Lester Frank Ward

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Lester Frank Ward
Lester Ward
Born Lester Frank Ward
(1841-06-18)June 18, 1841
Joliet, Illinois
Died April 18, 1913(1913-04-18) (aged 71)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place Watertown, New York
Nationality American
Alma mater
Known for Paleobotany, Telesis, sociology, and the introduction of sociology as field of higher education
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Carolyn Vought (Lizzie); some sources give Elizabeth Carolyn Bought.
  • Justus Ward
  • Silence Rolph Ward

Lester Frank Ward (18 June 1841 – 18 April 1913) was an American botanist, paleontologist, and sociologist.[1] He served as the first president of the American Sociological Association.

Ward promoted the introduction of sociology courses into American higher education. His belief that society could be scientifically controlled was especially attractive to intellectuals during the Progressive Era. His influence in certain circles (see: the Social Gospel) was affected by his opinions regarding organized priesthoods, which he believed had been responsible for more evil than good throughout human history.

Ward emphasized the importance of social forces which could be guided at a macro level by the use of intelligence to achieve conscious progress, rather than allowing evolution to take its own erratic course as proposed by William Graham Sumner and Herbert Spencer. Ward emphasized universal and comprehensive public schooling to provide the public with the knowledge a democracy needs to successfully govern itself.

A collection of Ward's writings and photographs is maintained by the Special Collections Research Center of the George Washington University. The collection includes articles, diaries, correspondence, and a scrapbook. GWU's Special Collections Research Center is located in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library.[2]


Most, if not all of what is known about Ward's early life comes from the definitive biography, Lester F. Ward: A Personal Sketch,[3] written by Emily Palmer Cape in 1922, where she writes in the foreword:

Cape explained later in the foreword:

In a footnote on pp. 5–6, Cape notes: On February 20, 1911, in replying to my asking him to write his autobiography, he says: "I don't want to write my autobiography and have it appear while I am alive. It doesn't seem the thing to do. You are the one to write my biography from all the data that I shall leave, but it will be done after I have left them." (The "data" signified the diaries. The above italics are in Dr. Ward's letter.)[3]

Early life

Lester Frank Ward was born in Joliet, Illinois, the youngest of 10 children born to Justus Ward and his wife Silence Rolph Ward. Justus Ward (d. 1858) was of old New England colonial stock, but he wasn't rich, and farmed to earn a living. Silence Ward was the daughter of a clergyman; she was a talented perfectionist, educated and fond of literature.[3]

When Lester Frank was one year old, the family moved closer to Chicago, to a place called Cass, now known as Downers Grove, Illinois about twenty-three miles from Lake Michigan. The family then moved to a homestead in nearby St. Charles, Illinois where his father built a saw mill business making railroad ties.[3]

Early education

Ward first attended a formal school at St. Charles, Kane County, Illinois, in 1850 when he was nine years old. He was known as Frank Ward to his classmates and friends and showed a great enthusiasm for books and learning, liberally supplementing his education with outside reading.[3]

Four years after Ward started attending school, his parents, along with Lester and an older brother, Erastus, traveled to Iowa in a covered wagon for a new life on the frontier. Four years later, in 1858, Justus Ward unexpectedly died, and the boys returned the family to the old homestead they still owned in St. Charles. Ward's estranged mother, who lived two miles away with Ward's sister, disapproved of the move, and wanted the boys to stay in Iowa to continue their father's work.[3]

The two brothers lived together for a short time in the old family homestead they dubbed "Bachelor's Hall," doing farm work to earn a living, and encouraged each other to pursue an education and abandon their father's life of physical labor.[3]

In late 1858 the two brothers moved to Pennsylvania at the invitation of Lester Frank's oldest brother Cyrenus (9 years Lester Frank's senior), who was starting a business making wagon wheel hubs and needed workers. The brothers saw this as an opportunity to move closer to civilization and to eventually attend college.[3]

The business failed, however, and Lester Frank, who still didn't have the money to attend college, found a job teaching in a small country school; in the summer months he worked as a farm laborer. He finally saved enough money to attend college and enrolled in the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in 1860. While he was at first self-conscious about his spotty formal education and self learning, he soon found that his knowledge compared favorably to his classmates', and he was rapidly promoted.[3]

Marriage and Civil War service

It was while attending the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute that he met Elizabeth "Lizzie" Carolyn Vought (some sources cite Bought) and fell deeply in love. Their "rather torrid love affair" was documented in Ward's first journal Young Ward's Diary. They married on Aug. 13, 1862.

Almost immediately afterward, Ward enlisted in the Union Army and was sent to the Civil War front where he was wounded three times. After the end of the war he successfully petitioned for work with the federal government in Washington, DC, where he and Lizzie then moved.

Lizzie assisted him in editing a newsletter called "The Iconoclast," dedicated to free thinking and attacks on organized religion. She gave birth to a son, but the child died when he was less than a year old. Lizzie died in 1872.[5] Rosamond Asenath Simons was married to Lester Frank Ward as his second wife in the year 1873.[3]


After moving to Washington, Ward attended Columbian College, now the George Washington University, and graduating in 1869 with the degree of A.B. In 1871, after he received the degree of LL.B, he was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. In 1873, he completed his A.M. degree.

Research career and U.S. Geologic Survey

Ward never practiced law, however, and concentrated on his work as a researcher for the federal government. At that time almost all of the basic research in such fields as geography, paleontology, archaeology and anthropology were concentrated in Washington, DC, and a job as a federal government scientist was a prestigious and influential position. In 1883 he was made Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey.

While he worked at the Geological Survey he became good friends with John Wesley Powell, the powerful and influential second director of the US Geological Survey (1881–1894) and the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution.

File:Ward and fossil tree trunks.jpg
Ward and fossil tree trunks

Brown University Chair of Sociology

In 1892, he was named Paleontologist for the USGS, a position he held until 1906, when he resigned to accept the chair of Sociology at Brown University.

Works and ideas

By the early 1880s, the new field of sociology had become dominated by ideologues of the left and right, both determined to claim "the science of society" as their own. The champion of the conservatives and businessmen was Herbert Spencer; he was opposed on the left by Karl Marx. Although Spencer and Marx disagreed about many things, they were similar in that their systems were static: they both claimed to have divined the immutable stages of development that a society went through and they both taught that mankind was essentially helpless before the force of evolution.

With the publication of the two-volume, 1,200-page, Dynamic Sociology: Or Applied Social Science as Based Upon Statistical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences (1883), Lester Ward hoped to restore the central importance of experimentation and the scientific method to the field of sociology. For Ward science wasn't cold or impersonal; it was human-centered and results-oriented. As he put it in the Preface to Dynamic Sociology, "The real object of science is to benefit man. A science which fails to do this, however agreeable its study, is lifeless. Sociology, which of all sciences should benefit man most, is in danger of falling into the class of polite amusements, or dead sciences. It is the object of this work to point out a method by which the breath of life may be breathed into its nostrils."

Ward theorized that poverty could be minimized or eliminated by the systematic intervention of society. Mankind wasn't helpless before the impersonal force of nature and evolution. Through the power of Mind, man could take control of his situation and direct the evolution of human society. This theory is known as telesis. (Also see: meliorism, sociocracy and public sociology). A sociology which intelligently and scientifically directed the social and economic development of society should institute a universal and comprehensive system of education, regulate competition, connect the people on the basis of equal opportunities and cooperation, and promote the happiness and the freedom of everyone.

Criticism of laissez-faire

Ward is most often remembered for his relentless attack on Herbert Spencer and his theories of laissez-faire and survival of the fittest that totally dominated socio/economic thought in the United States after the American Civil War. While Marx and communism/socialism never caught on in the United States, Spencer became famous and was the leading light for conservatives. Ward placed himself in direct opposition to Spencer and Spencer's American disciple William Graham Sumner, who had become the most well known and widely read American sociologist by single-mindedly promoting the principles of laissez-faire. To quote the historian Henry Steele Commager: "Ward was the first major scholar to attack this whole system of negativist and absolutist sociology and he remains the ablest.... Before Ward could begin to formulate that science of society which he hoped would inaugurate an era of such progress as the world had not yet seen, he had to destroy the superstitions that still held domain over the mind of his generation. Of these, laissez-faire was the most stupefying, and it was on the doctrine of laissez-faire that he trained his heaviest guns. The work of demolition performed in Dynamic Sociology, Psychic Factors and Applied Sociology was thorough."

Welfare state

Ward was a strong supporter of the concept of the welfare state, or state aid for those in need of it. He fiercely criticized those who criticized such policies as paternalistic, writing that the primary critics of state aid for the indigent were the wealthy classes who themselves lobbied for government assistance for their failing enterprises:

The charge of paternalism is chiefly made by the class that enjoys the largest share of government protection. Those who denounce it are those who most frequently and successfully invoke it. Nothing is more obvious today than the signal inability of capital and private enterprise to take care of themselves unaided by the state; and while they are incessantly denouncing "paternalism," by which they mean the claim of the defenseless laborer and artisan to a share in this lavish state protection, they are all the while besieging legislatures for relief from their own incompetency, and "pleading the baby act" through a trained body of lawyers and lobbyists. The dispensing of national pap to this class should rather be called "maternalism," to which a square, open, and dignified paternalism would be infinitely preferable.[6]

Female equality

Ward was a strong advocate for equal rights for women and even theorized that women were naturally superior to men, much to the scorn of mainstream sociologists. In this regard, Ward presaged the rise of feminism, and especially the difference feminism of writers such as Harvard's Carol Gilligan, who have developed the claims of female superiority. Ward is now considered a feminist writer by historians such as Ann Taylor Allen. However, Clifford H. Scott claims that some suffragists ignored him.[7] Ward's persuasion on the question of female intelligence as described by himself: "And now from the point of view of intellectual development itself we find her side by side, and shoulder to shoulder with him furnishing, from the very outset, far back in prehistoric, presocial, and even prehuman times, the necessary complement to his otherwise one-sided, headlong, and wayward career, without which he would soon have warped and distorted the race and rendered it incapable of the very progress which he claims exclusively to inspire. And herefore again, even in the realm of intellect, where he would fain reign supreme, she has proved herself fully his equal and is entitled to her share of whatever credit attaches to human progress hereby achieved." Clifford H. Scott argues that practically all the suffragists ignored him.[7]

Environmental policy in the US

Ward had a considerable influence on the United States' environmental policy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Ross listed Ward among the four "philosopher/scientists" that shaped American early environmental policies. (see: Ross, John R.; Man over Nature)

White supremacy and race

Ward was a Republican Whig and supported the abolition of the American system of slavery. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and was wounded three times. However, a close reading of his Dynamic Sociology will uncover several statements that would be considered somewhat racist and ethnocentric by today's standards. There are references to the superiority of Western culture and the savagery of the American Indian and black races, made all the more jarring by the modern feel of much of the rest of the book.

However, Ward lived in Washington D.C., then the center of anthropological research in the US; he was always up-to-date on the latest findings of science and in tune with the developing Zeitgeist, and by the early twentieth century, perhaps influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois and German-born Franz Boas, he began to focus more on the question of race.

During this period his views on race were arguably more progressive and in tune with modern standards than any other white academic of the time. In the 1870s, as editor of the Iconoclast, he published articles by Frederick Douglas and he was involved in the founding of Howard University. Later, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman and many sociologists supported the eugenics movement, he vigorously opposed it. Later Franz Boaz perhaps even more strongly combated the theory of white supremacy.


Ward is often categorized as being a follower of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Ward's article "Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism" shows Ward had a sophisticated understanding of this subject. While he clearly described himself as being a Neo-Lamarckian, he completely and enthusiastically accepted Darwin's findings and theories. On the other hand, he believed that, logically, there had to be a mechanism that would allow environmental factors to influence evolution faster than Darwin's rather slow evolutionary process. The modern theory of epigenetics suggests that Ward was correct on this issue, although old-school Darwinians continue to ridicule Larmarkianism.[8]


While Durkheim is usually credited for updating Comte's positivism to modern scientific and sociological standards, Ward accomplished much the same thing 10 years earlier in the United States. However, Ward would be the last person to claim that his contributions were somehow unique or original to him. As Gillis J. Harp points out in The Positivist Republic, Comte's positivism found a fertile ground in the democratic republic of the United States, and there soon developed among the pragmatic intellectual community in New York City, which featured such thinkers as William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, as well as among federal government scientists like Ward in Washington, D.C., a consensus regarding positivism.

Theory of war and conflict

In Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society (1903) Ward theorizes that throughout human history conflict and war have been the forces that are most responsible for human progress. It was through conflict that hominids gained dominance over animals. It was through conflict and war that Homo Sapiens wiped out the less advanced hominid species, and it was through war that the more technologically advanced races and nations expanded their territory and spread civilization. Ward sees war as a natural evolutionary process and like all natural evolutionary processes war is capricious, slow, often ineffective and shows no regard for the pain inflicted on living creatures. One of the central tenets of Ward's world view is that the artificial is superior to the natural and thus one of the central goals of Applied Sociology is to replace war with a system that retains the progressive elements that war has provided but without the many miseries it inflicts.[9]

Influence on U.S. government policy

Ward influenced a rising generation of progressive political leaders, such as Herbert Croly. In the book Lester Ward and the Welfare State, Commager details Ward's influence and refers to him as the "father of the modern welfare state".

As a political approach, Ward's system became known as social liberalism, as distinguished from the classical liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries associated with such thinkers as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. While classical liberalism had sought prosperity and progress through laissez-faire, Ward's "American social liberalism" sought to enhance social progress through direct government intervention. Ward believed that in large, complex and rapidly growing societies human freedom could only be achieved with the assistance of a strong democratic government acting in the interest of the individual. The characteristic element of Ward's thinking was his faith that government, acting on the empirical and scientifically based findings of the science of sociology, could be harnessed to create a near Utopian social order.

Progressive thinking had a profound impact on the administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and on the liberal wing of the modern Democratic Party. Ward's ideas were in the air but there are few direct links between his writings and the actual programs of the founders of the welfare state and the New Deal.[10]

Ward's diaries

All but the first of his voluminous diaries were reportedly destroyed by his wife after his death. Ward's first journal, Young Ward's Diary: A Human and Eager Record of the Years Between 1860 and 1870..., remains under copyright.

Ward died in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Watertown, New York.


Selected works

Linked here are facsimiles of original editions, which also include links to JSTOR conversions (where available), along with several alternate formats.

For modernized copies in pdf format, see those under external links below, which were photocopied and proofread by Ralf Schreyer and are the best quality you can find on the internet.





See also


  1. "WARD, Lester Frank". The International Who's Who in the World. 1912. p. 1067.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Guide to the Lester Frank Ward Papers, 1883–1919, Special Collections Research Center, Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, the George Washington University
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Cape, Emily Palmer (1922). Lester F. Ward: A Personal Sketch.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Ward, Lester F. (1913). Glimpses of the Cosmos. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 737–754.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. American Sociological Association. "American Sociological Association - Lester Ward". www2.asanet.org. Archived from the original on 13 August 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Lester Frank Ward, Forum XX, 1895, quoted in Henry Steel Commager's The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 210.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Clifford H. Scott, "A Naturalistic Rationale For Women's Reform: Lester Frank Ward on the Evolution of Sexual Relations," Historian (1970) 33#1 pp 54–67
  8. cf. Brody & Body, The Science Class you Wish you Had, 1996
  9. Mike Hawkins (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780521574341.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Steven L. Piott (2006). American Reformers, 1870–1920: Progressives in Word And Deed. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780742527638.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Author Query for 'Ward', International Plant Names Index Invalid |mode=CS1 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Becker 1975: online available in Internet Archive.
  13. Finlay 1999: abstract
  14. Gossett : new edition 1997 in Google Books.
  15. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />hdl:2027/mdp.39015086632505

Further reading

Primary sources

  • Commager, Henry Steele, ed., Lester Frank Ward and the Welfare State (1967), major writings by Ward, and long introduction by Commager
  • Stern, Bernhard J. ed. Young Ward's Diary: A Human and Eager Record of the Years Between 1860 and 1870 as They Were Lived in the Vicinity of the Little Town of Towanda, Pennsylvania; in the Field as a Rank and File Soldier in the Union Army; and Later in the Nation's Capital, by Lester Ward Who became the First Great Sociologist This Country Produced (1935)

Secondary sources

  • Bannister, Robert. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880–1940 (1987), pp 13–31.
  • Burnham, John C. "Lester Frank Ward as Natural Scientist," American Quarterly 1954 6#3 pp. 259–265 in JSTOR
  • Chugerman, Samuel. Lester F. Ward, the American Aristotle: A Summary and Interpretation of His Sociology (Duke University Press, 1939)
  • Fine, Sidney. Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865–1901 (1956), pp 252–88
  • Muccigrosso, Robert, ed. Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 3:1570-4
  • Nelson, Alvin F. "Lester Ward's Conception of the Nature of Science," Journal of the History of Ideas (1972) 33#4 pp. 633–638 in JSTOR
  • Scott, Clifford H. Lester Frank Ward (1976)

External links

Primary sources

Secondary sources