Social Darwinism

Definition and Overview

Social Darwinism- A harsh theory adopted by wealthy industrialists stating that individuals who are victims of poverty or are struggling in the society are in that position due to their own "unfitness," weakness, and actions. The theory was based on the theory of natural selection and laws of evolution of Charles Darwin. Darwin's theories stated that species evolve through the process of natural selection. Only the best and "fittest" animals survive the tough competition of resources. The "unfit" and weak animals die out, and that specie vanishes. With this, according to Darwin, the species are said to have evolved. The wealthy businessmen used this theory in the sense of humans and society. Herbert Spencer, an English social philosopher and promoter of Social Darwinism, stated that Darwin's theory of natural selection should be used in the industries of business and marketplace.

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How It All Began

As the Civil War phase came to an end, and the Reconstruction phase arose, the North continued its industrial life. The South, previously an agricultural and agrarian society, also braced for industrialization. As new industries gained power and new factories appeared throughout the nation, the upper class became wealthier. As more stocks and factories fell in the hands of the elite, virtually all of the money and profits flowed into their pockets. Power, along with the money, also went to wealthy businessmen. All this was especially true for the businessmen of the North. This was because the industries in the South were new and not up to the level of the ones in the North. Thus the Northern businessmen became wealthier. The South, although going through Reconstruction and industrialization, became increasingly conservative. Towards the end of Reconstruction, Democrats had taken control of the South. This was mainly due to the Election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877. As the end of Reconstruction approached and the Panic of 1873 shook the lives of the U.S. citizens, the Northern industrialists had to figure out a reason for the instability and poverty present. The explanation that they came up with became known as Social Darwinism.

Survival of the Fittest

The theory of Social Darwinism can be summed up in the phrase, "Survival of the Fittest." At least that's how the wealthy industrialists made it sound like. They stated that all the individuals in the society who were the target of poverty, instability, and problems were in that place due to their own weakness and actions. They were "unfit" for the society around them. When the industrialists mentioned individuals, they were mainly talking about the unemployed and poor people in the North, and poor African Americans in the South. The industrialists stated that labor unions, protests, reform movements, or any type of resistance from these people could never prevail. They couldn't go against the natural law. There was no solution, based on Social Darwinism, for these people. They were "misfits" and there was no way that they could compete with the "fitter" people. William Graham Sumner, an American Darwinist, believed that helping the poor and lower class people was simply going against the laws of nature, and that this would only maintain the "misfit" population. Going along with the conservative trend that was appearing in the South, the framers of Social Darwinism opposed the intervention of the government in social and economic lives of the people. They were, of course, mainly referring to themselves since any restriction or limitation law from the Congress could function as a speed bump for the wealthy businessmen and industrialists. This anti- intervention philosophy became known as Laissez Faire. The Industrialists, however, supported any kind of government assistance, such as tariffs and grants, to the industry and business.

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Resistance and Opposition

Social Darwinism faced immediate resistance and opposition. This was mainly due to the fact that it was based on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection, which had also faced enormous amounts of criticism. Darwin's theories went against many religious beliefs and tenets. Many leaders and promoters of Social Darwinism, noticing the criticism, tried to alter the way they presented the theory. Some leaders, such as John D. Rockefeller and Reverend Russell Conwell, tried to explain that they had earned their wealth. They stated that the wealth was given to them by God after they had used the Protestant ways in business and life. They emphasized that everybody had a chance, and responsibility, to become wealthy. Some leaders, such as Andrew Carnegie, used large sums of personal riches in the building of schools, universities, and institutions such as libraries. They stated that the wealthy were just the keepers of wealth for the society.

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Social Darwinism and Reconstruction (Review)

  • As the South started to become increasingly conservative, Reconstruction weakened.
  • The emergence of the New South greatly dented North's Reconstruction efforts and Reconstruction itself.
  • The Election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877 were the main starting points of Democratic power uptake in the South.
  • As the last group of federal troops was removed from the South, the Democratic Party gained virtually full control.
  • With this, Reconstruction entered its last stage.
  • As the South started to industrialize itself, new industries and factories arose.
  • The North was also trying to shake off the Civil War effects.
  • Although they were not affected significantly, industries in the North were also restarting themselves.
  • As factories and production increased, wealthy businessmen and industrialists arose.
  • After the Panic of 1873, the theory of Social Darwinism arose.
  • The theory stated that the poverty and instability that existed in the society was due to the weakness and "unfitness" of some people.
  • Social Darwinism also opposed government intervention in the social and economic lives of the citizens.
  • The industrialists did, however, support the idea of government assistance of businesses and industries.
  • Overall, Social Darwinism further weakened Reconstruction, and contributed to its fall.

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Bibliography / Sources