Sumner, William Graham, 1840-1910

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1840-10-30
Death 1910-04-12
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

William Graham Sumner was born in Paterson, New Jersey on October 30, 1840. He graduated from Yale University (B.A., 1863) and studied in Europe (1863-1866). He served as a tutor at Yale (1866-1869) and was ordained as a priest of the Calvary Church in New York City in 1869. In 1872 Sumner was appointed to the newly created chair of political and social science at Yale. He retired as professor emeritus in 1909. Sumner was an educational and administrative leader at Yale, and had a substantive impact on the curriculum. As a leading international sociologist Sumner wrote several major works during his lifetime. He died in Englewood, New Jersey on April 12, 1910.

From the description of William Graham Sumner papers, 1863-1946 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702156819

From the description of William Graham Sumner papers, 1863-1946 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122390604

William Graham Sumner was born in Paterson, New Jersey on October 30, 1840. He graduated from Yale University (B.A., 1863) and studied in Europe (1863-1866). He served as a tutor at Yale (1866-1869) and was ordained as a priest of the Calvary Church in New York City in 1869. In 1872 Sumner was appointed to the newly created chair of political and social science at Yale. He retired as professor emeritus in 1909. Sumner was an educational and administrative leader at Yale, and had a substantive impact on the curriculum. As a leading international sociologist Sumner wrote several major works during his lifetime. He died in Englewood, New Jersey on April 12, 1910.

William Graham Sumner was born to Thomas and Sarah Sumner on 30 October 1840 in Paterson, New Jersey. William's father, Thomas, was a mechanic who moved his family from one town to another until 1845, when the Sumners settled in Hartford, Connecticut. William grew up in Hartford, attended its public schools, and then entered Yale College in 1859 with the intention of becoming a minister.

Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Sumner achieved an impressive record at Yale as a scholar and orator. Sumner graduated in 1863 and then, with the financial help of his friends, set off for Europe to study theology at Geneva, Göttingen, and Oxford. He returned to America in 1866 to serve as a tutor at Yale.

Although a successful teacher, Sumner did not abandon his plans to enter the ministry. On 28 December 1867 he was ordained by the Episcopal Church and three months later moved to New York City to serve as the assistant rector at the Calvary Church. One of his major accomplishments as assistant rector was to found and edit a religious journal called The Living Church . (The journal lasted barely a year, 1869-1870.) He also delivered an occasional sermon at the church and translated W.F. Bahr's Book of Kings .

During this time, the young minister found time to woo and marry Jeannie Whittemore Elliott. The two were married 17 April 1871 and had three sons, one of whom died in infancy.

After personal difficulties with the rector of Calvary Church in 1870, Sumner accepted the post of rector at the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey. He remained in Morristown until 1872 when the Yale Corporation appointed him to the new chair of political and social science. Sumner stayed at Yale for the rest of his career, serving as a teacher, administrator, scholar and publicist.

Sumner was undoubtedly Yale's most dynamic teacher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Students clamored to enroll in his classes, and years later they continued to testify to the impact he had on their thinking. Sumner was also a champion of academic freedom and a leader in modernizing Yale's curriculum.

This devotion to academic reform nearly cost him his professorship. On 6 December 1879 Yale's President, Noah Porter, asked Sumner to ban Spencer's Study of Sociology from the classroom, arguing that it would "bring intellectual and moral harm" to impressionable undergraduates. Sumner saw this as a threat to academic freedom and bluntly refused Porter's request. The faculty soon split into two factions one supporting and the other opposing Sumner's defiance. Sumner seriously considered resigning, but friends persuaded him to stay. Eventually, his opponents capitulated and allowed Sumner to use any textbook he wanted.

Sumner's refusal to compromise and his ability to speak and write bluntly served him well outside of Yale as a publicist. From 1872 until the early 1890's Sumner wrote and spoke constantly on the economic and political issues of the day. He vigorously opposed protectionism, bimetallism, imperialism, and socialism in an acidic style which infuriated his opponents and delighted his supporters.

Sumner was a dedicated scholar as well as a nationally known polemicist. His scholarly books on economic history include: A History of American Currency (1874), Alexander Hamilton (1890), The Financier and the Finances of the Revolution (1891), and A History of Banking in the United States (1896). As an economist, however, Sumner broke no new intellectual ground. He accepted the doctrines of earlier classical economists and applied their theories to specific events.

It was as a sociologist that Sumner made his most lasting mark as a scholar. During the 1890's Sumner turned his attention to the field of sociology, or, as he later called it, the science of society. Compiling thousands of notes on the practices of various cultures, he envisioned writing a systematic work entitled Societology which he later changed to The Science of Society . After writing seventeen chapters of his book, Sumner realized his chapter on customs or "mores" was nearly a book in itself. He took time off from his main project and turned this chapter into Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores and Morals (1906). While never a best seller in his lifetime, Folkways became Sumner's greatest scholarly achievement, establishing him as one of America's foremost sociologists.

Following the publication of Folkways, Sumner's health, which had been poor since 1890, declined precipitously. Realizing he had neither the strength nor the energy to finish his Science of Society, he entrusted the project to his disciple, Albert Galloway Keller. Sumner never saw the finished project, which did not appear until seventeen years after his death.

Soon after his retirement in 1909, Sumner's health broke down completely. He died on 10 April 1910.

From the guide to the William Graham Sumner papers, 1863-1946, (Manuscripts and Archives)

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Subjects:

  • Tariff--United States
  • Social sciences
  • Currency question
  • witchcraft
  • Marriage
  • Sociology
  • Economics
  • Demonology
  • Democracy
  • Free trade and protection
  • Students
  • Prohibition
  • Industry--Organization
  • Gold standard
  • Reconstruction
  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877)
  • Money
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  • Women

Occupations:

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  • Sociologists

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  • United States (as recorded)
  • Indiana (as recorded)
  • Southern States (as recorded)
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  • Louisiana (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)
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