Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

Barry Werth, Random House, 400 pp., $27

In late Fall 1882, 200 side-burned alpha males of the proto-capitalistic era gathered at Manhattan Island’s premier watering hole to feed on saddleback duck and lionize Herbert Spencer. Spencer aimed to systematize all life science under the banner of “survival of the fittest”—a phrase he, not Darwin, actually coined, which became the Gilded Age’s credo. Offering panegyrics during toasts of haute sauterne were professed Spencerian adapterati like steel baron Andrew Carnegie, abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, captains of industry, academic bigwigs, Civil War heroes and U.S. senators.

Tracking a dozen key figures through the heady 1870s, Barry Werth turns this self-congratulatory gala into the decade’s culmination. Railroads spread like varicose veins, feeding speculation and great wealth for a few, rupturing into financial panics that leave millions unemployed. Meantime, carloads of Apatosaurus vertebrae ride east to university museums from Wyoming and the Midwest. With these bones as evidence, touring lecturers sow their Americanized gospel of natural selection. Evolution promoters launch publications, celebrity preachers rush to adapt to biblical dogma’s death, Ivy League professors fight over the remains, and naturalists with competing theories steam to the Galapagos to fish for clues.

At Delmonico’s, America’s would-be fittest face their master, expecting praise. But through after-dinner cigar smoke, Spencer wonders if Americans are too enmeshed in cutthroat survival and ignoring important aspects of life: “In every circle I have met men who had themselves suffered from some nervous collapse due to stress of business, or named friends who had either killed themselves from overwork, or had been permanently incapacitated. Exclusive devotion to work has the result that amusements cease to please; and, when relaxation becomes imperative, life becomes dreary from lack of its sole interest—the interest in business.” He worries that “the ultimate consequence should be a dwindling away of those among you who are the inheritors of free institutions and best adapted to them; then there will come a further difficulty in the working out of the great future which lies before the American nation.”

It was common for celebrity visitors to America in the 19th century to express a bit of, well, exhaustion. But Spencer’s American disciples had reduced his theory to an extreme. He was not proposing that business competition alone improved human life. Nor was Adam Smith, whose laissez-faire market ideals were fleeced, stateside, of their moral aspect and ultimate purpose—wiping out poverty.

Werth’s narrative allows such rumination, but does not lead us to it, to both its credit and detriment. Following the careers of individuals limns the controversies surrounding evolutionary thought and how they interacted with political, financial and social issues roiling the country. However, it leaves unclear how evolution fared in the wider marketplace of ideas alongside populism, pragmatism, progressivism and Marxism. For that wider scope, Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life is invaluable.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.