Lester Frank Ward

Inducted: 2007
Born: 1841
Died: 1913

Lester F. Ward was a botanist, paleontologist, sociologist, and legendary Brown University professor who promoted the introduction of sociology courses into American higher education. He had such a powerful intellect and such wide-ranging knowledge that some contemporaries referred to him as “the American Aristotle.” Ward emphasized universal and comprehensive public schooling to provide the public with the knowledge a democracy needs to govern itself successfully. He served as the first president of the American Sociological Association.

He was born on June 18, 1841, in Joliet, Illinois, son of Justin Ward, a mechanic, and Silence Loomis Ralph. His father was inventive and entrepreneurial and obtained contracts to build some of the locks in the canal that would become part of the system connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. Ward spent his childhood playing, working, and moving along the banks of the Des Plaines and the Fox rivers in Illinois, moving with his family to new mill sites. This was still frontier country, and he could get only fragments of formal schooling. At eleven, he worked at the sawmill near the village of St. Charles.

When he was fourteen, Ward moved to Iowa in a covered wagon with his father, mother, and an older brother. The journey influenced his entire life, with the experiences of living off game and sleeping under the stars. It would be repeated years later in his scientific studies and his work with the U.S. Geological Survey. After his father died, Ward returned to St. Charles, where he worked on a farm and studied at night, reading what books he could find and developing an interest in languages.

Ward left St. Charles in 1858 and moved to Myersburg, Pennsylvania. He continued his self-education, studying French, German and Latin and reading voraciously. In 1861, he entered the Stuquehamma Collegiate Institute to prepare for college. It was at that time that the first outlines of Ward’s social philosophy began to take shape. In an autographical sketch in Glimpses of the Cosmos, Ward wrote: “Perhaps the most vivid impression that my early experience left with my mind was that of the difference between the educated and the uneducated person. I had had much to do with the uneducated, and I could not believe that the chasm between these and the educated people was due to any great extent to their inherent nature. The influence of education and environmental conditions took on an ever-stronger hold on me.”

Ward intended to go to Lafayette College, but the Civil War intervened. In 1862, he enlisted in the Pennsylvania Volunteers, marrying Elizabeth Vought of Myersburg just before he left. They had one child who died in infancy. Severely wounded at Chancellorsville, Ward was discharged from the army in 1864. In 1865, he landed a job in Washington, D.C., with the Department of the Treasury and later with other federal government departments.

He took advantage of the opportunity to attend evening classes at George Washington University and by 1872 had earned three degrees. By this time, his interests had turned to science, particularly botany and geology, and by 1875 he was contributing to scientific journals. In 1881, he got a job with the U.S. Geological Society as chief of the Division of Fossil Plants.

In addition to having professional knowledge in at least six fields of science, Ward was familiar with the views of Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Auguste Comte, and others in the emerging field of sociology. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, many American scholars sought to apply the field of evolution to the growth and change of individuals and institutions. Spencer and Sumner argued that the survival of the fittest in animals was parallel in humans by competition in the economic and social institutions of laissez-faire capitalism. Ward’s study of evolution and his observations of nature led him to the opposite conclusion: that humans are distinguished from other animals by the ability to plan and work toward a more advanced level of human welfare.

Like Comte, Ward argued that knowledge must be widely diffused in human society to produce the knowledge needed to move to higher levels of well-being. Ward wrote his books by firelight. In 1883, he published Dynamic Sociology, a work that challenged the prevailing theory of Social Darwinism which applied the deterministic view of evolution to the growth and change of human societies and institutions. Ward challenged the laissez-faire philosophy. He demonstrated the disparity between nature’s subconscious biological evolution and man’s deliberate, conscious evolution. In his view, man’s capacity for telic progress – a planned, purposeful improvement requiring the development and application of intelligence – could best be achieved by education to ensure the psychic control of evolution. According to Ward, education is the chief means of educating the masses, therefore, the government must make education as widely available as possible.

Dynamic Sociology was followed by The Psychic Factors Civilization, (1893), Outlines of Sociology ((1898), Pure Sociology (1903), and Applied Sociology (1906). Wardian sociology was a dynamic science that sought to establish the facts concerning human association and to put those findings in the service of humankind. Ward believed that there was no shortage of ability, only of opportunity. More clearly than others at that time, he saw the influence of environment on talent and intellectual ability. “Like plants and animals, humans have latent capacities, which simply require opportunity for their development,” Ward wrote. He also wrote an array of treatises – The Psychic Factors of Civilization (1893), Outlines of Sociology (1889), and Applied Sociology (1908) – all of which advanced his theory that human intelligence, cultivated by government education, could and should be used to plan and shape society for the betterment of all. His challenge to Social Darwinism became known as Reform Darwinism. His belief in the role of government in changing the environment and promoting reform led historian Henry Steele Commager to describe Ward as the “philosophical architect” of the modern welfare state.

Ward also supported women’s freedom and rights. In Pure Sociology, he argued that if women were given more opportunities, they could reveal their talent and genius. Women used this argument in support of their demands for equal rights. Ward became a professor at Brown University in 1906, the same year he assumed presidency of the American Sociological Association. He remained at Brown until his death on April 18, 1913. His autobiography, Glimpses of the Cosmos, was published posthumously.

Although Ward was a giant in the development of social science, he has been largely forgotten. But his views on social progress, universal education and women’s rights have been vindicated both by time and experience.

Lester F. Ward was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2007.

For additional reading:

  • Ward and The Welfare State, by Henry Steele Commager (1967) ACLS Humanities.
  • Ward’s papers, letters and unpublished manuscripts are in the John Hay Memorial Library of Brown University.
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