“One At A Time"

November 11, 1882

Thomas Nast

“One At A Time"

Anglo-American Relations; Colonialism/Imperialism; Symbols, John Bull; U.S. Tours by Foreign Dignitaries;

Spencer, Herbert;

Great Britain; India; Ireland;

When Uncle Sam is old enough to grumble, John Bull will be past grumbling.

Herbert Spencer, whose remarks are the basis for this cartoon, was one of the most well-known and influential public intellectuals in both his native Britain and the United States during the late-nineteenth century. He readily adapted Charles Darwin’s biological treatise, Origin of the Species (1859), to his own evolutionary view of human society to promote a philosophy sometimes labeled “Social Darwinism.”  Applying the notion of the “survival of the fittest” (a phrase he coined) to human societies, Spencer stated, “If they [societies] are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live.  If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”  

This cartoon reacts to an observation Spencer made during his speaking tour of the United States in 1882.  Spencer had a generally favorable impression of the United States, praising its industrial might and befriending Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American steel magnate.  Cartoonist Nast, though, inverts one comparison in which Spencer alleged that Americans tended not to complain about situations about which the British were known to grumble.  To Nast, the British should be complaining about their government’s continued control of Ireland and India.  While the contemporary John Bull is shown angrily denouncing some slight in the foreground, the poster in the background presents an older and gout-ridden John Bull still served by Irish and Indian servants.

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby, England, in 1820, into a family of nonconformists who resisted organized religious, political, and social authority.  The young man’s education was informal and highly individualized, emphasizing independence of thought.  His course of study consisted primarily of reading various books and essays of his own preference, which leaned heavily toward the natural sciences.  He turned down an opportunity to matriculate at Cambridge University.  Instead, he trained as a railroad engineer, and then worked for the London and Birmingham Railway.

In 1842, Spencer contributed a series of letters to The Nonconformist in which he argued that government actions should be limited to upholding natural rights.  The writings were collected and published the next year as a pamphlet, The Proper Sphere of Government.  Thereafter, he worked briefly for The Zoist, a phrenological journal, and The Pilot, which advocated universal suffrage, before becoming a contributor and sub-editor for The Economist (1848-1853).  In his first book, Social Statics (1851), Spencer presented a progressive model of the changes in human society over time in which he asserted and defended the emergence of liberty and individualism as the natural culmination of societal evolution.  In 1853, an inheritance from his uncle allowed Spencer to devote the rest of his life to study and writing without need for steady employment.

In 1855, Spencer published The Principles of Psychology, and then, despite a schedule limited by poor health, began work on what became a nine-volume opus, A System of Synthetic Philosophy (1862-1893), which discussed his views on society, government, biology, and morality.  Another major project collected statistical information about different societies, and was published in 19 segments as Descriptive Sociology (1873-1934), which established him as the father of comparative sociology.  Other major works include, Education:  Intellectual, Moral, Physical (1861), The Man Versus the State (1884), The Nature and Reality of Religion (completed in 1885, but published posthumously), and Facts and Comments (1902).

Despite his emphasis on individualism, Spencer, like many nineteenth-century thinkers, considered society to be an organic whole, with a life that progressively evolved over time to a higher, more complex form.  Unlike Karl Marx who thought capitalism would naturally (if violently) give way to socialism, Spencer assumed that from a stage of socialism and war would emerge a free society with a free-market economy.  He believed that older societies were comprised of undifferentiated masses of people who were compelled to cooperate by authoritarian force (often military), while future societies would be populated by more distinctly individual personalities and spontaneous, voluntary, and peaceful cooperation.  Therefore, he considered any government interference in the marketplace to be an impediment to society’s natural evolution (or, progress) toward that more perfect civilization. 

Spencer’s ideas had a wide-ranging impact on intellectuals as diverse as William Graham Sumner, the American advocate of laissez-faire economics, and Beatrice Potter Webb, the English democratic socialist.  His Principles of Biology was used as a textbook at Oxford University, and Professor William James assigned Spencer’s Principles of Psychology to his students at Harvard.  After receiving many accolades in his later years, including nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature, Herbert Spencer died in 1903.

Robert C. Kennedy

“One At A Time"
June 17, 2024

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