William Graham Sumner

The American sociologist and educator William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was one of the earliest proponents of sociology in the United States and was especially notable for his advocacy of the evolutionary viewpoints of Herbert Spencer in academic and public circles.

William Graham Sumner was born on Oct. 30, 1840, in Paterson, N. J. His parents were both of English ancestry and of modest social background. The family moved to Connecticut, where Sumner attended the public schools and Yale College. After graduation, he studied ancient languages and history at Göttingen (1864) and theology and philosophy at Oxford (1866). The following year he was appointed tutor at Yale and then was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1869 he left Yale to be rector of churches in New York City and Morristown, N. J. In 1872 he became the first professor of political and social science at Yale—a position he long held.

Sumner had been greatly influenced by Herbert Spencer's essays on the structure of human society, and he used them as the basis for the first course in sociology ever given in a university in the United States (1875). As his teaching evolved, he planned a massive treatise on a comparative institutional analysis of societies, but he interrupted this task to produce the work that gave him worldwide renown—Folkways (1907). Folkways was notable in several respects. It contributed terms that have become widely used—such as folkways, mores, the wegroup, and ethnocentrism. In addition, Sumner established the notion of different degrees of social pressure for conformity in his analyses of folkways, mores, and institutions. A crucial and fundamental idea in this book was the observation that social life is mainly concerned with creating, sustaining, and changing values. But Sumner insisted that the values in folkways and mores are inherently nonrational and yet powerful in influencing thought and behavior. Consequently, he regarded conflict and struggle as inseparable components of human society in any age. "Nothing but might has ever made right … nothing but might makes right now" is a much cited and fairly representative statement of Sumner's approach to the essentials of society.

Sumner brought a forceful and undeviating conservatism to numerous discussions, though he was one of the earliest defenders of academic freedom while at Yale. He was a tireless exponent of laissez-faire (which he defined as "mind your own business") and a sharp critic of the imperialism of the United States. Many articles emphasized the validity of economic rather than political considerations. A favorite theme was the futility of trying to obtain "progress" by governmental policy. Perhaps the most persistent argument by Sumner concerned the plight of the "forgotten man, " the middle class taxed against its will for programs designed to serve other groups.

On April 12, 1910, Sumner died in Englewood, N.J. His disciple, A. G. Keller, prepared Sumner's long, unfinished manuscript for publication in four volumes as The Science of Society (1927). In subsequent years many of Sumner's articles were collected in book form.


Further Reading on William Graham Sumner

Short biographical studies of Sumner are Harris E. Starr, William Graham Sumner (1925), and Maurice R. Davie, William Graham Sumner (1963). See also Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948), and Robert G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise (1951).

Additional Biography Sources

Curtis, Bruce, William Graham Sumner, Boston: Twayne, 1981.