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SocialDarwinism

Introduction and Background

In order to understand who supported and championed the movement of Social Darwinism in the United States, we have to first understand the prevailing mood of the late 19th century. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, many Americans welcomed a change in the political and social atmosphere, hoping that, in general, the time for agitation was coming to an end. In addition, we see a strong trend towards conservatism - one that "appealed more to the secularist than the pious mentality." Although, as we shall see, the language and arguments of the religious were added to this secularist movement, which made its base even stronger and complex. Among what historian Richard Hofstadter defines as the Social-Darwinian generation, we have scientists, philosophers, reverends, presidents, and those who, in general, wanted things, politically, to stay as they were. Indeed, Charles Darwin, Charles Lamarck, and the man who would be called the Father of Social Darwinism- Herbert Spencer - were English, it was in America that their arguments and ideals would take root. And, while there were those who critized the movement, Hofstadter reminds us that they were in the minority. #1

Anglo-Saxon Supremacy and its Origins

Historians often attribute the popularity and rise of the Social Darwinian movement to already established cultural beliefs and values. In literature throughout the 19th century, from all over the world, we find examples of intense nationalism and believed Anglo-Saxon superiority. If we attempt to make the connection between the arguments made by Social Darwinists in the late 19th and early 20th century, then let us briefly examine the history of the doctrine of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, and how it bred a culture of American supremacy as well.

Even before the emergence of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species, the book that revolutionized the way people thought about the nature of both animal and human society, advocates of American Imperialism used the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy as justification for the suppression of those groups thought to be inferior. Indeed, even as early as the conquest of Mexico, supporters of the race doctrine argued that the Mexican society "must amalgamate or be lost in the superior vigor of the Anglo-Saxon race, or they must utterly perish."#2 Many supporters of American imperialism pointed out both the history and culture of the Anglo-Saxon race in order to support the idea that it was indeed the fittest and most capable of governing nations. Historian Richard Hofstadter asserts that "In the decades after 1885, Anglo-Saxonism, belligerent of pacific, was the dominant abstract rationale of American imperialism." #3

Theodore Roosevelt, in his set of essays The Winning of the West, published from 1889-1896, provided a background history of the Anglo-Saxon race, ending with the settlement of North America - what he defined as the "crowning and greatest achievement of a series of mighty movements."#4 Roosevelt described the birth of the United States as the ultimate victory for the Anglo-Saxon people, as if it was predestined and willed to happen because of a number of factors - their supposed superiority over other races, their physical and emotional strength, and their god-given privilege and right to expand to that exact and holy ground. Although Roosevelt does not include specific religious imagery in his description here, it is easy to see how such arguments and beliefs could be added, as well they were, to make the argument for expansion even stronger. Furthermore, in his set of essays, Roosevelt claims that "the Americans begain their work of Western conquest as a separate and individual people at the moment when they sprang into national life. It has been their great work ever since." #5. Not only did Roosevelt acknowledge the importance of settling North America, but continued to argue that it was only the beginning of a era of conquest and domination by the American people. He perpetuated the belief that tied to the very heart of the Amercan people is the fact that they were somehow made for greatness, and that they "battled on behalf of the destiny of the race." #6

National Destiny

And no where else in political arguments was there made a stronger case for the Manifest Destiny of the American people than in the West. As President from 1901-1909, Theodore Roosevelt promoted the belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority, and the righteousness of conquering the land to the West. To Roosevelt, the West was bestowed upon him and those worthy and righteous to receive it, bestowed perhaps by God, although Roosevelt does not claim this outright. Nevertheless, it is clear that Roosevelt intended to attach some sort of spiritual connection with the destiny he imagined for the United States. It was, to him, the "rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land [who] lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him." #7 Roosevelt contended that the Americans were the most civilized, that the land was his to command and to purge from the hands of those unworthy of it. He painted the American pioneer as a legendary heroe, as a savior of the civilized world.

Us Versus Them

This distinction between the civilized and the uncivilized world marked an era when proponents of Social Darwinism needed people believe that the forces of the world were either good or evil. It was not enough for them to argue for the manifest destiny and right of the American people to govern over the unfit. In order to truly win support for the battle in the West, proponents had to demonize the enemy. Theodore Roosevelt described the Indian peoples of the West as a few "scattered, savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beats." #8 These people were not given the authroity and power to claim the land as had the Americans. They had no great heritage, no privilege. In fact, proponents of Social Darwinism had their society believe that the Native people, such as the Sioux, were hardly even men - not worthy of fair negotiation and settlement. In fact, Roosevelt argued that it was "idle to apply to savages the rules of international morality which obtain between stable and cultured communities" #9.

The case of man versus the savage, civilized versus uncivilized, strong versus the weak was made time and time again by the proponents of Social Darwinism. As the West continued to be conquered and settled, expansionists were looking for new areas over which influence could be exerted.

Charles Darwin

In 1838 while researching his theory of evolution, Darwin was reading Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, and in it he found an interesting correlation to his own work. He wrote that "under these circumstances [of the struggle for existence] favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones to be destroyed."#10 Although Darwin was discussing the struggle of animals and plants, the theory was soon adopted by those who wished to apply it to human populations.

In addition, Darwin argued that such physical varations could be passed to the next generation, thus creating a new species that was better equipped and, thus, more capable to survive. Outlining this theory, Darwin wrote a chapter in his Origin of Species titled: The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.

Darwin himself was not averse to the idea of using his theories to further studies in social and political areas. Indeed, in The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that "There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection" #11 But the promotion of ideologies such as imperialism and racism seems particularly widespread, and oftentimes confusing, to contemporary historians.

Herbert Spencer

Scientists like Herbert Spencer attempted to apply both theories, and argued that "if mental....characteristics could be inherited, the intellectual powers of the race would become cumulatively greater, and over several generations the ideal man would finally be developed."#12 Therefore, the belief in the doctrine of the survival of the fittest became a dedication to the perfection of the Anglo-Saxon race. Proponents of Social Darwinism believed that they were helping to create a better society, and that it was their divine right and privilege to do so.

For instance, in his article titled The Myth of Social Darwinism, written in 1982, Howard Kaye argues that Darwin's theories could never be properly applied to sociological problems. He states that in order "to be used in social theory, biological theories had to be altered - none more so than Darwin's terrifying theory of natural selection."#13 He contends that since Darwin was discussing the evolution and history of animals, and not the history of the human race, his theories simply cannot be applied to issues regarding the interaction between nations. It was this case of "distorted Darwinism" #14 that editor Mario DiNunzio wrote in his introduction to Theodore Rooselvet's ''The Winning of the West." One key aspect of DiNunzio's argument is that the application of Darwin to human societies had many long-term and permanent effects. Those who ascriped to the theory of the "survival of the fittest" as coined by Herbert Spencer, believed that they knew what was best for the future of those societies and peoples seen as unfit to govern themselves. This created a belief that a foreign policy based on ridding the world of such unfit societies, and promoting the advance of the Anglo-Saxon race was necessary and urgent.

The Law of Civilization

Indeed, lead Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner argued that "'If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of anti-civilization.'"#14 He maintained the belief that those who are allowed to survive and advance throughout the world must be those who are best adapted and suited for the job. This type of thinking was reiterated by another leading scientist in the area, Herbert Spencer, who argued to allow those weaker nations to be taken, by force if necessary, by the stronger.

Furthermore, Howard Kaye cites Bannister, who underlines one possible reason as to why Darwin's theories were so eagerly promoted by the leading imperialists, and white suprematists of the day. Kaye summarizes that "evolutionary biology was used less as an ideological defense of economic and political interests than as a means of reconciling the new science with traditional religious and democratic values."#15 Indeed, as we have already seen, racist views contending the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race were already in circulation in the United States at least twenty years before the publication of Origin of Species. Thus, imperialists, religious authorities, and white suprematists found the integration of scientific data and research that seemed to coincede with their personal beliefs particularly convienent and helpful to their cause. This resulted in the widespread positive reception of Darwinism and Social Darwinism "because it supported policies and practicies that [the United States] justified as congruent with [its] national interests."#16

Rudyard Kipling and The White Man's Burden

This concept that there was a universal code for civilization, and that those who were fittest, the Anglo-Saxons, had a duty to uphold it, became evident in America's dealings with the Philippines. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem directed at the people of the Philippines, titled The White man's Burden. In it, he refers to the "new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child."#17 Here, Kipling displayed two different aspects of Anglo-Saxon supremacy that proponents of Social Darwinism used to advocate the suppression of the people in the Philippines and elsewhere. He argued that the people there have not been given the holy right and privilege that the Anglo-Saxons have.

Furthermore, he argues that they are like children, referring to the belief that certain races have evolved only to the stage of children because that is their ancestral lineage and they are not capable of evolving further. Moreover, "Kipling underline[s] the essential fact that whatever these races were, they were not men.#18

Theodore Roosevelt and the Concept of Manliness

In her book, Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman gives us a history of how American scientists and philosophers viewed the physical and emotional manliness of different nations. She writes that "Lamarckian biological theodries about human heredity...supported "civilization's" assumption that racially primitive men lacked the biological capacity to be manly." #19

Furthermore, the concept of manhood as part of Theodore Roosevelt's personal brand of Anglo-Saxon superiority reemerges in his dealings with the Philippines. He believed that since the inhabitants of the Philippines were like children, as Kipling argues, they would not build for themselves a proper civilization, not because they did not want to, but because they were incapable of doing so. Thus, when Roosevelt offered to the nations of Latin America the peace of the United States only as long as they were capable of managing their own societies, he was, in fact, suggesting something he personally believed to be impossible. He arged in his essay titled America's Part of the World's Work, that "they [the people of the Philippines] must be made to realize that justice does not proceed from a sense of weakness on our part, that we are the masters." #20 Roosevelt contended that it is therefore necessary to use violent means in order to save the savage nations, and that the suppression of such lesser societies will continue for an undetermined period of time, until the desired outcome is achieved, and "peace" has been established. Perhaps there is a kind of strange optimism in Roosevelt's words, as later he contended that American "should be only too delighted when they [the barbarian neighbors] are able to stand alone." #21

#1 Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Press, Boston. 1955. pages 3-12 of 204.

#2 Hofstadter, Richard. ''Social Darwinism in American Thought." Beacon Press, Boston. 1955. page 171 of 204.

#3 Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Press, Boston. 1955. page 172 of 204.

#4 Roosevelt, Theodore. Winning the West: The Spread of English-Speaking Peoples. Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 45.

#5 Roosevelt, Theodore. Winning the West: The Spread of English-Speaking Peoples. Mario diNunzio, editor. ''Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind." St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 51.

#6 Roosevelt, Theodore. "The Indian Wars, 1784-1787." Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 64.

#7 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Indian Wars, 1784-1787. Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 62.

#8 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Indian Wars, 1784-1787. Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 62.

#8 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Indian Wars, 1784-1787. Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 62,

#9 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Indian Wars, 1784-1787. Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 62.

#10 Darwin, Charles. Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Press, Boston. 1955. page 39 of 204.

#11 Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Press, Boston. 1955. page 179 of 204.

#12 Hofstadter, Richar. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Press, Boston. 1955. page 39 of 204.

#13 Kaye, Howard L. The Myth of Social Darwinism. JSTOR, Contemporary Sociology. Vol 11, no. 3. May, 1982. 274-275. page 275.

#14 Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization. The University of Chicago Press, Chicgao and London. 1995. page 29.

#15 Roosevelt, Theodore. America's Part of the World's Work. Mario diNunzio, editor. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1994. page 182.

#16 Kaye, Howard L. The Myth of Social Darwinism. JSTOR, Contemporary Sociology. Vol 11, no. 3. May 19882. 274-275. page 274.

#17 Kipling, Rudyard. Paul Brians. Reading About the World, Volume 2. Washington State University. Harcourt Grace Custom Publishing, 1999. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html

#18 Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 1995. page 93.

#19 Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 1995. page 93.

#20 Burton, David H. Theodore Roosevelt's Social Darwinism and Views on Imperialism. Journal of the History of Ideas. 1965. Vol 28, no.1. Jan-March, 1965. 103-118. page 112.

#21 Burton, David H. Theodore Roosevelt's Social Darwinism and Views on Imperialism. Journal of the History of Ideas. 1965. Vol 28, no. 1. Jan-March, 1954. 103-118. page 112.

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