The United States in the 1870s and ’80s was deep in turmoil–a brash young nation torn by a great depression, mired in scandal and corruption, rocked by crises in government, violently conflicted over science and race, and fired up by spiritual and sexual upheavals. Secularism was rising, most notably in academia. Evolution–and its catchphrase, “survival of the fittest”–animated and guided this Gilded Age.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection was extended to society and morals not by Darwin himself but by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, father of “the Law of Equal Freedom,” which holds that “every man is free to do that which he wills,” provided it doesn’t infringe on the equal freedom of others. As this justification took root as a social, economic, and ethical doctrine, Spencer won numerous influential American disciples and allies, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, and political reformer Carl Schurz. Churches, campuses, and newspapers convulsed with debate over the proper role of government in regulating Americans’ behavior, this country’s place among nations, and, most explosively, the question of God’s existence.
In late 1882, most of the main figures who brought about and popularized these developments gathered at Delmonico’s, New York’s most venerable restaurant, in an exclusive farewell dinner to honor Spencer and to toast the social applications of the theory of evolution. It was a historic celebration from which the repercussions still ripple throughout our society.
Banquet at Delmonico’s is social history at its finest, richest, and most appetizing, a brilliant narrative bristling with personal intrigue, tantalizing insights, and greater truths about American life and culture.
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NOVEMBER 8, 1882
The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools.
AFTER NEARLY THREE MONTHS in America, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer arose alone in his room at the Windsor Hotel in a fitful state. Always an intolerably poor sleeper, he dragged himself to the mirror, exhausted and out of sorts. Gaunt and angular, Spencer wore thick side-whiskers, his massive overarching crown was all but bald, and light locks of gray hair enswirled his ears. He guarded his time and privacy as if his life depended on it, yet pressures now intruded from all sides. All he hoped was to survive the next few days of crippling social obligations and board the White Star steamship Germanic for the voyage home. The whole expedition, he believed, had been unwise, a grievous blunder—“another step downwards1 towards invalid life” he should not have undertaken.
Little had gone right from the beginning, despite exaggerated efforts by his friends to shield him, at age sixty-two, from the public clamor generated by his first American visit. Here, unlike in Britain, Spencer was the most celebrated thinker of the day2; many of the most influential men in politics, law, industry, scholarship, and religion revered him and exalted his social and scientific doctrines. Probably no other man of ideas had ever enjoyed such a vogue. But Spencer had seldom felt weaker or less sure of himself. Since to say no was impossible, he had agreed to the unavoidable necessity of a farewell dinner in his honor. “The prospect before me3 was sufficiently alarming,” he would recall. “An occasion on which perhaps more than any other in my life I ought to have been in good condition, bodily and mental, came when I was in a condition worse than I had been in six-and-twenty years.”
Spencer had booked the trip in January after much hesitation, yielding to the mild but persistent urging of his irreplaceable friend and promoter, the American publisher Edward Livingston Youmans. Spencer took great pains never to do more than he ought to, while Youmans never ceased doing more than he should, immolating himself in work on Spencer’s behalf. Six months earlier, Spencer hinted in a letter that he was entertaining the thought of a visit, and Youmans at once took up the cause of selling him on the idea. “Our fifty million people4 will soon be a hundred million,” he replied, “and they are developing a continent at a rate which must be seen to be understood.” Anticipating Spencer’s need for rest and distraction, Youmans sought to tempt him further by offering to arrange a salmon fishing trip to Canada. Spencer declined, having heard that the place was infested with flies and mosquitoes. “I like to take my pleasure neat5,” he wrote back. “If the drawbacks are considerable, I would rather not have it at all.”
Spencer had likewise turned down a lucrative lecture tour. “I absolutely decline to make myself a show6,” he explained adamantly.
“What I do while with you I mean to make entirely subordinate to relaxation and amusement; and I shall resist positively anything which in any considerable way entails on me responsibilities or considerable excitements. I suppose you have long ago discovered that I have a faculty of saying No, and that when I say No I mean No.
“Foreign notables, especially those from mother England, could anticipate major crowds and front page headlines across America, but Youmans knew Spencer too well to allow him to be run after by the public and the press. For months, newspapers heralded his visit, even as they dampened expectations. “Being one of the great thinkers7 of the day,” The Washington Post warned, “he comes here not to exhibit himself [and] he is not available for tea parties… . We must remember that he will not only see us, but see through us.” Such forbidding obstinacy had its rewards: Spencer would see America on his own terms or not at all—yet only, it would turn out, at the price of yielding to Youmans’s suggestion in a subsequent letter that he submit to a public dinner with at least some of those who hungered to see him. “To decline,” he wrote Youmans in June, two months before setting out on the Cunarder Servia from Liverpool, “would be awkward.”
Now in his room at the Windsor, Spencer cursed his decision to agree to the banquet: “Would that my boasted ability9 to say ‘No’ had been more fully justified!” Almost from the start, he had suffered the wear, tear, and aggravations of travel. Spencer prided himself, and was known, as an obsessively critical thinker: the class of Americans who considered him one of the great men and giant intellects of history—an Aristotle, a Newton—thought that his genius stemmed precisely from this thorough, exacting, and unconventional turn of mind. But when he arranged passage he had accepted the common wisdom that berths were best amidships because the pitching motion was least there, only to discover on retiring for the night—an elaborate ritual, according to a friend, in which he soaked his head with brine, covered his wet hair with a flannel nightcap, then donned a waterproof cap to keep the moisture from evaporating—the shrieks of the Servia’s fog whistle just overhead. “A horrible night from the noises,” he wrote in his diary. When Youmans came on board off Staten Island to greet him, he found Spencer “in so low a nervous state10 that the excitement of ordinary conversation was too much for him.”
Youmans managed to dodge several reporters in transporting Spencer to his residence on West Sixteenth Street, but Spencer dared not expose himself to the expectations of being a houseguest, and he and his companion, a lifelong friend named Edward Lott, quietly checked in to a hotel. “Am astonished by the grandeur of New York,” he noted in his diary, commenting that London had nothing to compare with Fifth Avenue. He originally hoped to travel as far west as Chicago, swinging up through the Adirondacks, Niagara Falls, Montreal, and the Great Lakes before looping back through Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and on through New York to New England. After taking a steamer up the Hudson, he tried briefly to go incognito, ducking into one hotel as “Mr. Edward Lott and friend” until the host and some of the guests recognized him and he had to abandon the ruse as useless. In Saratoga, Youmans arranged for him to stay at the fifteen-hundred-room United States Hotel, said to be the largest in the world, but the dining room was so vast and multitudinous that the opulence was lost on him.
Spencer, who had found himself alternately bored and distressed at sea, soon discovered overland travel, even in the more domesticated regions of the wide-open continent, equally challenging to his shattered nerves. And so less than three weeks into his tour, he forswore the grueling train ride to Chicago and reluctantly opted to see Cleveland and Pittsburgh instead. The latter boasted of being the smokiest town in the world, but on the Servia’s tender at Liverpool, he’d been handed a letter of introduction by a fellow passenger, the financier and industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose iron and steel mills there had made him a millionaire. Spencer normally avoided talking with people he didn’t know and resisted conventional niceties on principle. But he dined throughout the voyage with Carnegie, who more than any other American businessman advertised Spencer’s creed of unfettered competition and individualism and who revered Spencer as a prophet, and he now accepted Carnegie’s offer to tour his works and travel with him by private rail coach to his summer cottage in the Alleghenies. “The repulsiveness of Pittsburgh,” he explained, “led me to break through my resolution always to stop at an hotel.”
In Washington, he toured the White House. To his relief, President Chester Arthur was at home in New York, where he spent more time than he did in the nation’s capital. In Baltimore, he reflected on the startled reaction of the hotel staff—“negro and half-caste”—to his grumbling assertiveness against their peremptory authority. “Avoidance of draught12, attainment of light, or other reason, often led me to reject the choice made for me, where no claims of other guests were in question,” he wrote. “Evidently the waiters were unused to this: for Americans commonly make no demurs either to the bedrooms assigned to them by the clerk at the bureau, or the tables they are motioned to by the head waiter.” In Philadelphia, where six years earlier the nation had celebrated its centennial with a triumphal display of industry and technology, he marveled at the vast Baldwin engine works, where a complete locomotive engine was turned out each day.
Reporters tailed him in every city13 he visited, clamoring for interviews. Lott rebuffed them, explaining that Spencer was too unwell to submit to questions; and so they derived what details they could from railway agents, porters, hotel clerks, and Spencer’s hosts. One paper reported that he subsisted entirely on dry toast and sardines; another that he toted around a bag of hops that he put under his pillow as a soporific. As reports spread that his health was so poor and his irritation at traveling so great that he had curtailed his itinerary and was considering an early return to England, a few publications speculated that his disappointment would cause him to blame the bustle of American life. Most Eastern papers were sympathetic, remarking on his eminence and accomplishments, but in the South and West a few played up his insomnia, demanding habits, and disagreeable nature—even his bachelorhood. “The great Spencer, now in America, is unmarried,” the New Orleans Picayune commented. “It is to be hoped that Mr. Spencer’s ice cream bills while he is with us will not frighten him away from the girls.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch advised him to go west, to cure his dyspepsia and “find out what America was really like.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is essentially a history of the spread of the idea of natural selection in social and political theory in the decade 1872 - 1882, culminating with a banquet given at Delmonico's in New York in honor of the visiting British scientist Herbert Spencer, and attended by great scientists, academics, capitalists, and political leaders of the era. The book is structured chronologically, jumping back and forth between six or seven main stories as they unfold over the decade: Spencer's relationship with his American publicist; Darwin's last years; Beecher's ups and downs as America's most prominent religious leader; Carl Schurz and reform politics; Andrew Carnegie's rise as a steel magnate; and the promotion of evolution and social darwinism by academics at Harvard and Yale. The biggest problem is that these stories have only limited points of intersection; the banquet at Delmonico's is one of the few, and isn't particularly dramatic. With this many threads, none is narrated in great depth, which is probably fine, since the book relies heavily on secondary sources that cover each story in greater detail. Overall, it was an interesting read -- helpful for getting a sense of the chronology -- and a good jumping off point for more in-depth reading about the most interesting figures, like Carnegie and Schurz.
Connecting Darwin to social DarwinismDarwinian theories of natural selection and evolution have been used (and misused) to explain just about everything. Charles Darwin himself never intended it so, the naturalist was a biologist and his theories were meant to be applied apolitically, amorally. But the idea of evolution, positivism, was just too irresistibly easy to be applied to social, political, and economic contexts.In Barry Werth's new book, he traces the emergence of "social Darwinism" in America through the central characters of Herbert Spencer, Henry Ward Beecher, and Andrew Carnegie. Werth shows how Darwin's theories were institutionalized within every aspect of American society because it comfortably fit witin the context of the Gilded era but also because it conveniently supplied an ideology which explained American foundational principles of republicanism, Protestantism, and post-reconstruction Jim Crow.If there is a criticism of the book, it is the excessive biographical information on Ward and Carnegie, which results in a bloated narrative. Otherwise, Werth's analysis is spot on and he uses plenty of great secondary sources to support his arguments.Overall, a great read. Werth's book helps to connect the dots between Darwin and the philosophy of social Darwinism.