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Noah Porter versus William Graham Sumner

  • Burton J. Bledstein (a1)


In January 1879 William Graham Sumner, Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale, assigned as a textbook the popular work by Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology. In a letter to the trustees in June 1880, the president of the college, Noah Porter, objected to the use of the volume. He suggested that Spencer's atheistic materialism would intellectually, morally and religiously harm immature students and bring notoriety to be the institution. Instead, of course, Noah Porter acquired the notoriety in this early and widely publicized case of academic freedom. William Graham Sumner was judged to be a bold and heroic spokesman for professional prerogatives, an uncompromising teacher of the new discipline of sociology. And Noah Porter served the sentence of historical disrepute that the supporters of Sumner passed on him.



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1. An indispensable account of the episode in which the significant documents are published, except for Porter's statement to the trustees, is Starr, Harris E., “The Spencer Controversy,” William Graham Sumner (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1925), pp. 345369. Starr concluded that, “in the natural course of events the call came to Sumner and he was not the type of man to shirk it. He made his fight, and thereafter every professor at Yale who was devoted to truth rather than tied to dogma had greater confidence and courage,” p. 369. See Pierson, George Wilson, Yale College: an Educational History, 1871–1921 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 6694. For brief accounts see Gabriel, Ralph Henry, Religion and Learning at Yale: The Church of Christ in the College and University, 1757–1957 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), pp. 165167; Gabriel, Ralph Henry, The Course of American Democratic Thought 2d ed.; New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1956), pp. 227228; Metzger, Walter P, Academic Freedom in the Age of the University (New York: Columbia Paperback Edition, 1961), pp. 6164; Whittemore, Robert C., Makers of the American Mind: Three Centuries of American Thought and Thinkers (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1964), pp. 314315; Hofstadter, Richard, Social Darwinism in American Thought (rev. ed.; Boston: The Beacon Press, 1962), pp. 2021.

2. Born in Patterson, New Jersey, in 1840, Sumner descended from an English artisan family, “members of the wages class.” He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, was educated at the public schools, clerked in a store for several years and entered Yale as an undergraduate in the class of 1863. After a European tour he was elected tutor at Yale in 1866. Ordained as an Episcopal minister in 1867, he served in the active ministry until 1872, when he was elected a professor at Yale. In a controversial era, Sumner's conventional background initially recommended him as a teacher of political and social science at Yale, where he remained throughout his academic career. “No other life”, Sumner recorded, “could have been so well suited to my taste as this.” “Autobiographical Sketch of Sumner, William Graham,” in Essays of William Graham Sumner, eds. Keller, Albert Galloway and Davie, Maurice R., 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 1:35. See also “Sketch of William Graham Sumner,” Popular Science Monthly 35 (06 1889): 261268; Starr, Harris E., “William Graham Sumner,” Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Malone, Dumas (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935), 9, pt. 2:217219.

3. It is revealing that, after all the bitterness of the textbook issue and the considerable humilitaiton involved, Porter defended Sumner against the vicious attacks by the New York Tribune directed at the professor's free trade policy. Though Porter disagreed with Sumner's policy, the president resisted demands for the dismissal of the controversial professor. In 1883, for instance, a Tribune editorial headline read, “Unworthy of Yale”, referring to Sumner. Starr, Sumner, pp. 274–294.

4. The sequence of events was as follows: January 1879, Sumner assigned the book; December 1879, Porter privately objected both in a letter to Sumner and in conferences; winter 1880, the New York Times picked up the story, and in a reluctant interview Sumner revealed the substance of his “amicable” conversation and his understanding with Porter; spring 1880, Spencer was again assigned, and the spreading “controversy” was widely publicized in the newspapers. Everybody professed ignorance of the source of information to the public. June 1880, Porter appeared privately before the trustees with his prepared statement; June 1881, one year later, Sumner replied with a lengthy letter to the faculty and the corporation; summer 1881, Sumner received generous support from the faculty. Over a period of time the controversy cooled and ended in a draw, with neither side carrying out any threats. Sumner did not resign, and the textbook was withdrawn.

5. Starr, , Sumner, pp. 48, 49.

6. Addresses at the Inauguration of Professor Noah Porter, as President of Yale College, October 11, 1871 (New York: Charles Scribner and Company, 1871), p. 12.

7. For example, in his private letter of December 1879 Porter wrote Sumner, “I feel assured that the use of the book will bring intellectual and moral harm to the students, however you may strive to neutralize or counteract its influence, and that the use of it will inevitably and reasonably work serious havoc to the reputation of the college. Having these opinions, I can do nothing else than express them, and as I am presumed to authorize the use of every textbook, I must formally object to the use of this.” Starr, , Sumner p. 347.

8. Ibid., pp. 363, 349. In winter 1880, Sumner praised Porter who “throughout acted in the most courteous and kindly spirit.”

9. Because of the controversy, Sumner complained, “I have already lost ground in my work which I had won by great exertion, and I have been forced to suspend further plans on account of the interference to which I have been subjected.” Sumner announced that he “had no other interest or ambition” than the scholarly pursuit. “I have refused (until within six months) to entertain any proposition to go away or to go into other work.” Ibid., p. 365. Sumner was committed to his profession as a career. In 1870 he declared. “There is no such thing yet at Yale as an academical career. There is no course marked out for a man who feels called to this work, and desires to pursue it.” [Sumner, W. G.], “The ‘Ways and Means’ for our Colleges,” The Nation 11 (1870): 152. Sumner recalled that in 1872, when he was offered the position at Yale, “I had always been very fond of teaching, and knew that the best work I could ever do in the world would be in that profession; also, that I ought to be in an academical career. I had seen two or three cases of men who, in that career, would have achieved distinguished usefulness, but who were wasted in the parish and the pulpit. ” Sumner had just spent five years in the active ministry. “Sketch of William Graham Sumner,” Popular Science Monthly, p. 266.

10. In winter 1880, Sumner told the New York Times, “As it was, the whole question was settled between President Porter and myself three months ago, without the intervention, to my knowledge, of a single one of the Faculty, and it has not been reopened since. I may add that I do not expect that it will be reopened.” Starr, , Sumner, p. 349.

11. “The rather widespread opinion that Sumner was a disciple of Herbert Spencer is more than half false. He neither owed as much to Spencer nor was in as close agreement with him as is generally assumed.” Ibid., p. 392. At the farewell dinner held at Delmonicos for Spencer, for instance, Sumner appended the Englishman's name to the introduction and conclusion of his remarks. The essay stood as an indenendent statement, which Sumner published as “The Science of Sociology.” See “Professor Sumner's Speech,” in Herbert Spencer on the Americans; and the Americans on Herbert Snencer, ed. Edward Livingston Youmans (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896). pp. 3540; and The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918), pp. 401405. Sumner berated Spencer, together with Comte and Henry George, for “adopting some pronhet's scheme of the universe” that advocated it had solved “the world problem aright.” Sumner, W. G., “The Challenge of Facts,” in The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays, ed. Keller, Albert Galloway (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1914), p. 208. Sumner recalled that in 1866, “while I was tutor I read Herbert Spencer's ‘First Principles’—at least the first part of it—but it made no impression upon me. The second part, as it dealt with evolution, did not then interest me. I also read his ‘Social Statics’ at that period. As I did not believe in natural rights, or in his ‘fundamental principles’, this book had no effect on me.” In the early 1870s Sumner read the essays collected in The Study of Sociology. “These essays immediately gave me the lead which I wanted, to bring into shape the crude notions which had been floating in my head …. The conception of society, of social forces, and of the science of society there offered was just the one which I had been groping after hut had not been able to reduce for myself.” “Sketch of William Graham Sumner,” Popular Science Monthly, pp. 265266.

12. Richard Hofstadter has written that Sumner, “did not at all times … shrink from a direct analogy between animal struggle and human competition. In the Spencerian intellectual atmosphere of the 1870s and 1880s it was natural for conservatives to see the economic contest in competitive society as a reflection of the struggle in the animal world.” Social Darwinism in American Thought, pp. 56–57. Sumner himself backed away from such conclusions. As a young man he wrote “that social science must be an induction from history, that Buckle had started on the right track, and that the thing to do was to study history.” Following his reading of Spencer and the evolutionists, he still could say, “I greatly regretted that I had no education in natural science, especially in biology; but I found that the ‘philosophy of history’ and the ‘principles of philology,’ as I had learned them, speedily adjusted themselves to the new conception, and won a new meaning and power from it.” “Sketch of William Graham Sumner,” Popular Science Monthly, pp. 264266. See also Bannister, Robert C., “‘The Survival of the Fittest is our Doctrine’: History or Histrionics?Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (07, 09 1970): 385386.

13. Starr, , Sumner, pp. 358359.

14. “I did not take into account”, Sumner wrote, “the religious character or tone of the book, which is not, so far as I can see, open to any fair objection…. Pres. Porter has used Spencer's books …. In this view of the matter the use of Spencer's books is a privilege of the President and his use of them does not, then, constitute a precedent for anybody else.” Ibid., pp. 358, 361.

15. Letter from Noah Porter to the Yale Trustees, June 1880, Yale University Archives, Yale University Library.

16. Starr, , Sumner, p. 361; Porter, Letter to the Yale Trustees.

17. Porter, Letter to the Yale Trustees. Porter expanded upon the statement he originally made to Sumner in winter, 1879: a “cogent reason” for rejecting the book was “that the book itself is written very largely in pamphleteering style, which is very unlike most of Spencer's more solid treatises. The freedom and unfairness with which it attacks every Theistic Philosophy of society and of history, and the cool and yet sarcastic effrontery with which he assumes that material elements and laws are the only forces and laws which any scientific man can recognize, seem to me to condemn the book as a textbook for a miscellaneous class in an undergraduate course.” Starr, , Sumner, p. 346. Conservatives especially objected to chapter, Spencer's “The Theological Bias” in The Study of Sociology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), pp. 266285.

18. James, William, “Herbert Spencer's Autobiography,” Memories and Studies (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912) p. 128. James delighted his students by parodying Spencer: “Evolution is a change from a no-howish untalkaboutable all-alikeness to a somehowish and in general talkaboutable not all-alikeness by continuous sticktogeth erations and somethingelseifications.” Perry, Ralph Barton, The Thought and Character of William James, 2 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1935), 1:482.

19. Pierson, p. 71; Porter, Letter to the Yale Trustees.

20. “Pres. Porter affirms”, Sumner responded, “that sociology is inchoate and tentative. So is psychology; so are many new developments of physics, biology, and other sciences. To object to what is inchoate and tentative is to set up a closed canon of human learning.” Starr, , Sumner, p. 360.

21. Sumner, , “The Science of Sociology,” in The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. Keller, , p. 403.

22. Addresses at the Inauguration of Noah Porter, pp. 49–50.

23. Sumner, , “Introductory Lecture to Courses in Political and Social Science,” The Challenge of Facts, ed. Keller, , p. 401; Sumner, William Graham, “Sociology,” in War and Other Essays, ed. Keller, Albert Galloway (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919), pp. 168, 169, 192.

24. Sumner, , “Sociology,” in War and Other Essays, ed. Keller, , p. 185.

25. Porter, Noah, The Elements of Moral Science: Theoretical and Practical (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1885), pp. 471496; Porter, Noah, The American Colleges and the American Public (New Haven: Charles C. Chatfield & Co., 1870), pp. 165ff.

26. Porter, , Elements of Moral Science, pp. 494, 495.

27. Pierson, pp. 80ff: the committee “went to the President's office, resolved not to leave until they secured his consent. After two or three hours' bombardment Porter finally capitulated. ‘It wa a brutal procedure,’ said Professor Dana, ‘but it was effective.’”

28. Sumner published the essay where it would most irritate the traditionalists. In this case he chose the Princeton Review, an organ for the thought of moral philosophers. “Our Colleges Before the Country,” Princeton Review (03 1884), pp. 135, 137, 138.

29. Pierson, pp. 91, 274–275. “One has the uneasy feeling”, Pierson wrote about Sumner, “that his teachings would have seemed like the rantings of a crank had they not been backed by his massive personality—and spiced by the excitement of political controversy,” p. 274. See also “Report of the Organization of the American Economic Association,” Publications of the American Economic Association 1 (03 1886): 67; Small, Albion W., “Fifty Years of Sociology in the United States (1865–1915),” The American Journal of Bociology 21 (05 1916): 732, 733n.

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