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.
Eleven years earlier
What a set of men you have in Cambridge. Both our
universities put together cannot furnish the like. Why
there is Agassiz - he counts for three.
- Charles Darwin to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868
Even after he was ousted as the premier naturalist of his age and the most celebrated man of science in America - even as he suffered, at age sixty-two, a cerebral hemorrhage that first paralyzed him, then required him to take to his bed for most of a year, forbidden by his doctors to smoke his beloved cigars or even to think, either of which they predicted might kill him - Harvard professor Louis Agassiz never stopped spinning grand plans or forging ahead with them. Preternaturally ambitious, a large, vibrant man of murderous industry, deft political skill, and outsize charm, Agassiz identified himself as no less than a reflection of the universe, mirroring its magnificence through his ability to observe and explain the natural ...
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).
Full Review (840 words).
It may seem that the concept of globalization is a very new one, and that
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 ...
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