Social Darwinism

"I believe the power to make money is a gift of God . . . to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow men according to the dictate of my conscience."
- John D. Rockefeller

As this statement clearly demonstrates, the people called the captains of industry felt that their success in the acquiring of money was due to the hand of God being on their shoulders and that their own morals would dictate to what good use that money would go to their fellow man. This was the beginning of a philosophy first coined by Charles Darwin, in a purely biological form, called The Theory of Natural Selection or Darwinism, later to be used by Herbert Spencer in a more social form for human applications in society, hence the name Social Darwinism. Industrialists who had gone from being captains of industry to Robber Barons wanted a philosophy to justify their means of acquiring wealth. Social Darwinism was one such philosophy. These Robber Barons used Social Darwinism as a justification and, even worse, as a moral to sanction their own actions, not considering that their own actions could be wrong. As time progressed, a change had come to the industrialists and their philosophy. Just as Social Darwinism changed, so did industrialists. They changed in reflection, from acquiring the means to support their fellow man, to acquiring the means to support themselves at the expense of their fellow man. Such was the influence of Social Darwinism on the Robber Barons and their methods in the late nineteenth century America. To see what influences Social Darwinism had and how its fundamentals could only lead to such influences, one must take a look at Social Darwinism's basic outlining premises (Angeles 63).

To begin with, Social Darwinism's infancy, in its biological form, was The Theory of Natural Selection, and its father was Charles Robert Darwin. Born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1809, educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh, and died in 1882, Charles Darwin developed the biological theory of natural selection (Angeles 63). This theory explains that natural selection is the process that brings about the survival of the strong and adaptable, and apparently, the destruction or devitalization of the weak and less adaptable. The theory of natural selection depends greatly on the variability of life over a long period, which will gradually result in structural changes called adaptions. Charles Darwin held that all living organisms adapt in different degrees and have a different number of random variations. There are variations that increase and there are variations that decrease the chances of survival for any living organism. The variations that increase the chances of survival or the rate of reproduction persist in existence. The variations that increase the chances of survival are preserved in the parent generation of a variant population of organisms, and are then transmitted to future generations. The variations that decrease the chances of survival in any given organism decrease or die out with the organism that they affect. Evolution had been in the realm of science before Darwin. The Theory of Natural Selection was Darwin's concept of evolution by natural selection. Charles Darwin said natural selection was natures way of choosing the ablest biological organisms to survive (Angeles 199-200). Charles Darwin's definition for natural selection was that the strong (those with variations that increase survival probability) survive and that the weak (those with variations that decrease survival probability) die or devitalize. Never in his life did he say "survival of the fittest", and never did he mean for his theory to be used in a social form. Herbert Spencer, with a few others, however, decided that was what Darwin meant and that it should be applied in social terms.

Social Darwinism was an application of Darwin's Theory of Natural selection to the society of the late nineteenth century America. Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, wrote that society had operated like a jungle in which only the fittest survived, and that, although this process was a cruel one, it promised long-term benefits that would gradually make for a wholly, just, and peaceful society. He emphasized, however, that Social Darwinism must be upheld, that the process of this social natural selection must be allowed to operate at its own pace and that efforts to improve society during this natural process would both be misguided and futile (Roner 999-1000). Social Darwinism held that when man is born, man has the necessity of sustaining his existence, which he will receive by a struggle against nature. This struggle is both to win what is essential to his life and to ward off that which is a danger to it. Nature holds what is essential to man, but nature will not offer it as a gift. Man must strive to get and take what nature holds.

The continuation of the race for health and vigor, and its success in the struggle to expand and develop human life on earth requires that the head of the family shall, at his own expense, be able to supply not only his own needs, but also the needs of the people who are dependent on him. If a man uses his energies to continue the struggle on behalf of himself and his loved ones, then that person shall have the right to dispose of the product exclusively as he chooses. The struggle to get a fortune gives strength of character, something a man who inherits his wealth rarely gets, but hereditary wealth transmitted from father to son is the strongest instrument to keep up a steadily advancing civilization. In the absence of the law of entail (the law to limit the inheritance of real property to a specific line or class of heirs) and perpetuity, it is inevitable that the capital will speedily slip from the hold of the man who is not fit, back to the man who is, and who can use it for the benefit of society (Persons 70-90). At first, this definition of Social Darwinism did not institute that man used man to get what he wanted, but that man should get what he needed to help man. When Social Darwinism was still in its first stages, industrialists and leaders of corporations clung to it as a way of life. During its first stages, Social Darwinism would fool everyone. What they missed was an underlining meaning that instituted that man must strive to survive and get what he wanted any way he could.

Finally, when times changed, the true underlining definition of Social Darwinism came about. Social Darwinists began to say that the strongest and best fit to survive were those characterized by egoism, ruthlessness, competition, ambition, manipulation, scheming, intelligence, energy, wealth, and power. They also said that the unfit are characterized as being noncompetitive, altruistic, idle, lazy, powerless, and poor (Angeles 63). They said that the poor were poor because they were lazy and that they worked in the factories of the rich for the same reason. They also said that if the poor had any ounce of energy and ambition, they could go out and succeed in life. Not only did they say this, but they said that the leaders and the industrialists were the fittest, and they should be able to employ any method they wanted to get what they needed. Anyone standing in their way was defying nature. Though the Theory of Natural Selection went from being a purely biological process into one that is social, it still implied that the process was natural. Social Darwinism had made its inevitable change to battle the ever present unions that said their workers were being mistreated, or not being paid enough. All the while, the industrialists were still bantering that their use of man was good for society and would make for a prosperous nation.

Secondly, although they were the men who made the industry in America during the late nineteenth century, and they were the men who were once called the captains of industry (a title given to them that spoke of the awe inspired by their accomplishments), they had never been universally admired. When the industry began to fail during the Great Depression of the 1930's and as their methods began to become more crude, they had begun to be called Robber Barons. This term was given to them by people who claimed that the working classes were brutalized by the factory systems (Kennedy 314). This is what Social Darwinism had done to the industrialists in the eyes of the people. They first saw great men who created an industry with great power to match it, but later they saw men who used high handed methods and used people for their own gains claiming that Social Darwinism gave them that right. Though not all the industrialists were bad and used methods to stagnate the competition, many of them made off with more money than is countable while leaving their fellow industrialists in the dust. To see what and who these Robber Barons were, one needs to look at their finest, their leaders: Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Andrew Carnegie was a great businessman who was born in Scotland and whose family had come to the United States in 1848. His family had been poor, so at the age of 16, he took a job as a messenger boy for $2.50 a week. With whatever money he could save, he began to educate himself by reading books during his off hours. One day he met the manager of a Pennsylvanian Railroad and was offered a job with the railroad. Soon after that, Carnegie began to buy stock in other companies with some borrowed money. These companies grew very big and made Carnegie fairly rich; at the age of 33, Carnegie was making about $50,000 a year. In 1873, with the knowledge he had learned from reading his books, he turned his attention to making steel. Two years later, after visiting some steel factories in England and learning a new method of turning iron into steel called the Bessemer process, he decided that his mills in Pittsburgh should be using this new method. After his return from England, Carnegie built the biggest steel mill near Pittsburgh and started out using the Bessemer process. By 1900 the Carnegie Steel Company's profit was at $40 million a year. By the next year, 1901, Carnegie decided to retire and sell his business. He sold his company to a group of business leaders headed by a Banker in New York, J. P. Morgan. Morgan paid Carnegie $492 million for the company, making Carnegie the richest man in the world (Pech 132-3). Not all his wealth was luck and being able to use a better process than his competitors. What placed him over the top was his practices of putting his competitors out of business, cornering other businesses in the market and buying them at any price he named, and showing no mercy to anyone.

"The 14-year-old did not smile as he walked home from school in Cleveland, Ohio. Smiling, laughing, and enjoying himself were not important to him it was the idea of becoming rich. He once told one of his school friends: 'When I grow up, I want to be worth $100,000 and I'm going to be too.' He was not joking. Rockefeller rarely joked" (Pech 130). While he was young, Rockefeller learned a very important lesson about making money. During one summer he got a job from a farmer digging potatoes for 37 cents a day. Rockefeller saved all the money he got from the job and soon he had saved $50. The farmer that was employing him asked to be loaned the $50. Rockefeller agreed and charged the farmer seven percent interest. Rockefeller, having grown up, explained what this loan had taught him, "I soon learned," said Rockefeller, "that I could get as much money for 50 dollars at seven percent interest... as I could earn by digging potatoes for 10 days." Rockefeller developed a talent for managing his money and making it grow. While he was a young man he opened up a business buying and selling grain. The business made large profits in its first year and Rockefeller used those profits to buy an even larger business: oil.

Before the 1850's oil had not been used for much, usually for back rub medicine and certain drugs. Then in 1859 a railroad conductor, named Edwin L. Drake, dug for oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He struck oil and began producing 20 barrels of it a day. Since there was now enough oil to be refined into kerosene, kerosene lamps became the major means of lighting United States homes and offices. Other people rushed to put down wells in Titusville, making pumping for oil a thriving business. Refining also became a thriving business and Rockefeller and some others saw that Cleveland was a good place to start making refineries. In 1863, Rockefeller and a few other men built a refinery in Cleveland. Two years later after the American Civil War, Rockefeller bought out three of his four partners. Not even being 30, Rockefeller became a very rich man; his business could turn out more barrels a day than any other refinery. Still, the oil business was a risky one. Fortunes were made and lost overnight. To stay on top, Rockefeller had to sell more and more oil because some refineries were catching up. He not only wanted to be the biggest oil company in the country, he also wanted to be the only oil company in the country. He wanted to drive all his competitors out of business. To do this, Rockefeller made a deal with a railroad company to exclusively use them in exchange for a rebate, and because of this rebate, Rockefeller could sell his oil for less than his rivals. One by one, he bought up the other companies that were forced to sell at almost any price he offered. By the end of the decade, he controlled most of the piping, refining, and selling of oil in the United States (Pech 130-2).

Many business leaders did this, but Rockefeller only cornered one market: oil. There were many other markets like Carnegie and his steel company. Many people did not know what to think of these business leaders. It was hard for them to decide whether they were good men or evil men. These business men showed no mercy to their rivals and they wielded great power. Some men saw this as bad and that it was a threat to democracy. On the other hand, some people admired what all these business leaders had done. "Was it better, then, to think of these men as 'captains of industry' and praise them for making the United States into a strong industry nation? Or was it better to think of them as 'robber barons' who enriched themselves while hurting others? Some Americans in the 1900's answered the question one way - and some the other" (Pech 133). Tying Social Darwinism together with the Robber Barons was a perfect match, because both had the same principles. The industrialists saw Social Darwinism as a way to justify their actions, and it did for many years, until the people saw through their disguise. Social Darwinism had claimed that the wealthy were a product of nature, as when Yale Professor William Graham Sumner concluded that, "The millionaires are a product of natural selection." Not only did Social Darwinism institute that it was the effect of nature, it also instituted that it was a God given right for these business men to have money. John D. Rockefeller once said, "The good Lord gave me my money." Such is the product of a man who uses Social Darwinism as a way of life (Cashman 308-9).

In conclusion, Social Darwinism was a philosophy that instituted that the men of business had the will of God behind them and that natural selection was not only a biological factor, but also one of social selection. The philosophy of Social Darwinism influenced the ideas and methods of the Robber Barons, which seemed to fit perfectly with their existing ideas. It gave them better ways to defend their actions against society, which is clearly demonstrated by their more than eager willingness to adopt Social Darwinism as their own philosophy. Not only is the implication that Social Darwinism gave them the divine right to use their methods wrong, but so was their idea that Social Darwinism gave them sanction against their high handed methods toward their workers and rivals. Man may have the right to do anything they want with their product, sell at any price to any person, but man does not have the right to use people for their own gain. Man does not need moral sanction from society, which people like Andrew Carnegie seemed to think they needed.

After everything is said and done and history has passed, and we must face the future. The government was right in stopping the Robber Barons in the past, but now that things look better. There is no real need for strong government intrusion. However, government is still passing regulations left and right. Government may even be on a collision course. Only the future can determine what that collision will be against. What lies ahead of us, now that the Robber Barons of the past have made the people of the present wary of business men? What awaits us in this great society called America is possibly the end of capitalism, and even democracy. The one thing that has made the country so great, is awaiting its death. Many people have become disillusioned about capitalism, afraid possibly of more people like John D. Rockefeller in the time of the late twentieth century. The United States Government is cracking down more and more on the great companies of our time. Such as a few years ago, one company's trust, who was buying up all the small companies present in each town, was broken apart. While at another time, a few years back, another company that was doing very bad business, was poorly run, and had no money, had been given aid by the same government. This goes against everything that capitalism is about : private enterprise, which clearly means private property. Property is owned by individuals and by no means does the government have the right to intervene. If you take away the right of people to run their private enterprises any way they want, as long as it does not go against man's rights, then, in effect, you take away private enterprises all together, destroying capitalism. Since capitalism is the backbone of democracy, when you take that away you can only have three outcomes. One, democracy is still present, run by either socialism or weak communism. Two, you have no democracy but a form of governmental regulated life, close to what is presently taking place, where the government has laws for everything. Three, you have an angered people who feel that the Government has infringed on their rights and possibly a second revolution. Think about it the next time you see another law being passed, hindering some private corporation. Who knows, maybe some day, 20 years from now, you could be looking out a window in an apartment you paid for by working at a job, and at that job, you get paid the same amount as the next person even though you do the job ten times better than they do. Looking out that same window, you see a government run grocery store, a government run computer company, and a government run restaurant, and all the while thinking that all of this was made possible by a group of people, about a hundred years ago, who decided that Social Darwinism was a good philosophy to use. Bibliography:

Arnof, Dorothy S. A Sense of The Past: Reading in American History. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973.

Boorstin, Daniel J. A History of the United States. Massachusetts: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

Cashman, Sea Dennis. American in the Guilded Age. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

Grob, Gerald N., and George Athan Billias. Interpretations of American History. New York: The Free Press, 1987.

Josephson, Mathew. The Robber Barons. San Diego: Harcourt Braces Jovanich Pub., 1962.

Kennedy, David M., Thomas A. Bailey, and Mel Piehl. The Brief American Pageant. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1989.

Lawrence, Bell. Fascinating Facts From American History. Maine: J Weston Welch, 1982.

Peck, Ira, and Steven Jantzen. American Adventures: Old Hate - New Hope. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1970.

Persons, Stow. Selected Essays of William Grakam Sumner: Social Darwinism. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Roner, Eric, and John A. Garraty. The Readers Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

posted by dharh 1:34 PM Aug 3rd, 2007

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