Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

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Jonah Goldberg has a great column in which he takes apart the myth of the Social Darwinists.

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Richard Hofstadter was a professor of American history at Columbia University.  In his youth he was a Communist, breaking with the party in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  However, his hatred of capitalism remained, and his  Social Darwinism in American Thought was a mere polemic with an academic wrapper.  Hofstadter did almost no primary research in the documents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and relied on the research of other historians as support for the conclusions he wished to reach.  Almost throughout his entire academic career Hofstadter was a fairly reliable man of the Left, always ready to slam conservatives as provincial and paranoid.  His 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays is fairly typical.  Ironically, by the time of his death in 1970 Hofstadter was no longer popular on the Left, due to his criticisms of the New Left, and especially the antics of student radicals on campus.

For myself, I think the Robber Barons, as the great 19th century industrialists in America are pejoratively known, did far more good than evil.  Rough businessmen, and often not above bending the law, they provided goods and services at historically low prices to mass populations, provided employment to tens of millions and established a legacy of philanthropy unmatched by any other small group of men in secular history.

I have a personal debt to Andrew Carnegie.  In Paris, Illinois when I was growing up, I was a constant visitor to the public library, always taking out the maximum number of books allowed, and spending many happy hours reading in the magnificent building in which it was housed.  The library was a Carnegie library.  Carnegie, who believed it was a sin to die rich, engaged in a monumental campaign to build public libraries in the United States and Great Britain.  When he died in 1919, the US had 3500 public libraries and Carnegie provided the money to build half of them.  Carnegie was a huge success at making money which is a rare talent.  He also knew how to spend it worthily, which is an even rarer talent.

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  Hattip to commenter Greg Mockeridge.  Pope John Paul II shaking his finger at Ernesto Cardenal, Culture Minister for the Sandinista government


  1. Social Darwinism is “ever man for himself”?
    How is that a bad concept? Anyone can see that playing out in life.

  2. Giants of industry? Carnegie painted himself as a Captain of Industry, himself, so I do not have to. Robber Baron yes, murderer yes, I was having a good day until I read this post. The Robber Barons robbed and killed their competition if they had to. I read in Andrew Carnegie’s biography (?) tell me that I am wrong, that Andrew Carnegie hired Pinkerton guards from England to shoot to kill any underpaid striking employee. Americans would not shoot to kill their own. The Pinkertons from England killed nineteen men. The word went out that anyone who did not share their Thanksgiving turkey with the striking families “ought to choke on it”. When Carnegie became a pariah and realized that he was going to hell, as his friend Harvey Firestone told him, he built the University at Pittsburg (The Steelers) for the sons of his workers whom he had murdered. Then, Carnegie went about donating to every large city a library. The City of New Brunswick, New Jersey, has one such library with Andrew Carnegie’s portrait in the entrance, kind of a mausoleum for his memory. A fascinating place I frequented until I learned about the man. I could not even look at his portrait in the entrance and soon refused to go there.

  3. “In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.” Of public property, each and every person owns it all, in joint and common tenancy, and holds it in trust for our constitutional posterity, all future generations, not yet born but to be born. Ownership of private property is held in trust as an inheritance for the heirs. Rural Councils Executive Order 13575 removes anyone’s claim to ownership of private property. Obama’s czars, every one of them, from Timothy Geitner to Cass Sustein are in charge of administering Rural Councils, Obama’s abrogation of all ownership of private property, unauthorized arrogation to himself of all our unalienable civil rights. What may I ask is “social” about being impoverished so that somebody else can steal your children’s inheritance?

  4. Amazing that people who are typically extremely supportive of abortion for almost any reason, and who virtually insist upon it when a child may be born with Downs Syndrome or some other disability – in other words, the modern left – can then complain about “Social Darwinism.”

  5. @ Student: Forget The Catcher in the Rye, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, if possible at the same sitting. An interesting dichotomy of contrast and congruence.

    As for “. . . every man for himself, How is that a bad concept?,” moral purpose is a deliberate desire to love. Love is not accomplished by isolated individuals.

  6. Brian,

    No offense, but you really need to offer better articles than the ones you usually recommend. The folks and crooksandliars hardly offered a meaningful rebuttal of Jonah’s article, instead cherrypicking statistics and offering strawmen arguments.

    I will say it’s a step up from Little Green Footballs.

  7. May I show this?

    No. That site is vulgar and stupid. If you wish to read gliberal and leftoid literature, your time is properly invested in Dissent, the Boston Review, The Atlantic Monthly, the Utne Reader, or perhaps the New York Review of Books.

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