The idea of the natural superiority of some groups to others, which before the Civil War had been invoked to justify slavery in an otherwise free society, now reemerged in the vocabulary of modem science to explain the success and failure of individuals and social classes. In 1859, the British scientist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. One of the most influential works of science ever to appear, it expounded the theory of evolution whereby plant and animal species best suited to their environment took the place of those less able to adapt.

In a highly oversimplified form, language borrowed from Darwin, such as “natural selection,” “the struggle for existence,” and “the survival of the fittest,” entered public discussion of social problems in the Gilded Age. According to what came to be called Social Darwinism, evolution was as natural a process in human society as in nature, and government must not interfere. Especially misguided, in this view, were efforts to uplift those at the bottom of the social order, such as laws regulating conditions of work or public assistance to the poor. The giant industrial corporation, Social Darwinists believed, had emerged because it was better adapted to its environment than earlier forms of enterprise. To restrict its operations by legislation would reduce society to a more primitive level.

Even the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s did not shake the widespread view that the poor were essentially responsible for their own fate. Charity workers and local governments spent much time and energy distinguishing the “deserving” poor (those, like widows and orphans, destitute through no fault of their own) from the “undeserving,” a far larger number. Failure to advance in society was widely thought to indicate a lack of character, an absence of self-reliance and determination in the face of adversity. As late as 1900, half the nation’s largest cities offered virtually no public relief, except to persons living in poorhouses. To improve their lot, according to the philosophy of Social Darwinism, workers should practice personal economy, keep out of debt, and educate their children in the principles of the marketplace, not look to the government for aid.

Detail from Capital and Labor. Capital and Labor, a cotton textile from around 1870, illustrates the free labor ideal, with an employer and employee shaking hands and laborers enjoying dignity at work and a “happy home.” One image and its caption (“The Two Powers in Accord”) illustrates the idea of a harmony of interests between worker and employer, a key tenet of free-labor thought. Others stress the dignity of the workingman, based partly on his skill and partly on his ability to provide a comfortable home for his family. The portrait of American industry here stands in stark contrast to the widespread labor strife of the Gilded Age.


1. Why did many Americans in the Gilded Age worry that this vision of harmony no longer described American life?

2. Give some examples of how the images here misrepresent the realities of the period.

The era’s most influential Social Darwinist was Yale professor William Graham Sumner. For Sumner, freedom meant “the security given to each man” that he can acquire, enjoy, and dispose of property “exclusively as he chooses,” without interference from other persons or from government. Freedom thus defined required frank acceptance of inequality. Society faced two and only two alternatives: “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest.” In 1883, Sumner published What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. His answer, essentially, was nothing: “In a free state,” no one was entitled to claim “help from, and cannot be charged to [offer] help to, another.” Government, Sumner believed, existed only to protect “the property of men and the honor of women,” not to upset social arrangements decreed by nature.

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