Even though freedom in the Gilded Age was a topic many liberal reformers based their political platforms on, it was an ideal that would be swept under the rug by many of the elite class during this time period. Social Darwinism was a belief that gained a great deal of popularity during this time period, but it in fact was a thinly veiled way to discriminate against the poor and working class as well as immigrants seeking a new life in America. Since it was modeled after Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, it sought to make the elite class in America superior to everyone else.
According to Foner (2013, 635), the actual definition of Social Darwinism is “…the theory that states individuals, groups and peoples are subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection as plants and animals”. What this essentially means is that if a person or group does not have the political connections, funds or other means to recruit others to their way of thinking they would eventually become extinct. Even though Charles Darwin would develop his own ideas of developing morals after the initial introduction of this theory, it was promoted by one specific figure during its popularity in the Gilded Age.

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Herbert Spencer is credited for making Social Darwinism popular during this time period. He favored a more laissez-faire approach to capitalism and how much government should be involved with business. Additionally, theorists like Spencer used Social Darwinism to promote their own agendas for imperialism, political conservatism and racism to keep liberal reformist from changing the status quo in America. In summary, the rich wanted to keep things exactly the way they were so that they could become richer and the poor were there to simply do the work required to accomplish amassing great wealth without having to share.

  • Foner, E. (2013). Give Me Liberty! An American History: Seagull Fifth Edition (Vol. 2). WW Norton & Company.