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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Power: Taming the Octopus
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Images of the Octopus, five cartoons
Text 2. Standard Oil
Text 3. The Octopus in the West
Text 4. The Populist Party Platform [Omaha Platform]
Text 5. The Pullman Strike
Text 6. Jack London, South of the Slot
Text 7. The Boss and the Reformer
Text 8. Images of Big City Politics
Text 9. Social Policy: Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel
» Reading Guide
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Text 10. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism
Text 11. African American Strategies
Text 12. Women and Power

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
William Graham Sumner
Walter Rauschenbusch
Social Policy: Social Darwinism
vs. the Social Gospel
- William Graham Sumner, What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other, 1883, excerpts
- Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order, 1912, excerpts

"Is it wicked to be rich?" challenges William Graham Sumner, a minister and political economist of the time. "Is it mean to be a capitalist?" Here we pair two clergymen-philosophers on these questions. What is right and wrong in the natural evolution of property and wealth? When excesses occur, do we do nothing or do we intervene? If we intervene, who or what does the intervening? To what end? These pieces from Sumner and Walter Rauschenbusch address the familiar issue of laissez faire vs. government intervention, and in addition reveal the emotive undercurrent in each man's position.

Both were Protestant clergymen—Sumner an Episcopalian and Rauschenbusch a Baptist—who pursued advanced theological and economic studies in Europe. Both served as pastors in American churches before entering the academic world—Sumner in political economy at Yale and Rauschenbusch in theology at Rochester Theological Seminary. Yet with these shared backgrounds they diverged on the ethical questions of capitalism and became leaders of opposing philosophies—Sumner of Social Darwinism, Rauschenbusch of the Social Gospel movement.

Citing the "piles of rubbish" written to vilify businessmen, Sumner defends the wealthy in his 1883 What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Businessmen should be honored for the very American characteristics of initiative and practical courage that result in better lives for all—a benefit of "natural selection" applied to society. Natural law and the free marketplace will provide balance and fairness, not government. "We are a nation of backsliders," responds Walter Rauschenbusch, arguing that in the business age we have abandoned our dedication to equal rights and justice, announced in our Declaration of Independence. His 1912 Christianizing the Social Order illustrates the extent to which evangelical Protestant Christianity informed the era's critique of both capitalistic power and political corruption. A comparison of these texts illuminates the major ethical debate of this period. 10 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. Compare Sumner's and Rauschenbusch's explanations of human greed and business corruption. What does each man recommend to address these problems?
  2. How do the men differ on addressing poverty? on saving "the poor man"?
  3. For each man, what is government's primary role in addressing social and economic imbalances?
  4. According to Sumner, what realities of business growth are ignored by its critics? How are businessmen "heroic"?
  5. According to Rauschenbusch, what consequences of business life are ignored by its defenders? How does business maintain a "reign of fear"?
  6. How do Sumner and Rauschenbusch differ on the value of competition and cooperation in economic affairs? How do they judge them ethically?
  7. What connections does Rauschenbusch make among business, immigration, and political corruption?
  8. What criticism does Sumner direct at fellow clergymen?
  9. Compare the men's positions on capitalism and business with those of Carnegie, Pullman, and Rockefeller. What factors does each man consider central as he assesses the benefits and harms of business to American life?
  10. How would Sumner and Rauschenbusch respond to the muckraking articles of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens? Where might Sumner agree with the muckrakers? Where might Rauschenbusch agree with the business magnates?
  11. How would each man praise and critique the Omaha Platform?

» Link

Topic Framing Question
  •  How did Americans respond to the shifts in economic and political power that occurred during this period?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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Revised: May 2005