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Photo at left from Towanda Daily Review
Photo below by Joyce M. Tice 18 APR 1999
Lester Frank Ward: 
Bradford County’s Aristotle

By Guy Abell

For The Review

June 10, 2001

Reprinted with permission

MYERSBURG – People who zip through Myersburg, a tiny town on Route 187, probably don’t slow down long enough to read the Pennsylvania state historical marker located there. It tells a little bit about Lester Frank Ward.

His contributions are almost forgotten today, but at one time he was considered to be one of America’s leading intellectuals. He is often referred to as America’s first great sociologist. He has even been called an American Aristotle.

Not bad for a small-town boy who spent part of his youth in Myersburg, working for his brother Cyrenus Osborne Ward, in their hub or wagon wheel shop. The Wards came to Myersburg from Illinois. His childhood in frontier Illinois, living in poverty, and subjected to hard labor, instilled in Ward an outrage at society’s injustice and inequalities.

The historian Leo Wilt said that the entire Ward family seemed to pick up and adopt all the liberal and reform ideals that were popular in Illinois in the 1830s. His brother Lorenzo was a Populist and a spokesman for the Greenback movement. Another brother, Justin was a Free Methodist movement leader. Cyrenus, who lived in Myersburg, became a labor historian and was the European correspondent for Horace Greeley’s Tribune. He actually met Karl Marx, became a Communist, and tried to convert people to the communist movement when he returned to the United States. He was the author of "A History of the Ancient Working People," published in 1887.

Lester, perhaps the most remarkable of the family, became a geologist, lawyer, botanist, suffragist, medical doctor, paleontologist, author and sociologist.

While Lester is described as being primarily self-educated, he did take classes at the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in Towanda, in the early 1860s. In 1862 he married Elizabeth Caroline Bought. Their 10-year marriage was a romantic and intellectual partnership. They studied together, attended universities, worked for women’s suffrage, started the National Liberal Reform League, and published the opinion journal, "The Iconoclast."

When the Civil War broke out, he joined Company I of the 141st Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. During the war he kept a journal, "Young Ward’s Diary," that is still available today. Apparently many of his later ideas about equality and society were influenced by his wartime experiences. He was severely wounded at Chancellorville and was placed in the Veteran’s Reserve Corps, later known as the Invalid Corps.

After the war he began working for the federal government while continuing his education. He received an AB Degree from Columbian (now George Washington University). He was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia in 1871 (though he never practiced law.) He received an MA in 1873. He worked as a geologist for the government and was appointed assistant geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, a post he held for two years. He then became chief U.S. geologist and U.S. paleontologist from 1889 to 1906. He wrote several books and countless articles during his 40-year career with the government.

While doing all this, he continued his studies, earning degrees in medicine and law and studying the natural sciences. He published articles, lectured at colleges and wrote several books. He learned many languages including Latin, Greek and German, and could read Russian, Japanese and Hebrew.

In 1893, he accepted the academic professorship of sociology at Brown University, where he taught until his death in 1913. In 1883 he published "Dynamic Sociology." This book was revolutionary, arguing that progress depended on a planned society led and controlled by a benevolent government, that provided universal education, freedom from poverty and happiness for all. When this book was first published, courses in sociology were nonexistent in American universities, and by the time the second edition was published in 1896, sociology was being taught in all colleges.

Many of his ideas were controversial and might better fit today’s views, than those of his time. This is especially true of the area of gender studies. Many of his views support the modern women’s studies, especially the promotion of equality between the sexes. Nearly 25 percent of his book "Pure Sociology" is devoted to the relationship between the sexes. He was the first to use the term "androcentric" (male centered) and "gynaecentric" (female centered). He claimed the female is primary in the biological order, and that in most early human societies women were dominant. This is because they were the major protectors of the young. This continued until the male of the species finally understood his paternal role, in conception. Once this was learned, the males reversed the female dominance. They were able to do this by using their superior physical strength over women and children. This increase in power and wealth of males led to the more modern male-dominated societies.

In fact, he argued that the term "family" is a Latin term that referred to a Roman’s "slaves and servants" – his wife and children. Marriage emerged in various forms that allowed male dominance, and never took women’s wishes into effect. Women and children were seen as the property of the male.

He also discussed in great detail how different societies have created negative and even evil qualities ascribed to women. This was especially true of many sacred or religious writing that "teem with epithets, slurs, slings and open condemnation of women, as being in some manner vile and hateful."

Clearly, many of his ideas were unpopular, especially among males, just as the suffrage movement was gaining strength in the early part of the century.

Ward did believe that women’s conditions would improve as modern economic conditions developed.

Upper-class men would not need the labor of women to achieve their economic goals, and would therefore treat women better, he believed. However, he was fearful that this would never occur for poorer women, and that they would never get the full equality they deserved.

Not only did Ward support the idea of the equality of women, but also the equality of all classes and races in society. He believed this could be done by a "wider diffusion of knowledge" by means of universal education. Many of these ideas were based on his evolutionary views, which suggested that there was a "synergy" or dynamic force in nature that allowed people to determine their own destiny. This group feeling is what allowed mankind to escape the ruthless evolutionary processes that controlled the "lower animals." He challenged the laissez-faire theories of his contemporaries like Spencer, and argued against the class struggle ideas of Marx. By using the collective ideas of society, and promoting equal opportunity for all, regardless of class, race or sex, the full potential of the masses would be released, thus creating a better society or culture.

That sounds like a pretty good idea of the boy who grew up in Myersburg. The eminent historian Henry Steele Commager said, "In perspicacity, intellectual acumen and imagination, he (Lester Frank Ward) was the equal of Henry James or Thorstein Velblen or Louis Sullivan, but he was better rounded and more constructive than these major critics. In the rugged vigor of his mind, the richness of his learning, the originality of his insights, the breadth of his conceptions, he takes place alongside William James, John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes as one of the creative spirits of 20th century America.

Copyright © 2001; The Sunday Review; Towanda, Pennsylvania
Thanks to James Towner, Publisher, for permission to reprint this article on The Tri-Counties Genealogy and History Site of Joyce M. Tice.
Transcribed by Dick McCracken, 11 Jun 2001.