Meet the Man Who Invented the GOP’s Defense of the Wealthy—in 1883

Then, again.
March 29 2012 7:15 AM

“A Drunkard in the Gutter Is Just Where He Ought To Be”

Meet the man who invented the GOP’s defense of the wealthy—in 1883.

(Continued from Page 1)

All of this offered a portrait of the elite utterly at odds with the Gilded Age stereotype: Rich men were virtuous, not “wicked”; self-disciplined, not profligate. Much of the staying power of Sumner’s arguments came from his ability to describe the class divide in cultural rather than economic terms. On one side were the virtuous rich, guardians of liberty and individual ambition. On the other were a host of interlopers seeking to drain wealthy entrepreneurs of their creativity, freedom, and resources. “If you get wealth, you will have to support other people,” he complained. “[I]f you do not get wealth, it will be the duty of other people to support you.” Call it the politics of resentment, 19th-century style.

Sumner’s list of deadbeats and drags on society will be familiar to any casual observer of modern conservative politics. First were the social reformers (usually well-educated Northeasterners, preferably women), whom Sumner chastised for their arrogance, hypocrisy, and dangerous utopian schemes. Next came government bureaucrats, typified by the “obscure clerk” whose small-minded enforcement of rules threatened to crush the nation’s visionary spirits. Finally, there were the poor themselves—often “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.” “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be,” Sumner argued with his trademark bluntness. He even went so far as to denounce democracy itself, viewing mass voting as a modern experiment perilously close to mob rule.

Ultimately, though, it was neither the rich nor the poor who were the greatest objects of Sumner’s concern. Even as he cheered the richest of the rich, he positioned himself as the champion of a far more humble social figure, an ordinary taxpayer-citizen dubbed the “Forgotten Man.” In Sumner’s formulation, the “Forgotten Man” was the backbone of American society, the sort of fellow who “watched his own investments, made his own machinery safe, attended to his own plumbing, and educated his own children.” It was this earthy taxpayer-citizen—not the wealthiest Americans—who truly stood to suffer under a regime of government regulation and social reform. “He is an obscure man,” Sumner explained. Moreover, this hidden figure was usually too busy or too disgusted to engage in political debate. “He might grumble sometimes to his wife,” Sumner wrote, “but he does not frequent the grocery, and he does not talk politics at the tavern. So he is forgotten.”


This image of the overlooked law-abiding citizen has since become a staple of American political rhetoric—and one that conveniently declares the mass of voters in secret agreement with any given set of ideals. In the 1930s, as historian Amity Shlaes has noted, New Dealers adopted the idea of a “Forgotten Man” to promote reforms such as Social Security and labor rights. In the decades since, the figure has mostly reverted back to its conservative origins. In 1969, journalist Peter Schrag identified the “forgotten American” as a white working-class man “alienated” by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. “He does all the right things,” Schrag wrote, “obeys the law, goes to church and insists—usually—that his kids get a better education than he had.” That same year, Richard Nixon tweaked the idea to come up with his “Silent Majority.”

Today’s Republican candidates have yet to coin such catchy slogans. But they have already put at least part of Sumner’s original approach to work. As a political thinker, Sumner’s chief contribution lay neither in his praise for the rich, nor his lament for the Forgotten Man, but in his attempt to combine the two. For better or worse, he offered a model for resolving the great conundrum of modern Republican politics: how to champion the wealthy while claiming to speak for the unsung middle class.

Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 20 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.