Summary and book reviews of Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's

Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

by Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 400 pages
    Apr 2011, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Book Summary

In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Barry Werth, the acclaimed author of The Scarlet Professor, draws readers inside the circle of philosophers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, clergymen, and scholars who brought Charles Darwin’s controversial ideas to America in the crucial years after the Civil War.

The United States in the 1870s and ’80s was deep in turmoil–a 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. Evolution–and its catchphrase, “survival of the fittest”–animated and guided this Gilded Age.

Darwin’s 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 doesn’t 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 country’s place among nations, and, most explosively, the question of God’s existence.

In late 1882, most of the main figures who brought about and popularized these developments gathered at Delmonico’s, New York’s 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 Delmonico’s 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 ...

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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 Members Only (574 words).

Media Reviews

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."

Kirkus Reviews

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.

Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Fascinating study..Werth elegantly reveals a firm philosophical foundation for all the antilabor excesses of the Industrial Age."

Library Journal

[A] fascinating book about one of our country's most interesting and complex periods.

Reader Reviews

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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Social Darwinism

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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