William Graham Sumner Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Graham Sumner’s father, Thomas, a Lancashire artisan who came to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1836, was a self-educated man who acquired the lessons of the English classical economists through practical experience and became a railroad mechanic in Hartford, Connecticut. One of three children, William developed a profound respect for the man who worked, saved regularly, and expected nothing from the government but to be left in peace. After William’s mother, Sarah Graham, died in 1848, his father married Eliza Van Alstein, whom William disliked even though she was greatly responsible for funding his college education. She died in 1859, and William got along better with his father’s third wife, Catherine Mix.

Sumner entered Yale University in 1859. After graduating in 1863 he studied theology, languages, and scientific method in Geneva, Göttingen, and Oxford. In 1866 he returned to Yale as a tutor. Ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal church in 1867, Sumner was named assistant to the rector of Calvary Church in New York City in 1869. In July of that year he was ordained as priest, and the following year he was assigned to a pastorate in Morristown, New Jersey. On April 17, 1871, he married Jeannie Elliott.

Sumner’s interests in social and economic questions outgrew his religious calling, so he left the clergy in 1872, returned to Connecticut, and accepted a position as professor in the Department of Political Economy at Yale. In 1873 he was elected as Republican alderman in New Haven. Yale administrators had expected Sumner to be an orthodox theologian, but he shocked them by attacking governmental subsidies in the form of protective tariffs and by converting to evolutionism in 1875. That same year he taught the first “sociology” course ever offered by a university. His textbook...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Curtis, Bruce. William Graham Sumner. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An intellectual biography with a good bibliography.

Garson, Robert, and Richard Maidment. “Social Darwinism and the Liberal Tradition: The Case of William Graham Sumner.” South Atlantic Quarterly 80, no. 1 (1981). A study of the philosophical basis of Sumner’s writing.

Healy, Mary Edward. Society and Social Change in the Writings of St. Thomas, Ward, Sumner, and Cooley. 1948. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. A comparative study.

Lee, Alfred McClung. “The Forgotten Sumner.” Journal of the History of Sociology 3 (Fall/Winter, 1980/1981). A sociological profile.

Pickens, Donald K. “Westward Expansion and the End of American Exceptionalism: Sumner, Turner, and Webb.” Western Historical Quarterly 12, no. 4 (1981). Discusses Sumner’s influence on American self-image.

Pickens, Donald K. “William Graham Sumner as a Critic of the Spanish American War.” Continuity 11 (1987). Sumner’s political views are analyzed.