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Banquet at Delmonico’s

The Gilded Age and the Triumph of Evolution in America

In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Barry Werth draws readers inside the circle of intellectuals, scientists, politicians, businessmen, and clergymen who brought Charles Darwin’s controversial ideas to post-Civil-War America. Each chapter is dedicated to a crucial intellectual encounter, culminating with an exclusive farewell dinner held in English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s honor at the venerable New York restaurant Delmonico’s in 1882. In this thought-provoking and nuanced account, Werth firmly situates social Darwinism in the context of the Gilded Age. Banquet at Delmonico’s is social history at its finest.

400 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: American History, History of Ideas


“Readers who want an engaging story…will find Banquet at Delmonico’s to be a literary treat.”—Boston Globe

Boston Globe

"In this fascinating study, Werth . . .  shows how the idea of social Darwinism, as codified by Herbert Spencer, took hold in the United States, underpinning the philosophy of the Gilded Age's social, cultural and financial elite. Anchoring his story with the stunning Delmonico's celebration honoring the departure of Spencer after a triumphant tour of the United States in 1882, Werth rightly depicts the frame of reference Spencer left behind as a predecessor to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, with its focus on unrestrained self-interest and unbridled capitalism. As Werth explains, Spencer's interpretation of Darwinism won the approval of not only robber barons but also prominent religious, scientific and political leaders. Henry Ward Beecher, writes Werth, used the most acclaimed pulpit in America to preach the gospel of evolution; that is, that it was God's way to... sort the worthy from the wretched. This was survival of the fittest, which Spencer and his followers saw as not only just but necessary. Thus, Werth elegantly reveals a firm philosophical foundation for all the antilabor excesses of the Industrial Age."

Publishers Weekly

“Histories of ideas are rarely page turners, but Werth has done the trick.”—Kirkus, starred review


“This apt fusion of form and content makes for a surprisingly suspenseful and fast-paced story….Banquet at Delmonico’s crackles with energy and wit. . . . Werth is a gifted writer, and his subject is especially important in our current economic crisis.”—New York Times Book Review

New York Times Book Review

"In 1882 the U.S. was in the midst of what Mark Twain called the 'Gilded Age'—great prosperity at the top of the social scale, surrounded by poverty among the masses in teeming industrial centers. At the same time, Darwin’s theories of natural selection and 'survival of the fittest' had taken flight; they were frequently used (or abused) to explain and justify the wide disparities in wealth. In that year a dinner party was held at the swanky Delmonico’s restaurant in New York to honor Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher and influential promoter of 'social Darwinism.' Werth uses this gathering as a launching pad to describe the exciting and tumultuous times the attendees lived through as well as the lives and careers of some of the chief movers and shakers of the age. There are finely drawn vignettes of Spencer, the anti-Darwinian; Louis Agassiz, the staunch Christian; and Darwinist Asa Gray, the political reformer Carl Schurz, and many others. This is an interesting and well-done work that provides a snapshot of our nation engulfed in great political, intellectual, and social change."

Jay Freeman | Booklist

“What Werth has done, cleverly, in addition to drawing Spencer out from behind Darwin’s shadow . . . is to create a narrative double helix of his own.”—Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

“On one level, the book is a study of how ideas are understood, reworked, mangled and applied to society: Banquet at Delmonico’s is like a racier version of The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand’s worthy study of the origins of pragmatism.  But… Werth also offers a portrait of how ideas can be transformed if their originators vacate the public sphere."—Nation


Table of Contents

Principal Characters

New York, November, 1882

Chapter One
Cambridge, 1871

Chapter Two
New haven, 1872

Chapter Three
New York, 1873

Chapter Four
New Haven, 1874

Chapter Five
Brooklyn, 1875

Chapter Six
Washington, 1876

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight
Brooklyn, 1878

Chapter Nine
French Riviera, 1879

Chapter Ten
Washington, 1880

Chapter Eleven
New York, 1881

Chapter Twelve
New York, 1882




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