The United States in the 1870s and 80s was deep in turmoila brash young nation torn by a great depression, mired in scandal and corruption, rocked by crises in government, violently conflicted over science and race, and fired up by spiritual and sexual upheavals. Secularism was rising, most notably in academia. Evolutionand its catchphrase, survival of the fittestanimated and guided this Gilded Age.
Darwins theory of natural selection was extended to society and morals not by Darwin himself but by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, father of the Law of Equal Freedom, which holds that every man is free to do that which he wills, provided it doesnt infringe on the equal freedom of others. As this justification took root as a social, economic, and ethical doctrine, Spencer won numerous influential American disciples and allies, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, and political reformer Carl Schurz. Churches, campuses, and newspapers convulsed with debate over the proper role of government in regulating Americans behavior, this countrys place among nations, and, most explosively, the question of Gods existence.
In late 1882, most of the main figures who brought about and popularized these developments gathered at Delmonicos, New Yorks most venerable restaurant, in an exclusive farewell dinner to honor Spencer and to toast the social applications of the theory of evolution. It was a historic celebration from which the repercussions still ripple throughout our society.
Banquet at Delmonicos is social history at its finest, richest, and most appetizing, a brilliant narrative bristling with personal intrigue, tantalizing insights, and greater truths about American life and culture.
Ultimately, Banquet at Delmonico's is worth reading because it narrates in a compelling way a struggle so eerily similar to the one unfolding before our eyes at this very moment. Behind each successive debate over bailing out financial institutions or sealing our national borders there is a social philosophy – a set of ideas that dictates what society is "really like" and how it should be governed. What better way to get a fresh take on the current competition of social ideologies than by reading about how it played out a hundred years ago? (Reviewed by Micah Gell-Redman).
The Washington Post - Louis Bayard Breakfast at Tiffany's it ain't. Rather, this ambitious and diffuse intellectual history is about what happens when a bunch of smart guys get hold of a big five-course meal of an idea—the idea, specifically, that modern life forms have evolved over time and that this process is guided not by God but by Nature.
Seattle Times - David Williams
Though he occasionally bogs down in details, for the most part Werth moves his story along. In doing so he has written a thought-provoking account of a fascinating time in American history.
Los Angeles Times - Art Winslow
What Werth has done, cleverly, in addition to drawing Spencer out from behind Darwin's shadow and raising the troubling future specters of Social Darwinism and eugenics, is to create a narrative double helix of his own: We watch as, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the two principals and their retinues of acolytes and antagonists spin out their ideas to respective advantage in the public sphere. In politics, religion, science and academia, there was foment and division over the meaning and moral implications of what Darwin and Spencer put forth but ready acceptance in many quarters too.
This is an interesting and well-done work that provides a snapshot of our nation engulfed in great political, intellectual, and social change."
A rich, entertaining slab of Victorian American history, focused on the debate over evolution . . . Histories of ideas are rarely page-turners, but Werth has done the trick.
"Starred Review. Fascinating study..Werth elegantly reveals a firm philosophical foundation for all the antilabor excesses of the Industrial Age."
[A] fascinating book about one of our country's most interesting and complex periods.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Herman Edelman Banquet at Delmonico's, by Barry Werth Let me first congratulate Mr. Werth on a great job of putting together disparate persons in one central story. Although it may be difficult for the everyday reader to be aware of the special place in history that each of those characters played.... Read More
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the growth of free trade and its accompanying controversy belong to our era
alone. In fact, the 1860s saw an explosion of trade between nations, accompanied
by a doctrine of free markets unbridled by government intervention. Unlike
today, though, many of the free marketeers of this earlier era were willing to
apply their logic outside the realm of economics, to human societies and to
human beings themselves.
These are the Social Darwinists (sometimes called Social Positivists) whose
thinking stood behind the great economic expansion, was challenged by a global
recession, and ultimately fell out of favor in the United States when the
princely accumulation of wealth and power by a generation of Robber Barons was
recognized as jarringly undemocratic.
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