Liberty Matters

William Graham Sumner as Historian

One interesting and salient feature of the discussion so far is the vast amount of evidence presented that his reputation has suffered unjustly in historical estimation. This is true of both the social Darwinism slur that Matt Zwolinski noted in his opening essay, and in the larger pattern of neglect we have seen around Sumner's distinctive humane dimensions: his harsh opposition to imperialism and war, his crusade against corruption and cronyism, and his contributions to a classical-liberal theory of class that sought to root out the beneficiaries of undue and unjust government privileges. A remarkable feature of Sumner's poor reputation today is that some of its main culprits are historians, and particularly intellectual historians.
While Hofstadter's mischaracterizations of Sumner's intellectual history have been pinpointed as a primary source of this problem, I wanted to raise a related dimension in noting that one of the many intellectual hats that Sumner himself wore was that of intellectual historian. Some of his least-known works in the present day fell in this genre, although they once ranked among his most familiar contributions. As David Hart's response above notes, Sumner's writings on economic history served as an important vehicle for conveying economic logic as well. To this end he wrote substantial historical works on banking, on currency, and on the financial dimensions of the American revolution. He also took a historical approach to his favorite topic of free trade, publishing a collection of five Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States.[69] These lessons used the historical progression of the tariff system from the founding era through his own time to essentially teach the economics of trade and taxation.
In several instances, profound economic insights may be found lurking amidst what is ostensibly a historical account. The 1883 text, for example, reveals one such lesson in its discussion of tariff history. Calling upon Adam Smith's maxims of taxation and adding his own eye for analytical observation, Sumner actually developed an early precursor to the Laffer Curve within the tariff system. "Protective tariffs are hostile to revenue," he noted, on account of their purpose of preventing importations. "The moment, however, that a tax begins to have this effect it prevents revenue. Hence where protection begins, there revenue ends."[70] Building on this principle, he proceeded to dissect the historical progression and purposes of American tariff statutes. His discussion of the tensions between tariff's two objectives – revenue and protective rents – both anticipates modern public-choice theory and contains a more sophisticated understanding of the tariff's operations than many modern historical works on the same subject.
Another closely related foray into historical scholarship may be found in Sumner's critical biography of Alexander Hamilton, published in 1890.[71] It was written at a time that Hamilton scholarship was mired in a mixture of founding father hagiography and political appropriation to bolster the issues of the day. One of the leading Hamilton "scholars" at the turn of the century was the arch-protectionist Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Lodge made a frequent habit of enlisting his subject matter's authority to his own legislative agenda, presenting it as a uniquely American contribution to political economy and borrowing heavily upon Hamilton's legacy to differentiate his protectionist project from both the poor repute of the mercantilists of old and the imperial designs of European protectionist contemporaries – primarily in the emerging Bismarckian state of Germany.
Sumner subjected Hamilton's record to thoroughgoing scrutiny. He easily dispelled the claimed novelty and originality of the Hamiltonian system, finding traces of low-grade protectionist reasoning on trade in the earliest stages of Hamilton's political career. Sumner specifically rebutted the notion that Hamilton's famous Report on Manufactures was a work of deep theory and original economic insight. As he showed using first Treasury secretary's own earlier statements, Hamilton "was completely befogged in the mists of mercantilism," his works consisting of the recycled "doctrines of the first quarter of the eighteenth century." Despite this proclivity, Hamilton's own tariffs were not quite the system that Lodge and other turn-of-the-century Hamiltonians claimed.[72] Since they were rooted in a larger comprehensive revenue system, Hamilton's tariffs were "hostile to any extravagant rates" achieved at the neglect of excises and other mechanisms. In this sense, they stood at odds with the aggressively protectionist schedules of the McKinley Tariff in Sumner's own time – a veritable rent-seeking extravaganza of preferential rates to any and every American industry that was willing to pay for the privilege from the government.
In each case, Sumner tapped a detailed and often meticulous recounting of historical events to interpret the contemporary lay of the political land. His work on Hamilton, for example, also probes into the problems of empire and military expansionism – both of which found their roots in Hamilton's own proclivities for military buildup as happened during the Quasi-War and, at times, Hamilton's own fantastical visions of an American empire stretching southward to the Caribbean and Latin America. History thus became a prominent vehicle for Sumner to develop and reinforce his own arguments on militarism, trade and currency policies, and the financial habits of the U.S. government in his own time.
[69.] Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States: delivered before the International Free-Trade Alliance (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1883).
[70.] Ibid., 4.
[71.] Alexander Hamilton (New York: Dodd Mead, 1890).
[72.] Ibid., 180