William Graham Sumner is the "forgotten man" of American intellectual history. Too often dismissed or only superficially understood, his interpretations are now attracting closer scrutiny and appreciation. He is remembered chiefly as one of the founding fathers of sociology. He was also a strong supporter of classical liberalism during a time when liberalism was being transformed into a belief in statism. Sumner's analysis of the relation between the individual and society is deeper and more sophisticated than is commonly thought. For students of American history and politics, the essays reveal the complexity of American political and social thought. For observers of the contemporary social scene, they raise issues concerning the relation of liberty to property and both to government that remain as vital and unresolved as they were a century ago.
“This definition of liberty or civil liberty, you see, deals only with concrete and actual relations of the civil order. There is some sort of a poetical and metaphysical notion of liberty afloat in men's minds which some people dream about but which nobody can define. In popular language it means that a man may do as he has a mind to. When people get this notion of liberty into their heads and combine with it the notion that they live in a free country and ought to have liberty, they sometimes make strange demands upon the state. If liberty means to be able to do as you have a mind to, there is no such thing in this world. Can the Czar of Russia do as he has a mind to? Can the Pope do as he has a mind to? Can the President of the United States do as he has a mind to? Can Rothschild do as he has a mind to? Could a Humboldt or a Faraday do as he had a mind to? Could a Shakespeare or a Raphael do as he had a mind to? Can a tramp do as he has a mind to? Where is the man, whatever his station, possessions, or talents, who can get any such liberty? There is none. There is a doctrine floating about in our literature that we are born to the inheritance of certain rights. That is another glorious dream, for it would mean that there was something in this world which we got for nothing. But what is the truth?”
William Graham Sumner
William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was one of the founding father’s of American sociology. Although he trained as an Episcopalian clergyman, Sumner went on to teach at Yale University where he wrote his most influential works. His interests included money and tariff policy, critiques of socialism, social classes, and anti-imperialism.