June 18, 2024

One of the main fronts in the current culture war in the United States is the debate over “masculinity.” Certain corners of the Left tell us that “toxic masculinity” is a terrible thing. Yet, it’s often unclear whether masculinity is itself necessarily toxic, or if toxic masculinity is just one type of masculinity. How masculinity is defined is essential to the debate, and every pundit wants to define it his or her own way. Thus, David French, in his May 28 column for The New York Times, explains that conservatives are “all wrong about masculinity” largely because they employ a faulty definition of it. Meanwhile, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has published an entire book about “manhood” and “the masculine virtues,” supplying his own definitions. For its part, the American Psychological Association tells us that “traditional masculinity” is “marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression” and is “on the whole, harmful.”

While this disagreement over what constitutes masculinity may seem unique to the “woke” wars of the twenty-first century, it turns out this lack of general agreement over what constitutes masculine virtue is not new. Historically, one’s view of masculinity was formed by one’s views of war, the family, the state, and the economy. A society that views military adventures as the most virtuous form of service to society is likely to have a very different view of masculinity than a society that views family, peace, and wealth as the most important building blocks of civilization. Religion matters, too. A first-century Christian defined masculine virtue in a way that was profoundly different from that a Greek pagan. 

Not surprisingly, then, we find that social theorists and ideologues of the nineteenth century often fought over what constituted the masculine virtues. As bourgeois, capitalist, industrial civilization spread, its proponents—known as liberals or “classical liberals”—spread their own notions of virtue that were often at odds with older pre-industrial and agrarian ideals. 

By the late nineteenth century, the battle lines were being drawn: some argued that masculinity was still defined by hunting, feats of physical strength, and military “service.” This point of view was pushed by men like Theodore Roosevelt and those who romanticized the western frontier, such as Owen Wister, author of the highly influential novel, The Virginian. By this philosophy, the only way to become a “real man” was to spend time away from “civilization” on the frontier, shooting at bison or at members of the indigenous population. This “West Cure,” as it was known, would supposedly cure men of their more effete habits learned in domestic settings of the cities and towns.1 

On the other side of the debate were often liberals who rejected these more traditionalistic notions of masculinity, and instead suggested that true manhood was learned from practicing bourgeois virtues such as prudence, thrift, and devotion to family life.  At the forefront of this debate was laissez-faire liberal William Graham Sumner. Sumner doubted that manliness was to be learned through rural dilettantism when real civilization was being built up by the men who were doing the hard work of managing businesses, saving money, supporting families, and educating children. 

Sumner’s View of the “Industrial Virtues”

Sumner is today perhaps most closely associated with the idea of “social Darwinism.” This label, as David Gordon points out, is a smear employed by enemies of Sumner and his brand of bourgeois and capitalistic liberalism. Sumner is smeared in this way as part of an effort to portray supporters of market freedom as soulless and indifferent to the fate of those who lose out in an allegedly ruthless system that is geared only toward the “survival of the fittest.” In truth, Sumner was an enthusiastic supporter of mutual aid, family devotion, and voluntary cooperation. He simply opposed state planning in these areas. Moreover, according to historian Bruce Curtis, Sumner was fundamentally a Victorian who subscribed to the “late-Victorian ideal” of the “family as a center of love, a retreat from the world’s harsh struggles.”  This view also informed Sumner’s views of the family’s role within an industrial capitalistic society that Sumner believed could be harnessed to greatly improve the human condition. 

Taken all together, this meant that the ideal man—rather than running off to the frontier to indulge primitivist fantasies about the great outdoors—would best learn virtue through service to the family via skills that increased prosperity and security within a modern economy. Curtis summarizes Sumner’s thought:

As both a private and public man, Sumner exhibited a range of personality traits that reduce to disciplined self-control and masculinity. … That emphasis has been recognized in the ethic of a rising middle-capitalist class, which, out of a sense of moral duty and the recognition that such a course led to success and respectability, idealized delayed gratification in both economic and sexual matters and attempted to follow a rationalized life pattern within the framework established by private property capitalism and the private, monogamous, urban family.2

In the nineteenth century, this required something of a new model for manhood, and a disregard for what many traditionalists still regarded as the most manly virtues found in militaristic pursuits. Sumner was not alone in seeing this juxtaposition between two sets of values. Curtis continues:

Sumner accepted a nineteenth century distinction between “militarism” and “industrialism.” Militarism encouraged atavistic social tendencies—war and imperialism; hierarchical class structures; monarchical, absolutistic governments; romantic, chivalric, glory-ridden attitudes; submission to traditional authority and custom. Conversely, industrialism fostered admirable qualities of contemporary “high civilization”—peaceful industry within free enterprise capitalism; laissez-faire republicanism that protected liberty under law; a middle-class society that championed popular education, science, rationality, monogamous marriage and the family. The key lesson was that man’s long rise from savagery to civilization had been achieved, not by lone individuals, but cooperatively, socially. According to Sumner’s sociology, society began within the primitive family.3

By “industrialism,” it was not meant simply people who worked in factories of what we consider to be an industrial setting today. Rather, industrialism was the new market-based order that focused primarily on trade, capital accumulation, and contracts as the way to wealth. As Sumner himself wrote, it was this new system that finally allowed men to turn toward more peaceful means of improving one’s situation: 

What civil liberty does is to turn the competition of man with man from violence and brute force into an industrial competition under which men vie with one another for the acquisition of material goods by industry, energy, skill, frugality, prudence, temperance, and other industrial virtues. Under this changed order of things the inequalities are not done away with. Nature still grants her rewards of having and enjoying, according to our being and doing, but it is now the man of the highest training and not the man of the heaviest fist who gains the highest reward. 

For Sumner, the most “civilizing” force could be found in the need to succeed in a free economy in service to one’s family:  

The value and importance of the family sentiments, from a social point of view, cannot be exaggerated. They impose self-control and prudence in their most important social bearings, and tend more than any other forces to hold the individual up to the virtues which make the sound man and the valuable member of society. …  The defense of marriage and the family, if their sociological value were better understood, would be not only instinctive but rational. The struggle for existence with which we have to deal must be understood, then, to be that of a man for himself, his wife, and his children.

Learning the Wrong Lessons about Manhood

Sumner also saw sizable threats to his ideal social structure of markets in service of family. He believed that those who encouraged men (and boys) to indulge in aggression, immoderate consumption, and lawlessness did a great disservice not just to men, but to those who depended on men—i.e., wives and children.  In an 1880 essay titled “What Our Boys Are Reading,” Sumner castigates the writers, editors, and publishers of a certain “periodical literature for boys” that Sumner describes as 

either intensely stupid, or spiced to the highest degree with sensation. The stories are about hunting, Indian warfare, California desperado life, pirates, wild sea adventure, highwaymen, crimes and horrible accidents, horrors (tortures and snake stories), gamblers, practical jokes, the life of vagabond boys, and the wild behavior of dissipated youths in great cities. This catalogue is exhaustive—there are no other stories. The dialogue is short, sharp, and continuous. It is broken by the minimum of description and by no preaching. It is almost entirely in slang of the most exaggerated kind, and of every variety—that of the sea, of California, and of the Bowery; of negroes, “Dutchmen,” Yankees, Chinese, and Indians, to say nothing of that of a score of the most irregular and questionable occupations ever followed by men. 

Sumner, of course, is talking about the so-called dime novels or “story papers” of the period which very often preached their own version of the “West Cure” to their young readers. That is, this literature instructed the reader that the best way to be “manly” was to avoid the domestic, bourgeois life of family and prudence, and to instead embrace something else entirely. As Sumner puts this, the dangerous lessons within the pages of these magazines taught boys that: 

The first thing which a boy ought to acquire is physical strength for fighting purposes. The feats of strength performed by these youngsters in combat with men and animals are ridiculous in the extreme. In regard to details the supposed code of English brutality prevails, especially in the stories which have English local color, but it is always mixed with the code of the revolver, and in many of the stories the latter is taught in its fulness. These youngsters generally carry revolvers and use them at their good discretion; every youth who aspires to manliness ought to get and carry a revolver. …

Quiet home life is stupid and unmanly; boys brought up in it never know the world or life. They have to work hard and to bow down to false doctrines which parsons and teachers in league with parents have invented against boys. To become a true man, a boy must break with respectability and join the vagabonds and the swell mob. No fine young fellow who knows life need mind the law, still less the police—the latter are all stupid louts. … The sympathies of a manly young fellow are with criminals against the law, and he conceals crime when he can. 

To many modern readers, Sumner perhaps comes off as a tiresome moralist in these passages. Yet, Sumner’s agitation over the topic reflects his real concern for middle-class and working-class Americans who he believed had the opportunity to participate in the benefits of a modern market economy. Be rejecting the industrial virtues, these men had condemned themselves to hardship by embracing a childish ethic of self-indulgence rather than the truly masculine values that led to a productive middle-class household. 

Sumner may have found this “boys’ literature” especially vexing given that literature did exist at the time that promoted the domestic and bourgeois virtues he favored. Unfortunately, this literature was generally targeted at girls—books more along the lines of 1908’s (still-popular and thoroughly entertaining) Anne of Green Gables and its sequels. 

Nonetheless, one can see Sumner’s point. If teaching values such as prudence, thrift, and self-denial are the keys to forming the most desirable types of men, then dime novels promoting violence and the nineteenth-century version of “van life” are hardly desirable. 

At this core of all this, however, is not masculinity for its own sake. Sumner views the modern, industrial, post-militaristic model of masculinity as critical to building up the family which is at the core of a prosperous, free, and civil society. 

Read More:

Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre by Ryan McMakenThe Political Economy of William Graham Sumner: A Study in the History of Free-Enterprise Ideas by Dominick Armentano”The Forgotten Man” by William Graham Sumner “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor” by Murray Rothbard

1. For a detailed examination of the conflict between bourgeois values and the “primitivism” of the West Cure, see Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre
2. Bruce Curtis, “Victorians Abed: William Graham Sumner on the Family, Women, and Sex,” American Studies, 18 (Spring 1977), 120
3. Ibid., p. 106