Who is William Graham Sumner?

Who is William Graham Sumner?

June 26, 2021 Off By Felso

William Graham Sumner, who lived from October 30, 1840 to April 12, 1910, was an American sociologist, economist, and one of the proponents of social Darwinism.

Like the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, Sumner, who taught at Yale from 1872 to 1909, revealed his belief in laissez-faire, individual freedom, and innate inequalities between men in many of his essays.

The Life of William Graham Sumner

Sumner was born on October 30, 1840, in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of working-class English immigrants Thomas Sumner and Sarah Graham. His family later moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Sumner was raised and educated. William Graham Sumner lost his mother when he was eight years old and was raised by his stepmother along with his two siblings. In 1863, he graduated from Yale University with honors as a member of the “Skull & Bones” troupe.

After graduation, he went to Europe to study clergy. He studied languages ​​in Geneva and Göttingen and theology at Oxford. In 1869 he was ordained as a priest in the Evangelical Episcopal Church. He was also a faculty member at Yale. His early priestly career was highly successful, and in 1870 he became parish priest of the Church of the Savior in Morristown, New Jersey. He married Jeannie Elliott in 1871 and the couple had three sons.

William Graham Sumner

As he continually struggled with the conflict between religion and scientific positivism, Sumner’s interest shifted from the priesthood to economics. In 1872, he was accepted to the chair of the faculty of political and social sciences at Yale.

Sumner’s career at Yale was different. He was a well-known lecturer whose classrooms were always full of students. He became part of the “Young Yale” movement, a group of reformers who criticized the traditional style of class rule. The movement ultimately led to the reform of the American university system. Sumner eventually became one of Yale’s most popular and most talked about professors. From 1875 he described one of the first sociology lectures in the United States, using Herbert Spencer’s “The Study of Sociology” as his textbook.

William Graham Sumner became engaged in politics in 1873. He first served as a New Haven alderman until 1876, and later joined a commission to investigate New Orleans presidential election fraud. After these experiences, he decided to turn to economy and education. He served on the Connecticut State Board of Education from 1882 to 1910. During this period, “What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other” (1883), “Protectionism: The –ism that Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth” (1885), “The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution” (1891) He has published many works such as He became an ardent advocate of the laissez-faire economy. In 1878, he presented his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives concerning the investigation of the causes of the General Depression.

Sumner’s health deteriorated in the 1890s and he withdrew from public life. Returning in 1899, he became vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League and served on the Philippine Independence Committee. Sumner turned his focus entirely to sociology and began investigating social phenomena. His famous book “Folkways” (1906) was published during this period.

Sumner suffered a stroke in 1907, but recovered and continued to work at Yale. In 1908, he was elected president of the American Sociological Association, where he served as vice president for two years.

William Graham Sumner died on April 12, 1910, in Englewood, New Jersey.

William Graham Sumner
The Works of William Graham Sumner

Although William Graham Sumner is a thinker who wrote in many social fields such as sociology, history, economic theory, anthropology, and politics, he was mostly known for his views on economics and sociology.


Sumner’s views on economics are characterized by his strong support for extreme laissez-faire, which opposes any government action that interferes with the natural economy of commerce. He believed that middle-class society was the pillar of both democracy and capitalism, and thus the entire society depended on it. Empathizing with the middle class, he wrote:

“Forgotten man … He works, he votes, he often prays; but his main job in life is to pay the price.” (Forgotten Man, 1919)

Sumner believed that the middle class was in constant danger, both from the selfishness of the rich elite and from the interests of the poor masses. He expressed this belief as follows:

“The type and formula of most philanthropic or humanitarian plots is this: A and B go together to decide what C will do for D. The main weakness of all these intrigues from a sociological point of view is that C is not allowed to have a say in the matter and its ultimate effects on society through his position, character and personal interests are completely ignored. That’s why I call C the ‘Forgotten Man’.” (Forgotten Man, 1919)

Sumner, because he channeled power to a wealthy minority and hindered free trade.