The Social Museum Collection

Social Justice

Social Justice

For Francis Greenwood Peabody, private and public reform–minded institutions that were established for the treatment of “the insane, the defective, the sick, and the criminal,” to use the terminology of the day, were tied to a larger idealistic vision of preordained social progress. “The procession of social reform,” he wrote, “is marching across the history of the present time toward a common end of social justice and peace” [1]. Peabody wrapped this reassuring message around the use of “comparative sociology” as a method of inquiry that could explain, interpret, and redress—in essence bring order to—what he and many others viewed as the social and moral anarchy resulting from racial and class conflict, rapid industrialization, and immigration on an unprecedented scale.

“The flood of a million immigrants a year, sweeping into the [American] seaboard cities and drawn for the most part from nationalities unfamiliar with the principles of democracy,” Peabody wrote, “threatens to overwhelm the traditions and ideals of the earlier stock. The collisions of labor with capital, of white race with blacks in the South, and of Orientals and Occidentals in the West, raise new questions both of self-preservation and of justice. These and many other social problems have in large measure taken America by surprise, and the science of society cannot safely proceed without new observation, comparison and appropriation of the experience of the world” [2]. The welfare institutions and agencies created to address the social problems that Peabody described—from asylums and prisons to schools and self-governing communities—were generally structured to enforce what was then commonly termed the “American standards” of “hard work and morality.”


1. Francis G. Peabody, The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching. Publications of the Department of Social Ethics in Harvard University, no. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1911), 6.

2. Ibid., 6.