The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 18
WILLIAM GRAHAM SUMNER, CRITIC OF THE POSITIVE STATE

IN 1872 A YOUNG CLERGYMAN named William Graham Sumner was called from his church at Morristown, New Jersey, to Yale by a faculty which was undecided whether to invite him to the chair of Greek or of political economy. Sumner was a lantern- jawed, gruff-voiced individual who seemed a little out of place in the pulpit. He welcomed the invitation. Though a brilliant classicist, he turned the scales in favor of that new and struggling discipline, political economy.

When he moved to New Haven, the new professor came home to a college he knew well. Here he had been graduated in 186 3, when the Civil War was approaching the July climax of Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Without enlisting in the army or even waiting for commencement, he had sailed for Europe to continue his preparation for the ministry by studying Greek and Hebrew in Switzerland and metaphysics and biblical criticism in Germany. Sumner was all his life a fighter, but he decided in his student days, as he hired a substitute for military service, that he would strike his blows only in campaigns of his own choosing. His acceptance of the post at New Haven was evidence of his conviction that the church was destined to play a diminishing rôle in American life and that in the future the significant efforts for social improvement would be the work of scientists rather than of clerics.

Noah Porter had been elevated from the professorship of moral philosophy and metaphysics to the presidency of Yale in 1871. When, in the autumn of the following year, he welcomed Sumner to his first faculty meeting in the Old Brick Row, President Porter must have smiled with satisfaction at what appeared to be a perfect solution of the troublesome problem of getting a professor of politi

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