Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

Jonah Goldberg has a great column in which he takes apart the myth of the Social Darwinists.

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Richard Hofstadter was a professor of American history at Columbia University.  In his youth he was a Communist, breaking with the party in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  However, his hatred of capitalism remained, and his  Social Darwinism in American Thought was a mere polemic with an academic wrapper.  Hofstadter did almost no primary research in the documents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and relied on the research of other historians as support for the conclusions he wished to reach.  Almost throughout his entire academic career Hofstadter was a fairly reliable man of the Left, always ready to slam conservatives as provincial and paranoid.  His 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays is fairly typical.  Ironically, by the time of his death in 1970 Hofstadter was no longer popular on the Left, due to his criticisms of the New Left, and especially the antics of student radicals on campus.

For myself, I think the Robber Barons, as the great 19th century industrialists in America are pejoratively known, did far more good than evil.  Rough businessmen, and often not above bending the law, they provided goods and services at historically low prices to mass populations, provided employment to tens of millions and established a legacy of philanthropy unmatched by any other small group of men in secular history.

I have a personal debt to Andrew Carnegie.  In Paris, Illinois when I was growing up, I was a constant visitor to the public library, always taking out the maximum number of books allowed, and spending many happy hours reading in the magnificent building in which it was housed.  The library was a Carnegie library.  Carnegie, who believed it was a sin to die rich, engaged in a monumental campaign to build public libraries in the United States and Great Britain.  When he died in 1919, the US had 3500 public libraries and Carnegie provided the money to build half of them.  Carnegie was a huge success at making money which is a rare talent.  He also knew how to spend it worthily, which is an even rarer talent.

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