and terms of the Declaration’s prologue when it was being written in 1776, but also the many parallel passages found in the state constitutions of the time (such as, for example, the Virginia Declaration of Rights) that would suggest that great attention was paid to the meaning of the Declaration’s prologue. Having rejected the substantive end of natural right spelled out in the Declaration, Sumner goes on to make the now-familiar argument that the Constitution is a mere instrumentality:

The Constitution of 1787 is also remarkable, considering the time at which it was framed, for containing no dogmatic utterances about liberty and equality and no enunciation of great principles.  Indeed this was made a ground of complaint against it by the leaders of the popular party; they missed the dogmatic utterances to which they had become accustomed during the war and they forced the passage of the first ten amendments.  Even then, however, the Constitution contained no declaration of rights, but was simply a working system of government.

What Lincoln identified as the central “proposition” of the American regime—“an abstract truth applicable to all men at all times”—Sumner dismisses as a “dogmatic utterance.”  To the contrary, Sumner asserted in a passage that could nearly be attributed to Holmes or Pound or another Progressive positivist:

There are no dogmatic propositions of political philosophy which are universally and always true; there are views which prevail, at a time, for a while, and then fade away and give place to other views. . .  The eighteenth century notions about equality, natural rights, classes, etc., produced nineteenth century states and legislation, and strongly humanitarian in faith and temper; at the present time the eighteenth century notions are disappearing, and the mores of the twentieth century will not be tinged by humanitarianism as those of the last hundred years have been.  If the State should act on ideas of every man’s duty, instead of on notions of natural rights, evidently institutions and usages would undergo a great transformation.

Sumner also implicitly endorses Chief Justice Roger Taney’s view of the Declaration in the Dred Scott case:

But no man ever yet asserted that ‘all men are equal,’ meaning what he said.  Although he said, ‘all men,’ he had in mind some limitation of the group he was talking about.  Thus, if you asked Thomas Jefferson, when he was writing the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, whether in ‘all men’ he meant to include negroes, he would have said that he was not talking about negroes.  Ask anybody who says it now whether he means to include foreigners—Russian Jews, Hungarians, Italians—and he will draw his line somewhere . . .  Now, if we draw the line at all, the dogma is ruined.

Again, I guess when Sumner says “no man ever yet asserted that ‘all men are created equal,’ meaning what he said,” he must have never heard of that obscure fellow named Abraham Lincoln.

From here it is but a short hop, skip, and a jump to Woodrow Wilson’s very similar views, such as this from his 1908 book Constitutional Government in the United States:

The government of the United States was constructed upon the Whig theory of political dynamics, which was a sort of unconscious copy of the Newtonian theory of the universe.  In our own day, whenever we discuss the structure or development of anything, whether in nature or in society, we consciously or unconsciously follow Mr. Darwin . . . The trouble with the [Newtonian] theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing . . . Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.

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