Social Darwinism In American Thought (1944)

Social Darwinism in American Thought(1944)

Advertisement for Social Darwinism In American Thought, early 1940s.

In 1940, Richard Hofstadter began to teach classes, first at Brooklyn College and then at City College. As historian Eric Foner notes, Hofstadter owed his appointment at the latter institution to the removal of several faculty following the Rapp-Coudert investigations of publicly-employed educators. According to Foner, "students initially boycotted Hofstadter's lectures as a show of support for his purged predecessor, but eventually they returned to the classroom. Ironically, Hofstadter's first full-time job resulted from the flourishing of the kind of political paranoia that he would later lament in his historical writings" [31].

Also in 1940, Hofstadter began work on a dissertation, initially to be called "The Defense of Property, a Study of Social Darwinism in the U.S. (the 19th Century)," that would eventually become his first book under the title Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. According to biographer Susan Stout Baker, the project was at least partially inspired by Felice's growing interest in the sociology of knowledge [32]. Here, as in his previous essays on Jefferson's political thought and working-class politics in early 19th-century New York City, Hofstadter endeavored to delineate an American radical tradition -- or, perhaps more accurately, to disclose the absence of any American political tradition that could speak to the crises of the present age.

Looking back on the 1940s later in his life, Hofstadter would write, "I knew that [by then] I was, after all, in some sense an American liberal. But it was perfectly clear that, as the world had changed, the American liberal-progressive tradition would have to change too. Our progressivism could not be any longer the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson. Even the liberalism of the New Deal seemed insufficient. It seemed necessary to rethink American liberalism. And all my books have been affected by this impulse to reevaluate American liberalism, as well as to understand the failure of the older American liberalism" [33]. It was in this frame of mind, with these overarching questions about political ideology in the United States as his guide, that Hofstadter wrote his dissertation.

Photo of William Graham Sumner

William Graham Sumner, Gilded Age apostle of rugged individualism.

Hofstadter argued in Social Darwinism that, during the Gilded Age, "American society saw its own image in [a] tooth-and-claw version of natural selection" [34]. Popular writers like the conservative sociologist William Graham Sumner legitimated "ruthless business rivalry and unprincipled politics" in the name of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution [35]. That theory, however, did not intrinsically support a logic of rugged individualism; rather, "it was a neutral instrument, capable of supporting opposite ideologies" [36]. "In time," Hofstadter wrote, "the American middle class shrank from the principle it had glorified, turned in flight from the hideous image of rampant competitive brutality, and repudiated the once heroic entrepreneur as a despoiler of the nation's wealth and morals and a monopolist of its opportunities" [37]. By 1900, the ideology of business competition had been overshadowed by a collectivist Social Darwinism that united imperial expansion abroad with a "new state capitalism" that licensed government stewardship of the national economy [38]. Hofstadter showed that liberalism underwent a dramatic change in the Progressive Era: no longer beholden to the mythology of the self-sufficient producer, it was now to a certain extent devoted to curbing the excesses of capitalism in the interest of repairing social fissures.

Hofstadter wrote with obvious admiration for apostles of the new liberalism such as John Dewey and William James. Still, his methodology followed a base-superstructure distinction that owed much to the Progressive historians and to Marxists alike. The following passage is especially noteworthy in this regard: "There is certainly some interaction between social ideas and social institutions. Ideas have effects as well as causes. The history of Darwinian individualism, however, is a clear example of the principle that changes in the structure of social ideas wait on general changes in economic and political life. In determining whether such ideas are accepted, truth and logic are less important criteria than suitability to the intellectual needs and preconceptions of social interests. This is one of the great difficulties that must be faced by rational strategists of social change" [39]. Ironically, Hofstadter did little to explain his subjects' ideas in relation to specific "changes in social and political life," thus suggesting a gap between his social theory and his practice as a historian. Nearly all of his evidence, moreover, was drawn from the work of other historians rather than from his own research into primary sources and archives; such would be the case for practically the rest of his career.

Letter from Columbia, 1944

Letter from historian John A. Krout of Columbia University, 1944.

Though not among the most highly regarded of Hofstadter's books, Social Darwinism remains a pleasure to read today. In his trademark fashion, Hofstadter conveyed a highly original and complex narrative with clarity, verve, and a large dose of humor. While describing, for instance, the obsolescence of Sumner's "Darwinism," he quipped: "natural selection in the realm of ideas had taken its toll upon his life work" [40]. (For another glimpse of Hofstadter's gift for satire, see his short imitation-anthropological "study" of the world of academia from the early 1940s).

Social Darwinism attracted a large audience, selling over 200,000 copies. This number indicates the sizable non-academic audience for the book, which also earned its 28-year-old author the respect of professional historians. At right is a letter from one Columbia University faculty member who praises Hofstadter's work and suggests that opportunities await him at that university. Within one year, Hofstadter would take a position at Columbia, where he would remain on the faculty until his death in 1970.