American Sociological Association

William G. Sumner

William Graham Sumner

William Graham Sumner

October 30, 1840 — April 12, 1910

“Civil liberty is the status of the man who is guaranteed by law and civil institutions the exclusive employment of all his own powers for his own welfare.” –W. G. Sumner

William Graham Sumner was born in Paterson New Jersey on October 30, 1840, the son of Thomas Sumner and Sarah Graham. Although not formally educated, his father was a supporter of free trade and temperance. When Sumner was eight his mother died, leaving him and his two siblings in the care of an affection-less stepmother. His parents stressed the values of sobriety, autonomy, and personal responsibility. These ideals had a significant influence on his direction and subsequent works. After graduating from high school in Hartford where he spent most of his childhood, Sumner attended Yale University and obtained his degree in 1863. He then went on to study in Germany, Switzerland, and at Oxford, where he prepared for the Episcopalian clergy. Sumner returned to Yale as a classics tutor from 1866-1869 and was ordained a minister of the Episcopal Church in July of 1869. He served as a minister in the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey from 1870-1872, where he struggled with the conflicts between religion and scientific positivism. This clash between his instincts of individual freedom and the necessary checks on “progress” became visible in some of his later writings. In 1871 he married Jeannie Elliott with whom he had three sons (one died in infancy). He spoke rarely of his wife and family, but his views on the value of monogamy and family are seen in his later writings. In September of 1872, Sumner began a position as professor of political economy and social science at Yale. There he became part of the “Young Yale” movement, a reformist group opposing traditional classroom recitation. Sumner was one of the institution’s most popular and controversial teachers. He became an instrumental figure in the reformation of the American university system, from the old “divinity-classics” towards modernism.

In 1873 Sumner entered into the political arena, serving as New Haven alderman until 1876. In the fall of 1877, he sat in on the electoral commission to investigate fraud in New Orleans during the 1876 presidential election. Deeply disheartened by both experiences, Sumner curbed his political activities to an extensive term on the Connecticut State Board of Education (1882-1910).

As a classical economist, Sumner supported an extreme laissez-faire policy, opposing any governmental actions that obstructed natural economic affairs. His “A History of American Currency” (1874) supported the preservation of a sound currency against the use of silver. In 1878 Sumner turned his attention to the turbulence in the labor movement, contesting labor unions as harmful monopolies. On August 22, Sumner testified before a select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives concerned with investigating the Causes of the General Depression in Labor and Business. In “Protectionism: The –ism that Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth” (1885) and "Lectures on the History of Protection" (1883), which he delivered before the International Free-Trade Alliance, he defined the tariff as a tax that benefits some Americans over others.

In the early 1880s, Sumner received criticism from Yale President Noah Porter for the use of Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology (1873) as a classroom textbook. Although he agreed to use other texts, the ensuing battle for academic freedom gained wide publicity and popularity for Sumner. In 1883 Sumner published “What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, an attack on attempts to regulate the economy and assuage social problems. (also see excerpts from the essay here and here)

After an extensive absence from public life due to a decline in health, Sumner returned to the public eye as Vice President of the Anti-Imperialist League in 1899. His speech, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain”, was delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale University on January 16, 1899. During this time he was also a member of the Philippine Independence Committee. In his best-known encyclopedic book Folkways (1906), Sumner added the terms “folkways” and “mores” to the vocabularies of American sociologists. He believed that these were the most powerful influences on human behavior, even when irrational. A Social Darwinist and Conservative in thought, Sumner worked continuously in charting the evolution of human customs, folkways and mores. He believed that these forces, developed naturally through the course of evolution, made any attempts for social reform useless. Sumner advocated that humanity could only survive in an environment untouched by attempts to change the “natural laws of social development”. Trained in the ideals of inductive empiricism, Sumner’s concepts were based on observations of particulars. Sumner defined the concept of ethnocentrism, the attitudes of superiority concerning one’s own group in comparison to others.

In 1905 Sumner provided the following autobiographical sketch for the publication A History of the Class of 1863, Yale College:

I was born at Paterson, N.J., October 30, 1840. My father, Thomas Sumner, was born at Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, England, May 6, 1808. He came to the United States in 1836. My mother was Sarah Graham. She was born in Oldham, England, in 1819, and was brought to the United States by her parents in 1825. She died when I was eight years old. This is about all I know of my ancestry. My father told me that he had seen his own great-grandfather, who was a weaver in Lancashire. They were all artisans and members of the wages class. It is safe to say that I am the first of them who ever learned Latin and algebra. My grandfather had a good trade, which was ruined by machinery. On account of this family disaster, my father was in every respect a self-educated man, and was obliged to come to America. His principles and habits of life were the best possible. His knowledge was wide, and his judgment excellent. He belonged to the class of men, of whom Caleb Garth in Middlemarch is the type. In early life I accepted, from books and other people, some views and opinions which differed from his. At the present time, in regard to those matters, I hold with him and not with the others.

In the year after I was born my father went prospecting through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. He came back convinced that, if a man would live as poorly and educate his children as badly in the East as he would have to in the West, he could do as well in the East. He moved to New England, lived in New Haven a year or two, and settled in Hartford about 1845. I was educated in the public schools of that city. I was clerk in a store for two years, but went back to school to prepare for college.

After graduating I went at once to Europe. I passed the winter of 1863-64 in Geneva, Switzerland, studying French and Hebrew. In April, 1864, I went to Gottingen, where I studied ancient languages and history. In April, 1866, I went to Oxford, where I studied Anglican theology. In that year I was elected tutor at Yale and entered upon the duties in September.

I was ordained a Deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church at Trinity Church, New Haven, December 27, 1867. I resigned the tutorship in March, 1869, to become assistant to the Rector of Calvary Church, New York City. From September, 1870, to September, 1872, I was Rector of the Church of the Redeemer, at Morristown, N.J.

In June, 1872, I was elected Professor of Political and Social Sciences in Yale College. My life has been spent since that time in trying to fulfil the duties of that position. From 1873 to 1876 I was an alderman of the city of New Haven. In 1876 I was one of the “visiting statesmen,” who were sent to New Orleans to try to find out what kind of a presidential election they had in Louisiana in that year. This is the whole of my experience in politics. I found out that I was likely to do more harm in politics than almost any other kind of man, because I did not know the rules of the game and did not want to learn them. Therefore, the adepts at it could play with me in more senses than one. My experience, however, has been very valuable to me. It has enabled me to gauge the value of the talk we hear about “civics” and “citizenship.” I turned back to the studies connected with my college position, and have devoted myself entirely to them. Those studies have expanded so rapidly and greatly that I have been compelled during the whole thirty-two years to narrow the range of my work more and more. I have renounced one branch after another in order to concentrate my efforts on what I could hope to master. In this process I have had to throw away a great amount of work, which I could never hope to finish. When I was fifty years old I broke down in health. I have only partly recovered, and have been obliged to limit my interests as much as possible to the college work. I am now trying to bring into form for publication the results of my studies in the science of society. If life and strength hold out, this will be the sum of what I shall have accomplished. This life of a professor is so simple and monotonous that I know of no other “history” of it that is possible, than what I have just written. No other life could have been so well suited to my taste as this. My relations with students and graduates have always been of the pleasantest, and I think that there can be few relations in life which can give greater satisfaction than these.

Even after suffering a stroke in 1907, Sumner’s passion for sociology did not waver. He was elected President of the American Sociological Society in 1908, serving as its second President for two years. Sumner delivered two Presidential Addresses during his term: "The Family and Social Change" (1908) and "Religion and the Mores" (1909). Braving a snowstorm on his way to deliver his second address in New York, Sumner collapsed and fell ill.

Sumner died on April 12, 1910 in Englewood, New Jersey. Upon his death, an obituary was published in the American Journal of Sociology.

“The forgotten man…He works, he votes, generally he prays, but his chief business in life is to pay.” – W.G. Sumner

For more information on William Graham Sumner, you may find the following sources useful:

  1. Bannister, Robert C. 2000. “Sumner, William Graham.” American National Biography Online. Retrieved March 14, 2003 (
  2. 2002. “Sumner, William Graham.” Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2003. Retrieved March 6, 2003 (
  3. Fonseca, Goncalo L. and Leanne Ussher. nd. “William Graham Sumner, 1840-1910.” History of Economic Thought, Retrieved October 19, 2004 (
  4. GMW. 2003. “William Graham Sumner: Excerpt from: The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over, March 1894.” From Revolution to Recontruction…and What Happened Afterwards, Retrieved October 21, 2004 (
  5. Halsall, Paul. 1998. “Modern History Sourcebook: William Graham Sumner (1840-1910): The Challenge of Facts.” Fordham, Retrieved April 11, 2003 (
  6. Keller, A. G. 1910. “William Graham Sumner.” American Journal of Sociology.
  7. Landry, Peter. 1998. “The Forgotten Man: By William Graham Sumner.” Essays: Picked by Blupete, Retrieved October 21, 2004 (
  8. Palmisano, Joseph M. ed. 2001. “Sumner, William Graham (1840-1910): American Clergyman and Professor.” Pp. 660-661 in World of Sociology. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group.
  9. Roth, David M. 2003. “William Graham Sumner.” CT Heritage, Retrieved April 11, 2003 (
  10. 2002. “Capitalism in the Gilded Age: Social Darwinism.” Online Highways, LLC, Retrieved October 21, 2004 ( [also contains information on Herbert Spencer]