Social Darwinsim for APUSH
About the Author:Johnny Roy, PhD has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 9 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has actively been involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 4 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam. Dr. Roy has recently worked with the Ohio Department of Education to help revise the states Model Curriculum for American History.
Social Darwinism is the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to society- specifically in economics and business in America. Social Darwinism was embraced by the nation’s wealthy upper class in the late 19th century to justify their accumulation of wealth and power.
The theory held that due to natural selection, the most intelligent, industrious, and productive people would grow wealthy and survive while the uneducated and lazy would remain poor and die off.
The theory held that due to natural selection, the most intelligent, industrious, and productive people would grow wealthy and survive while the uneducated and lazy would remain poor and die off. This justification of wealth accumulation by upper-class society, as well as laissez-faire policies by the government, led to the creation of powerful monopolies and trusts that dominated the economic and political landscapes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie amassed substantial power and wealth by building monopolies in oil and steel. They controlled the marketplace and fully embraced the philosophy of Social Darwinism and the belief in “survival of the fittest”.
Anti-trust legislation passed in the late 19th century combined with Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency finally began to break the stranglehold these monopolies had on society, and ushered in a new Progressive Era for Americans.
A Shift of National Interests
Following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, domestic policy shifted from the social issues of slavery and began to revolve around promoting economic growth in the country. Over the next several decades, the nation experienced one of the greatest technological and manufacturing booms in the country’s history. The 2nd Industrial Revolution that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in a rapid industrialization of a once agrarian-dominated economic system.
This rapid expansion created mass amounts of wealth for the nation. However, this wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. As the country struggled with the emerging class warfare that resulted from concentrated wealth and an ever-expanding lower class, the wealthy sought to justify their amassed fortunes and the theory of Social Darwinism was exactly what they were looking for.
The wealthy sought to justify their amassed fortunes and the theory of Social Darwinism was exactly what they were looking for.
Working off the theories put forth by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, wealthy capitalists defended their accumulation of the nation’s wealth and influence as simply the process of natural selection. Herbert Spencer’s book Principles of Biology (1864), coined the term “survival of the fittest,” which seemed to support the idea of natural selection. Spencer claimed that Mother Nature worked to get rid of the weak aspects in order to allow the strong to survive.
Wealthy capitalists of the time viewed themselves as being the smartest, most industrious, and forward-thinking people in society and thus, entitled to all the wealth, power, and influence that they created and enjoyed.
Wealthy capitalists of the time viewed themselves as being the smartest, most industrious, and forward-thinking people in society and thus, entitled to all the wealth, power, and influence that they created and enjoyed. Social Darwinism became the justification for the business empires and amassed fortunes created in the 2nd Industrial Revolution and gave rise to the Gilded Age.
“The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets.” John D. Rockefeller
As a belief in the theory of Social Darwinism spread throughout the country, more and more business empires were created. However, not everyone was experiencing the benefits of this industrial boom. The Gilded Age was represented by extravagant parties held in lavish mansions and supported a freewheeling attitude among the country’s wealthy. Yet, there was a growing resentment among the country’s laborers, who felt as if they were not receiving their share of the profits. Vast empires were created in oil, steel, railroads, and banking, and powerful executives emerged at the helm of these companies.
In 1882, John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and used a system of horizontal integration to either devour the competition or drive them out of business. Forming trusts and monopolies became the pathway to economic dominance as survival of the fittest became all too real for many small businesses.
By 1890, while under the leadership of Rockefeller, Standard Oil grew to control nearly 90% of the country’s oil refineries. This amount of control gave Rockefeller immense power and influence over not just oil but also state and national politics, which he used to gain more control and wealth. Because of his monopoly on oil and the abundance of cheap labor due to an influx of European immigrants, Rockefeller was able to undercut the laborer and pay very little, further increasing his profits. The laborer and the government saw the dangers that all-powerful monopolies presented to the country and were forced into action.
The laborer and the government saw the dangers that all-powerful monopolies presented to the country and were forced into action.
“Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.”
Believing in the theory of Social Darwinism, Andrew Carnegie amassed his fortune and built his monopoly in the steel industry by utilizing the Bessemer process, depressing worker wages (which often resulted in violent strikes such as the Homestead Strike of 1892), and using a form of vertical integration to stifle competition. In his 1889 article titled, Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie took the theory of Social Darwinism a step further. He argued that wealth in the hands of the few was good for all society, as they would make the most good of it. These chosen few would bring order and stability to society through the responsible use of the country’s resources. He believed that laissez-faire economics rewarded the industrious and those willing to take risks, but with that success came great responsibility.
Social Darwinism was not just about the survival of the fittest to Carnegie, but about the fittest helping others to survive through charitable works and philanthropy. Carnegie argued that it was God’s will that those who had achieved success deserved it and those who had not, did not. Yet, with this wealth came a great moral responsibility to use that wealth to better society. Carnegie and other industrialists (including Rockefeller in his later years) donated tens of millions of dollars to build libraries, museums, colleges, and parks.
Carnegie and other industrialists (including Rockefeller in his later years) donated tens of millions of dollars to build libraries, museums, colleges, and parks.
Yet, the charity of these industrialists who believed in Social Darwinism rarely trickled down to the laborer. Wages continued to be suppressed, conditions rarely improved, and hours continued to be long, all driven by a desire to maximize profits for the company’s stockholders.
The other half responds to Social Darwinism
As power and wealth continued to be consolidated among the few, the individual laborer and even government agencies began to unify and actively resist the growing influence and control of the wealthy. Labor unions rose to prominence throughout the Gilded Age as a way to combat low wages, unsafe working conditions, and long hours. The rise of labor groups like the Knights of Labor worked to protect workers’ rights and gain benefits that had been previously unavailable to them. This often resulted in workers’ strikes, as they tried to exert economic pressure on the monopolies in order to achieve their goals.
Unfortunately, these strikes often resulted in violence as the ruthless industrialists, not wanting to cut into their profit margins, used strikebreakers to attack and intimidate striking workers. The Haymarket Affair in 1886 in Chicago ended with multiple deaths as disgruntled strikers clashed with police. The Pullman Strike in 1894 pitted laid-off railway workers against the Pullman Company, eventually involving more than 250,000 workers and disrupting the national transportation system. Eugene Debs led the American Railway Union (ARU) in the strike, which President Cleveland eventually used federal agencies to break, as the strike disrupted federal services. Social Darwinism and the conflict it was creating in the country was a problem that the government needed to try and reign in.
Unfortunately, these strikes often resulted in violence as the ruthless industrialists, not wanting to cut into their profit margins, used strikebreakers to attack and intimidate striking workers.
In order to combat the disruptive influence created by a belief in Social Darwinism, the federal government began to pass anti-trust legislation. The goal was to break up monopolies and the power of these massive trusts. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890) and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) were both intended to give the federal government the ability to break up monopolies and trusts in order to ensure a competitive marketplace and protect consumers.
Teddy Roosevelt’s ascendency to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 ushered in a new era of politics and oversight.
Teddy Roosevelt’s ascendency to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 ushered in a new era of politics and oversight. Intent on taking on the corruption of the era, Roosevelt targeted political machines and monopolies using the power of the government and the bully pulpit of the presidency. Roosevelt’s trustbusting efforts and the growing demand for progressive reforms resulted in the decline of Social Darwinism being used as justification for corporate greed and economic oppression of the laborer.