The story of American self-making in the antebellum era had been the story of the American dream: work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and free yourself from the bondage of the outmoded (and European) world of custom, convention, and class.
This narrative … involved not just an implicit morality but a whole metaphysical worldview. Human beings were supposed to self-make, fulfilling their fundamental purpose. And, no less important, the fulfillment of that purpose would somehow be rewarded in this life with material success.
By the late nineteenth century, the self-made man would no longer be understood merely as a virtuous, frugal citizen but rather a successful capitalist entrepreneur, someone who had figured out how to harness money and bend it to his will. He was, increasingly, a mogul or an entrepreneur. He might be a captain of industry like Andrew Carnegie (the steel magnate who was born in poverty in rural Scotland) or John D. Rockefeller (the billionaire oilman born to a New York lumberman). Or else he might have made his fortune – as did Rowland H. Macy, Alexander T. Stewart, and John Wanamaker – hawking luxury goods to the newly rich through increasingly popular department and dry-goods stores.
Money came to be understood as the natural goal of the self-maker, rather than a fortuitous side benefit of a more broadly virtuous life. Meanwhile, poverty came increasingly to be seen as the natural consequence of being a failed self-maker, a just punishment for a moral failing. Those who could not or would not achieve riches in this dizzying new economy were now understood as being responsible for their own sad fate. As one representative sermon from the era, preached by the New York pastor Henry Ward Beecher, put it, “No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault – unless it be his sin.”1
This linking of work and morality ultimately gave rise to another phenomenon: the reimagining of the wealth gap as a metaphysical reality, based on an eclectic mix of scientific and spiritual principles. Equal parts quack science and vague spirituality, a number of movements – the craze for social Darwinism, the birth of the self-help phenomenon known as New Thought – attempted to explain the era’s wealth inequality by understanding it as a natural consequence of the laws of nature, which were, at least in part, divinely ordained.
If the Enlightenment saw a disenchantment of custom – there was no metaphysical or divine reality to the traditional social order – then the American Gilded Age saw a version of custom’s rebirth, albeit in slightly modified form. The way your life turned out did, in fact, say something about your relationship with God, or providence, or nature, or whatever the source was of that mysterious and potentially magical energy that governed and animated human existence.
A capitalistic mirror image of the medieval worldview, the mythos of the Gilded Age self-made man held that the wealthy were, if not exactly chosen by God, then nevertheless more deserving of divine favor by virtue of their willingness to work hard and think positively. This spiritual power was increasingly understood not as a personal phenomenon – God picking certain geniuses as his chosen “bastards” – but rather as a resource to be mined. The power of self-making came to be portrayed as a kind of mysterious, unseen energy coursing through the world, which a clever and enterprising young man could learn how to harness and control.
An energy, in other words, that looked and sounded a lot like electricity itself.
When it came to the public imagination, at least, the line between scientific discovery and spiritual truth was easily blurred. Electricity – poorly understood, at least by average newspaper readers – was a source of both aesthetic and moral fascination. It was a pulsating power that had always flowed, invisibly, through human existence. In this triumphant era of technological discovery, men – clever, enterprising men like Thomas Edison – had now learned to use it for their own ends. “By means of electricity,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his 1851 novella The House of Seven Gables, “the world of matter has become a great nerve: vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time.”2 The memoirist Henry Adams, likewise, recalled in 1910 his youthful experience of encountering the electric dynamo, an experience he casts as a discomfiting religious awakening. He felt the dynamo, he tells us, “as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the cross.” Adams goes on: “The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned . . . daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length…. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”3 The electric dynamo was a literalization of human potential: ingenuity rendered into pulsating possibility. It was, for Adams, at once a “Mysterious Power!” and a “Gentle Friend,” a “Despotic Master!” and a “Tireless Force!”4
All across America, electricity began to be understood, metaphorically or literally, as synonymous with the fundamental energy underpinning human technological progress. When, for example, the Businessman’s Club of Evanston, Illinois, switched over to electric lighting in 1890, the organization staged a mammoth “pageant of progress,” a celebration of the power of the human spirit to harness nature. The event culminated in a dirge played for the old world (represented by the gas lamps that were gradually dimmed and then put out), followed by a buoyant march as the three hundred electric bulbs were switched on for the first time.5 Meanwhile, in New York City, one Broadway show, Excelsior, celebrated the Great White Way’s adoption of electric lighting by dramatizing the battle between darkness and light, that “strife betwixt knowledge and ignorance which has constantly attended the advance of civilization.”6 Similarly, at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, organizers staged a “Rainbow City” to celebrate the previous century’s technological progress. Attendees were encouraged to walk past the “Bridge of Triumph” and the “Fountain of Abundance” before arriving at the exhibition’s centerpiece: an enormous “Electric Tower,” topped by a gold statue of the “Goddess of Light,” a vision of electricity rendered literally divine.
This vision of human progress had, however, a shadow side. Almost invariably, celebrations of electricity featured ironic glimpses of those peoples the organizers felt lacked ingenuity. Non-white, non-Western peoples were used as props to signify the old, vanishing world order. The world, these celebrations insisted, was divided into two kinds of people: successful self-makers who had managed to achieve the liberal dream of technological mastery over nature, and those who remained in a childlike state of dependence. Self-cultivation, and cultivation of nature more broadly, were integral parts of becoming an enlightened human being.
This division was often portrayed in starkly racial terms. Just down the road from the Goddess of Light, the Rainbow City featured staged mockeries of Black Americans as well as non-white peoples more broadly. A troupe of 150 “Southern Darkies” performed “plantation song and dance,” while a “Moorish Palace” offered attendees the chance to glimpse scantily clad women gyrating to ostensibly “oriental” music. Even more explicit was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the “Court of Honor” – filled with buildings dedicated to electricity, agriculture, manufacture, and other examples of human power – was surrounded by exhibitions devoted to poking fun at perceived human savagery and the allegedly primitive cultures of Africans, Arabs, and Native Americans. “What an opportunity was here afforded to the scientific mind to descend the spiral of evolution,” crowed the Chicago Tribune with wonder, “tracing humanity in its highest phrases down to its almost animalistic origins.”7 The implication was clear. Learn to harness electricity, marshal technology, and be one of history’s doers or be left behind as a vestige of a savage past.
Meanwhile, scientifically dubious self-help books had started to use the language of science – including electricity and a related term, “magnetism” – to hawk products and methods they claimed could cure disease. Gershom Huff’s 1853 Electro-Physiology, for example, insisted that most illness derived from the fact that many Americans had lost their natural ruggedness and instead become “servile imitators” of European decadence.8 The cure, Huff insisted, was to properly balance the “electric fluid” – a mysterious “controlling force which imparts vigor to vitality” – in the body.9 Likewise, John Bovee Dods’s 1850 The Philosophy of Electrical Psychology argued that electricity was a kind of unifying force linking the spiritual and physical body. Dods posited an “electro-psychological state” in which men could be hypnotized by those who knew how to harness it.10
That’s not to say that most Gilded Age Americans literally thought of electricity as divine or magical per se. But electricity, among other technological and scientific developments, became part of a wider vocabulary for a worldview that linked civilizational progress, personal self-reliance – particularly when it came to wealth and poverty – and a nebulous sense of divine justice. The world just worked a certain way, ensuring that some people, deserving people, would always come out on top. The worldview of Gilded Age America was coherent: those who worked hardest would always succeed.
This wasn’t just a moral view. Rather, it was a scientific one. Or, to be even more precise, it was a view that blended science (and sometimes pseudoscience) and spirituality using vague but authoritative-sounding language about energy, magnetism, and life force to suggest that human life – and, indeed, the natural world more broadly – was governed by nebulous external forces that the mind could not just understand but harness. Looking within yourself and achieving success out there became even more closely intertwined. The success of this new, hybrid worldview was strengthened by the fact that, increasingly, America was moving away from traditional, Christian accounts of the world, God, and how the two worked together. While most Americans were still happy to call themselves Christian and even attend church, their worldview was as influenced, if not more so, by the latest scientific developments as by what they heard from the pulpit. And the message there, too, was changing. Throughout the nineteenth century, many Christian churches, particularly Protestant ones, were actively seeking to reconcile themselves to what they saw as modern scientific discovery. In Europe, academics like David Strauss and Albert Schweitzer were trying to uncover the “historical Jesus,” the presumably ordinary mortal man underneath layers of superstitious myth. In America, movements like Unitarianism actively sought to hold onto the perceived moral core of Christianity while doing away with its most discomfiting supernatural claims. Pastors like William Ellery Channing… and Henry Ward Beecher used their sermons to argue for a synthesis of traditional Christianity and new, progressive ideas about the human spirit.
As Henry Adams recalled in his memoirs, what “puzzled” him most seriously about the Gilded Age was the “disappearance of religion.”11 During the late nineteenth century, Adams recalled, “the religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived. . . . [That] the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions . . . should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future seemed . . . the most curious social phenomenon.”12
But, as Adams himself recalled, that didn’t mean that Gilded Age Americans weren’t interested in the questions of religious life: What was it all for? What did it mean? What might be out there or, rather, in here, the energies coursing through human society as well as through the natural world? New scientific discoveries, often reshaped through spiritualized language, became mechanisms for thinking and talking about the inchoate forces governing human life.
Among the most prominent of these new discoveries were the theories of animal evolution promulgated by Charles Darwin. Published in England in 1859, Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species had not just heralded a revolution in the scientific understanding of how certain species came to evolve into other species. It had also, against Darwin’s own wishes, heralded a revolution in how the human experience itself was understood: as a constant, triumphant march toward progress and perfection that inevitably left unworthy inferiors in the dust. “The survival of the fittest” – a phrase absent from the original On the Origin of Species (although Darwin himself would ultimately come to use it) – became the lens through which to understand all human life.
For English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the phrase, the survival of the fittest wasn’t just a scientific fact about animal evolution. It was also, more pressingly, an immutable law about human societies. Spencer was the father of the set of theories known as social Darwinism, a rather simplistic understanding of Darwinian evolution that held, essentially, that all of human life was in competition for scarce resources. Those more capable of amassing wealth – and defeating their fellow man in the process – would live to pass on their genes to their ever more successful children. This was ultimately part of a wider arc of history that would end in humans evolving into their optimal selves. “Evolution,” Spencer insisted, “can end only in the establishment of the greatest perfection and the most complete happiness.”13
That “happiness” Spencer envisioned, however, wasn’t for everybody. He had nothing but contempt for those he saw as unfit: nature’s rejects, who were either too sick or too stupid or too lazy to attain the success he saw as the powerful man’s due. Ultimately, Spencer predicted, the poor would die out – whether of illness or malnutrition or crime, he didn’t much care – clearing the way for their genetically superior successors. “The whole effort of nature,” Spencer wrote, was to “get rid of” the poor, “to clear the world of them and make room for better.”14 Some social progressives of the Victorian era, conscious of the wealth gap that marked nineteenth-century London, advocated for social reform to ameliorate the wretched conditions of the poor. But Spencer rejected such calls as not only unnecessary but actively wicked, an attempt to stem the tide of natural law itself. To keep the poor or sick alive, Spencer insisted, was to keep humanity in an artificial state of inferiority. Rather, “if they are sufficiently complete to live . . . it is well that they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”15
Spencer’s view of the world was both scientific (or at least pseudoscientific) and spiritual. His understanding of the divine – he referred to it by the elliptical phrase “the Unknowable” – was certainly not orthodox, but it nevertheless gave a kind of moral valence to the natural order whose principles he so vigorously upheld. If the laws of nature declared survival of the fittest to be the fundamental human condition, then it was morally wrong to interfere. Whatever morality or rightness there existed in the world had to rest in allowing the plan of nature, or the Unknowable, to unfold. This plan, in Spencer’s understanding, would culminate in humanity reaching its fullest potential. There was no contrast between “nature” and “civilization,” such as we find in, say, the Enlightenment accounts of Locke or Rousseau. Rather, nature and civilization were one and the same. Human social life derived directly from natural law.
Here we find a somewhat curious reimagining of the medieval view of the role of custom in the social hierarchy. Our Enlightenment authors had rejected custom entirely, and with it the idea that there was anything natural or fixed about one’s social position. But the social Darwinists, and the prophets of Gilded Age capitalism more broadly, renewed the link between the law of nature (a concept that occupied an uneasy middle ground between the explicitly theological “natural law” of Thomas Aquinas and scientific descriptivism) and human social outcomes. There was something running through human life that ensured that the deserving and hardworking achieved economic success and the lazy and indolent remained in poverty. That something, furthermore, had a moral and eschatological purpose: a progressive vision of human life in which each individual was just a link in a much longer chain. Spencer likens civilization to “the development of an embryo or the unfolding of the flower.” It is, in other words, something that has a purpose.
Spencer’s theories were already popular in England. Between the 1860s and the early twentieth century, his books would sell nearly four hundred thousand copies.16 “Probably no other philosopher,” one contemporary remarked, “ever had such a vogue as Spencer had from about 1870 to 1890.”17 Even Darwin himself was astonished – and more than a little horrified – by the public reaction to Spencer’s interpretation of his work. Darwin ironically remarked on how he’d seen in one Manchester newspaper an article “showing that I have proved ‘might is right’ and therefore that Napoleon is right and every cheating tradesman is also right.”18
American writers soon took up the drumbeat of social Darwinism, seeing in it a handy way of explaining away Gilded Age social inequality. Among the most influential of these advocates was William Graham Sumner, a Yale political scientist whose 1881 essay “Sociology” used the idea of social Darwinism in support of unfettered, dog-eat-dog capitalism. Economic competition – no less than the competition for food or water or territory among nonhuman creatures – was one of the ways that nature selected for the fittest. The only moral law, Sumner went on to say, was the law of harnessing nature itself, pursuing evolutionary self-interest to its natural conclusion. He rejected the idea that nature demanded any moral quality from human beings other than hard work. Instead, Sumner insisted – in language that echoed Machiavelli’s sexually charged account more than three hundred years earlier – “nature is entirely neutral. She submits to him who most energetically and resolutely assails her. Nature could be harnessed and was malleable. She grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.”19
Those rewards? Cold, hard cash. Money, for Sumner, was the divine energy of the universe converted into clearly quantifiable capital. “Millionaires,” Sumner elsewhere insisted, “are a product of natural selection.” Any kind of aid to the poor, conversely, was an unnatural “survival of the unfittest.”20 Not only was it ethical to seek personal enrichment, Sumner argued, but it was necessary. Amassing money was how you knew you were in sync with natural law in the first place. “It would not be amiss,” Sumner reflected, for children to hear “a sermon once in a while to reassure them, setting forth that it is not wicked to be rich, nay even, that it is not wicked to be richer than your neighbor.”21
Sumner was not the only figure to meld religious doctrine and a new fascination with the magic of wealth. Henry Ward Beecher, a devotee of Spencer, preached social Darwinism from his Sunday pulpit, insisting that, in essence, God wanted people to be rich. Not that Beecher was that concerned with the exact dictates of God or the Bible. He saw himself, as many preachers did, as a liberalizing, modernizing force, someone for whom, as he told his congregation at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church, “the cords are not so tight” as they once were.22 His Christianity was not the staid, backward-looking, conservative Christianity of an outmoded era, which he, like his Enlightenment forebears, derided as mere “superstition.” Rather, “intelligent religion” could, he argued, accommodate this new theory of evolution, and with it this new vision of human perfectibility: the slow arc of history from “matter organic and animal,” to matter “moral, intellectual, and civic,” and finally “to communion with and unity with God himself.”23 All of creation was tending toward its final fulfillment. Darwinism, of the animal and social variety alike, was surely the work of a “benevolent intelligence . . . drawing up from the crude towards the ripe, from the rough towards the smooth, from bad to good, and from good through better to best.”24 Humankind was only getting better, so long as you didn’t worry too much about those human beings progress had left behind.
Beecher also made literal an often implicit element of this new scientific-spiritual language of hard work and individual prosperity. The world’s divine energy – the current of intellectual electricity, the powerful law of nature – was accessed not by looking outward to a God in the heavens, but inward into the self. Knowledge of God or the divine was not to be found in scripture, or by listening to a pastor, or by following a set of external rules. These were, after all, easily dispensable forms of custom. Rather, divine truth could be found by examining the self. Echoing earlier theorists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Beecher insisted that “we cannot understand God by mere enunciation,” simply repeating knowledge that comes to us from outside. Instead, “the elemental qualities of the divine disposition must be evolved in us first, and the application to the divine nature is gradually unfolded to us afterwards.”25
It is impossible to overstate the role of this inward turn in the story of self-making. Not only the truest parts of the self but also the most divine could be accessed by looking inside oneself, rather than relying upon the customs or dictates of the outside world. The same law of nature that demanded the survival of the fittest could be harnessed by following one’s own deepest instincts, especially those toward personal fulfillment and self-enrichment. The pursuit of money in the capitalist system was a kind of holy act, a form of self-expression by which those who hoped to claim the title of nature’s fittest could most completely express their humanity. What it meant to be human, in other words, was to hustle. Our hustling instinct, furthermore, was the evidence of divine energy in us.
The moral element of democratic self-making… here reached its apotheosis: you are morally required to enrich yourself, at any cost.
For their part, millionaires were happy to take this new religion of prosperity as, well, gospel. Plenty of the Gilded Age’s robber barons spoke glowingly of this modern revelation. John D. Rockefeller, at one time the country’s richest man, was also a regular churchgoer and Sunday school teacher at the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church, where he frequently sought to justify his own wealth on religious grounds. In one Sunday school address, Rockefeller summarily informed his young and impressionable listeners that “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest” and thus a fully appropriate subject to discuss before church. The Christian squeamishness about the less fortunate had to be squashed. After all, he insisted, “the American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.” This wasn’t, he hastened to add, an “evil tendency” but rather “the working out of a law of Nature and a law of God.”26
Likewise, another of the Gilded Age’s most successful self-made men, Andrew Carnegie, understood his dizzying wealth as the justified reward of following natural law. In his autobiography, Carnegie describes the first time he read Herbert Spencer on social Darwinism in language that sounds uncannily like a religious conversion. “Light came in as a flood,” Carnegie recalled, “and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I have found the truth of evolution.” That truth was that human beings like Carnegie were supposed to be rich. “Man was not created with an instinct for his own degradation,” Carnegie rhapsodized, “nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection. His face is turned towards the light.”27
Source: Tara Isabella Burton, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, (PublicAffairs, June 2023), 90–101. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
- Quoted in Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Knopf, 2021), 228.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1851), 283.
- Henry Adams, Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 380.
- Henry Adams, A Henry Adams Reader (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 341.
- Ernest Freeberg, The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (New York: Penguin, 2013), ebook.
- Quoted in Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
- Gershom Huff, Electro-Physiology (New York: D. Appleton, 1853), iv.
- Ibid., 412.
- John Bovee Dods, The Philosophy of Electrical Psychology: In a Course of Twelve Lectures (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1850), 209.
- Adams, Education, 34.
- Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 24.
- Herbert Spencer, Herbert Spencer: Collected Writings (London: Routledge, 2021), 5.
- Igor Semenovich Kon, A History of Classical Sociology (Moscow: Progress Pub- lishers, 1989), 54.
- Quoted in Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, 21.
- Quoted in Geoffrey Russell Searle, Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 100.
- William Graham Sumner, “The Challenge of Facts,” in Philosophy After Dar- win: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Michael Ruse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 116.
- Quoted in Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, 44.
- Sumner, “The Challenge of Facts,” 117.
- Henry Ward Beecher, Beecher: Christian Philosopher, Pulpit Orator, Patriot and Philanthropist (Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1887), 194.
- Henry Ward Beecher, Evolution and Religion (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1885), 97.
- Ibid., 296.
- Ibid., 26.
- Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, 31.
- Andrew Carnegie, Autobiography (Frankfurt: Outlook Verlag, 2018), 266.