Philanthropy and Historical Research

Part II: Debating the Basis of American Civil Society, Waves of Debate about Religion and Virtue

Editors’ Note: Yesterday, we published Part One of David C. Hammack‘s two-part contribution. Below is Part Two: “Debating the Basis of American Civil Society, Waves of Debate about Religion and Virtue.” Earlier posts under this general dialogue on the field of philanthropic history includeStan Katz’s “The Clinton Foundation in Historical Perspective”; Maribel Morey’s “Increasing the Visibility of Philanthropy among U.S. Historians”; Ben Soskis’s Q&A with Olivier Zunz, author of Philanthropy in America: A History; and most recently, Soskis’s “Philanthropic History and a Healthy Heterodoxy.” 

Today’s conventional association of “philanthropy” exclusively with big gifts of money for secular purposes differs sharply from the very different definitions of the term that prevailed in the past, and that persist in many quarters today.  The notions that philanthropy consists of selfless devotion, of sacrifice, of commitment to a religious ideal, of participation in a humanitarian movement, or of effort to advance a more or less widely shared vision of civil society, have shaped a distinctive series of waves of historical writing.

Many treatments of “civil society” exclude religion from their consideration, but religion has always shaped philanthropy and much of American “civil society”  – and religious communities require the participation of believers and the often poorly or uncompensated work of leaders, as well as gifts of money and property.  U.S. law and practice underwrite the charitable support of what we might well define as key civil society institutions – churches, schools, homes for orphans and many others, clinics, libraries – by private gifts and voluntary labor..

This pattern appeared early in the Colonial period; Puritan leader and proto-historian Cotton Mather articulated it in 1710, in a book still being printed in the mid-nineteenth century.  Mather wrote as Britain was insisting that its colonies adopt a policy of “toleration” toward nearly all Protestant sects, overturning important aspects of Puritan dominance in Massachusetts.  Assuming that what he viewed as the correct religious influence was the essential basis of society – and of philanthropy, Mather argued that a Christian must be “concerned that the orphans and widows . . . may be well provided for,” and must care for the “neighbor . . . reduced into a pinching and painful poverty” or “languishing with sickness.”  Accepting that individuals, not government, must respond to need, he argued that a Christian must “deal thy bread to the hungry, bring to thy house the poor that are cast out,” and “when thou seest the naked, cover him.”  And it also meant to teach children “to read, and be taught their catechism.”  And to be concerned lest the deceitfulness of sin undo any of the neighbors.  If there be any idle persons among them, I beseech you, cure them of their idleness.  Don’t nourish ‘em and harden ‘em in that, but find employment for them.  Find ‘em work; set ‘em to work; keep ‘em to work.  Then, as much of your other bounty to them as you please.

After the Revolution, federal and state policy further separated church and state in many ways.  The First Amendment declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  And by the 1830s all states had ended tax and land-grant support for religious institutions.

We can date one of the first waves of historical writing about “philanthropy” as commitment to a movement to the 1830s and 1840s, when some American Protestants and many of their European cousins feared that America’s separation of church and state, denial of tax support for religious institutions, and refusal to mandate church attendance, threatened to destroy religious feeling among the American people and leave the nation prey to fads, fantasies, irreligion, the repudiation of debts, and civil strife.  Robert Baird’s Religion in the United States of America was the most widely-read of many quasi-historical writings that responded by celebrating Americans’ philanthropic giving of time, talent, and treasure, and the effectiveness of the civil society it was creating.  Under the “voluntary principle,” Baird argued, Americans had come forward to serve as preachers, teachers, missionaries, and friends to the poor in material goods and the poor in spirit.  Americans had voluntarily donated large funds for “the erection of church edifices, for the support of pastors, and for providing destitute places with the preaching of the gospel.”  They had also provided funds for “education, from the primary schools up to the theological seminaries and faculties,” for “beneficent and humane institutions.”  Many not only gave money; they devoted their lives.  In these ways they built not only churches, schools, and hospitals, but the entire apparatus of America’s religious denominations.   All this constituted an effective, improving, God-fearing civil society.

Baird and other American Protestants created a distinctive wave of writings in this spirit in the antebellum years.  During these decades, writers most often used the term “philanthropist” for those who devoted themselves to people who were most vulnerable or despised.  Doctors who risked their lives in fighting epidemic disease were “philanthropists.”  So were reformers of prisons and abolitionists who fought slavery.  But the power of the nation’s strongly Protestant civil society became clear in the organization of medical and moral support for Union soldiers during the Civil War.  The organizers of Protestant effort for these causes celebrated the Union victory in works such as The Philanthropic Results of the War in America (1864) and two books of 1868: the History of the United States Sanitary Commission (the private, Protestant-led provider of hospitals for the Union Army) and the Annals of the United States Christian Commission (which provided Protestant religious, moral, and material support for Union soldiers).  Historian George Bancroft saw a close connection between voluntary religion and republican virtue: “Nothing like the self-organized commissions for the relief of our armies ever was before.”

The definition of “philanthropist” as “one who serves humanity” continued through the age of Carnegie and Rockefeller.  Countering the celebration of the generous rich and their favored institutions, W.E.B. DuBois produced in Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans (1907), an extraordinary history of self-help and giving, and of the building of the institutions of civil society for an oppressed minority – a history that restated the Christian celebration of giving as personal sacrifice.  The first generation of freedmen, DuBois argued, gave “more in proportion to their means” than other Americans.  He shows that many also dedicated their lives to service as teachers and community leaders.   Leaders of immigrant communities at the time made comparable claims, as did leaders of the woman suffrage movement, educators of the women and men who devoted themselves to others as teachers, nurses, or members of other “caring” professions, and champions of Catholic orphanages, schools, and hospitals. Together, this set of works constituted its own notable wave of writing about philanthropy and civil society.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, increasing inequality, divisions among Protestants, the rapid increase in America’s Catholic, Jewish, and nonbelieving populations, conflicts among competing religious communities, and the rise of science combined to make celebrations of Protestant service as “philanthropy” and clusters of Protestant churches, schools, and charities as “America’s civil society” seem parochial and out of date.  Many Protestants continued to work for what they saw as the advancement of African-Americans and Native Americans.  But the use of the term “philanthropist” in praising opponents of slavery lost currency in the face of emancipation, the drive to reunify North and South and the national abandonment of the drive for racial equality.

It was in this context that Arthur M. Schlesinger and other historians sought, through their “social” histories, to redefine a responsible, nonsectarian, nondiscriminatory, progressive strain in American history – a strain that emphasized the generous, thoughtful, often professional provision of social services in American communities.  To this end, Schlesinger and several of his Harvard students and colleagues – like Schlesinger’s student Merle Curti and his students at Wisconsin – produced explorations of what we might describe as “civil society” in Boston, Rochester, Chicago, and cities of the antebellum West and South, and in the midwest.  Private donors and volunteers played important roles in these histories.

In a 1960 work destined to be very widely used in college teaching, Robert Bremner framed a wide array of civic work as a generally secular, good-hearted American Philanthropy.  Following the approach implicit in Schlesinger’s work, Bremner treated non-sectarian and secular social and intellectual movements as comparable to – indeed as more significant than – the religious efforts that had dominated nineteenth-century accounts.  An even more full-throated (and also widely read) assertion of the “consensus” defense of philanthropic intentions appeared in Daniel Boorstin’s celebration of voluntarism in The Americans (three volumes, 1958-1965) – a work notable in part for its very carefully secular gloss of many deeply religious efforts.  Taken together, Schlesinger, Bremner, and Boorstin arguably directed attention away from religious activity that continued to give a strong character to a very large share of American philanthropy.

Because they focused on universal provision, works in what might be called the Schlesinger version of the “progressive” school increasingly emphasized the role of trained, paid staff and of government, rather than private giving.  Thus many of Schlesinger’s students emphasized the possibilities of good municipal government, and the threats to civic life posed by what they often viewed as illegitimate political “machines.”  And in the 1940s, Oscar Handlin, Carter Goodrich, and other historians who shared this general outlook and who sought historical precedents for New Deal interventions in the economy explored the positive roles that state governments had played in the course of American economic development.

This “progressive” take on American civil society grew into a following wave, a yet more sophisticated appreciation of the complexity of human motives that gained considerable strength during the 1950 and 1960s.  Aiming to develop a more universally persuasive account of America’s history – and to increase attention to individual rights – this effort produced critiques of the unacknowledged motives behind much work long praised as “philanthropic.”  Their critical spirit has usually left these works excluded from lists of studies of “philanthropy.”  But arguments that “progressive reformers” wished above all to retain their own lost status (Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 1955), that many who concerned themselves with immigration worked to advance a parochial “nativism” (John Higham, Strangers in the Land, 1955), that those who underwrote education and “reform” in the West sought more to persuade westerners to endorse social order and pay their debts than to become loving Christians (Clifford Griffen, Their Brothers Keepers, 1960) all reassessed matters that had been celebrated as “philanthropic” in part because  they had been undertaken under Protestant auspices.  The same could be said of arguments (by Louis Harlan, James Anderson, Carl V. Harris, and others) that public schools mainly reinforced racial segregation in the South, that missions to bring “civilization” to Native Americans only destroyed Native cultures and morale (by Francis Paul Prucha), and that advocates of prison and mental asylum reform sought to re-impose a lost social order (David Rothman).

We might well view as ripostes to such critiques a distinctive wave of histories and other books that used detailed, careful research to vindicate, or at least to reveal complexity and give credit to the wide variety of motives for many philanthropic movements.  These histories examined efforts to truly emancipate the slaves (McPherson, 1964 and 1975), build cultural institutions in big cities (Horowitz, 1976); manage conflict between Protestants and Catholics in New York (Pratt, 1967), and reform prisons and asylums for the insane ( Grob, 1972).  Written at the alleged high tide of “consensus history,” in the 1950s and 1960’s, all of these works – like those with which they argued – emphasized conflict.

Coming to Terms with the Pluralism of American Civil Society

The postwar decades had seen American historians seek and find more and more penetrating ways to put long-dominant ways of thinking into critical perspective. The 1970s and 1980s saw the opening of professional history to a much wider array of American voices, and this change in American society, and in the discipline, brought yet another wave of works on aspects of philanthropy.

There had always been celebrations of the efforts of women, African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, and others to advance particular causes and to improve life for those who shared their own identities as well as for the community at large.  As in the case of W.E.B. DuBois, in earlier decades these celebrations had generated excellent works that yet failed to win notice outside their own communities. Such works had previously been dismissed as about group self-interest, not about “philanthropic” concern for others, or for humanity in general.  Now such works did win wide attention.  The best of them gave careful attention to complex, changing, struggles both within particular communities and between the community and its outside environment.

The result has been a series of overlapping waves of study of philanthropy and of neglected aspects of America’s civil society.  Some of the earliest of these newly influential critical studies focused on Jews (Arthur Goren, Deborah Dash Moore), and on Catholics (Jay Dolan and Francis Paul Prucha; later, Mary J. Oates).  Several constituted important contributions to the general development of women’s history (Linda Gordon, Kathleen D. McCarthy Suzanne Lebsock, Lori Ginzberg, Ann Firor Scott).  A remarkable array of impressive writers have debated aspects of philanthropy in the African-American experience, including James Anderson, Emmet D. Carson, Jacqueline Jones, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Eric A. Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr.

In each case, these books challenge earlier writings on the history of philanthropy, because they put the emphasis on a group that had previously been considered as the beneficiary of philanthropic attention.  The newer histories treat members of each group as the key protagonists in their own stories; each reflects the demand that the group must be heard by others as it defines its own character and its own aims.  The works produced by these authors stand out for their thoughtful attention to debates and conflicts within each group, as well as to the demands the group directs to others.

The most recent decades have also seen more explicit reinterpretations of American history from the left and the right – and a wave of more ideologically charged critiques of philanthropy.  From the left, several histories have characterized philanthropy as “cultural imperialism” or as a device for elite domination of American society, perhaps most notably by Robert F. Arnove, Edward H. Berman, and Mary Anna Culleton Colwell.  From the right, works denounced “liberal,” nonsectarian philanthropy (Marvin Olasky), and gave generous credit to fraternal societies for their social services (David Beito).

Todays’ historians of philanthropy must take up the challenges posed by a fractured civil society, by ideals of civil liberty, and by the claims and aspirations of racial, religious, gender, and other identity groups.  They must also confront the reality that “philanthropy” seeks to advance cultural and religious ideals of every sort, ideals that not infrequently conflict.

Historians must also take into account the return of a gap between the very rich and the rest that now rivals the proportions of the Gilded Age.  It is not yet true that “philanthropists” can now “sculpt the city for themselves,” to cite critical words Inga Saffron recently quoted from city design expert Jerold Kayden.  But there are certainly concerns that inequalities in wealth may yet make obsolete any form of philanthropy except the making of very large gifts of money.

Many influential studies of giving and volunteering continue to treat such topics as distinct from politics – to take the view that it makes sense to distinguish between “the state” (which operates through coercion), “the market” (or non-state economic activity), and the “nonprofit sector” or “civil society” (for influential statements of these positions see, for example, Powell and Salamon).   Historians necessarily challenge these distinctions as contingent and as burdened with assumptions.

Among the great topics of American history are slavery, racial inequality, economic inequality, the struggle to make the right to vote universal.  Surely such topics also constitute the material for the history of “civil society.”  Yet many historians conceive their studies of these topics as contributions to “political history,” to “social movements,” or more recently to the study of “American Political Development.”  And students of “civil society,” the “nonprofit sector,” and “voluntarism” often continue to exclude labor organizations, business firms, political parties, and religious entities from their discussions.  Among the immediate challenges for historians of philanthropy and civil society are the need to respond to the dramatic recent increase in the inequality of incomes and wealth, and to engage the classic concerns of American history – without losing sight of the relation of giving, volunteering, and civil society to the freedom of expression.

-David C. Hammack

David C. Hammack is Haydn Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University.  A former president of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, his books include Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader (1998), and a three volume series of books on foundations: American Foundations: Roles and Contributions (2010), A Versatile American Institution: The Changing Ideals and Realities of Philanthropic Foundations (2013), both with Helmut Anheier, and Ideals and Visions, Leverage and Self-Help: Foundations in America’s Regions, with Steven Rathgeb Smith (forthcoming).


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Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902­-1930. (University of Missouri Press, 1999).

F. Emerson Andrews, Foundation Watcher (Franklin and Marshall College, 1973).

Robert F. Arnove, ed., Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (G. K. Hall, 1980).

Robert Baird, Religion in the U.S. of America (1844), selection in David C. Hammack, Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader (Indiana University Press, 1998).

Edward H. Berman, The Ideology of Philanthropy: The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy, (State University of New York Press, 1983).

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———, The Dimensions of Liberty (Harvard University Press, 1961).

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Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Culture & The City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago From the 1880’s to 1917 (University Press of Kentucky, 1976).

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———, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (Basic Books, 1985).

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Suzanne Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (W. W. Norton, 1984)

Eduard Lindeman, Wealth & Culture, a Study of One Hundred Foundations and Community Trusts and Their Operations during the Decades 1921­-1930 (Harcourt Brace, 1936).

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———, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865 (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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———, The Abolitionist Legacy, From Reconstruction to the NAACP (Princeton University Press, 1975).

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———, John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940).

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Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865-1900 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976)

———, The churches and the Indian schools, 1888-1912  (University of Nebraska Press, 1979)

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Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (State University of New York Press, 2003).

David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Little, Brown, 1971).

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———, Paths to the Present (Macmillan, 1949)

Anne Firor Scott, Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History (University of Illinois Press, 1993)

John H. Stanfield, Philanthropy and Jim Crow in American Social Science (Greenwood Press, 1985).

Warren Weaver and George Wells Beadle, U.S. Philanthropic Foundations: Their History, Structure, Management, and Record (Harper & Row, 1967).

Steven Wheatley, The Politics of Philanthropy: Abraham Flexner and Medical Education. (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

Rhonda Y. Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Bruce Yenawine, Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of Microfinance (Ashgate, 2010).

Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton University Press, 2012).

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