New Works in the Field

Responding to Abigail Green’s “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context”

Editors’ Note: In another post on this site, Abigail Green discusses some of the central claims in one of her most recent academic pieces, “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National(The Historical Journal, Dec. 2014). Below, Amanda Moniz responds to Green’s article. 

Historian or practitioner, our shared interest in the past, present, and future of philanthropy and humanitarianism makes us a community.  But can we talk to one another?  Abigail Green’s recent article on scholarship about nineteenth-century humanitarianism and her recap of it here together raise that question.

In “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National,” Green calls on fellow historians to take a more historical approach to the study of humanitarianism.  Scholars, she charges, have often been “presentist” in their investigation of the “‘pre-history’ of human rights.”  As she and Samuel Moyn have pointed out, historians and other scholars working in the burgeoning field of humanitarianism have a “lack of ideological distance.”  They – we – believe in promoting human welfare and guaranteeing human rights.  Concerned with the roots of today’s humanitarian interventions and international human rights regimes, they have sought parallels and continuities that link the humanitarianism of earlier eras with more recent manifestations of concern for distant strangers.  These historians, political scientists, and others have failed, then, in their scholarly mission to understand “the emergence of conceptions of ‘human rights’ and humanitarian mobilizations over the longue durée.”  A “more properly historical approach” to the nineteenth century, Green rightly points out, would take into account religious dimensions, women’s roles, and national distinctions as well as movements, such as temperance, that are less familiar or, by our lights, not obviously humanitarian.

If Green’s article reminds historians to maintain some intellectual distance in our scholarship from practitioners, her blog post here encourages interactions – careful interactions – across professional boundaries.  A better historical understanding of nineteenth-century humanitarianism, one, for instance, that investigates “female motivations and modes of humanitarian action” in the past, she suggests, can make us more attuned to women’s role in the development of today’s human rights regime.

As most historians probably do, I sympathize with both Green’s words of caution against studying the past to have an impact today and her words of encouragement about the insights historians can offer into the present, and perhaps future, by understanding the past on its own terms.  Yet thinking in the context of this blog about her comments raises some questions about historians’ concerns about our bugaboo, “presentism.”

Before I get to those questions, though, let me quarrel with the view, shared by Green and many scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that humanitarianism emerged in the late eighteenth century.  Let me express my doubts too with beginning this story, as Green notes scholars often do, with antislavery.  If scholars are to bring historical perspective to public conversations about philanthropy and humanitarianism, we need to recognize and help broader audiences recognize that these phenomena did not begin with antislavery in the Anglo-American world.

Humanitarianism is often defined to mean extending moral concern across borders of nation, race, or other categories, and white Americans’ and Britons’ involvement in antislavery – indeed a cause of paramount importance – is a showcase example of that moral sensibility.  (People of African descent were central to the cause, as scholarship has increasingly recognized.)  Scholars thus take the emergence of this movement as a starting point for histories of mobilizations to promote human welfare in one way or another.

Yet if we look to people active in antislavery we see a longer story, one that began well before that cause developed.  A case in point is the Boston clergyman Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798).  A participant in long-distance antislavery conversations, he was also involved in medical philanthropy, the early temperance movement, and other charitable undertakings.  In June 1788, concerned about a perceived rise in infanticide in New England, Belknap presented colleagues with a proposal for “a charitable Institution for the medical relief of the poor & for the assistance of distressed women & destitute children.”  He had drafted it after reading up on London’s various charitable hospitals catering to women and children.  In his presentation, he particularly discussed the Foundling, established in 1739, and its founder, Captain Thomas Coram (1688-1751) who, as Belknap may or may not have known, had drawn up his institution’s plans based on models of charitable institutions in Catholic Europe.

Belknap, Coram, and other eighteenth-century activists borrowed and contributed ideas far and wide to build their era’s humanitarian institutions.  They did so through correspondence with friends and associates, through visits to other cities and countries, and through reading and publishing on how to create and run charitable institutions.  In this way, they extended their moral reach well beyond their local or national arenas.

The “more properly historical approach” that Green calls for in her article includes understanding this long-term development of humanitarian practices.  Seen from an eighteenth-century perch, aspects of nineteenth-century humanitarianism appear in different light.  Anglo-Americans are not at the forefront, as Green notes they often are in studies of later eras.  Instead, German, Dutch, and Italian activists and institutions were the trend-setters.  When we look at earlier eras, we see too that that Protestants borrowed from and compared themselves to Catholic humanitarians.  British activist journalist W. T. Stead’s willingness to follow the Pope’s humanitarian leadership, which surprised Green, looks less unusual in long-term perspective.  And, with a better sense of the expansive, even globalizing, nature of eighteenth-century philanthropy, the national dimensions of nineteenth century beneficence raise new questions about the Americans’ and Britons’ retreat from an earlier cosmopolitan sensibility.

But, I find myself asking, why should practitioners care about historians’ debates about the emergence of humanitarianism?  Or, put another way, can we historians fulfill the civic purpose of history, as Johann Neem has urged, for the broad and varied community who cares about humanitarianism—without being presentist?

In my role at the National History Center of the American Historical Association where we foster conversations between historians and policymakers, I have observed that historians and policymakers can sometimes speak past each other because they care about history in different ways.  Congressional staffers, for instance, ask, among other things, about the past in relation to legislative policy.  Practitioners in the world of philanthropy likewise want to know, among other things, about what has and hasn’t worked in beneficence in the past.  How, that is, will history help them do their jobs better?

While maintaining our commitment to understanding history on its own terms, we historians need, I think, to be open to the very different questions that practitioners or policymakers will ask than those we think we want to answer.  In our scholarship and teaching, an approach that avoids presentism is important, but in other fora, I wonder if we should worry less about presentism and more about receptiveness so that we can hear and talk with interlocutors in other fields.

Perhaps my questions reflect my own uncertainty about whether my own scholarly subjects – a generation who remade the conventions of Anglo-American beneficence after the American Revolution – will get a hearing here.  But the way I see it is:  The nineteenth-century activists Green studies, in many cases, drew on or reacted against their eighteenth-century predecessors, while her subjects shaped the world twentieth-century humanitarians inherited.  Earlier and later activists, as Jeremy Belknap exemplifies, have been in conversation across the centuries.  The challenge for this forum may be to learn how to explore long-term conversations like Belknap’s across professional boundaries.

-Amanda Moniz

Amanda Moniz is the Assistant Director at the National History Center in Washington D.C. Moniz received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2008 and held a Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University from 2008 to 2010. Her book, The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism is under contract with Oxford University Press. 

2 thoughts on “Responding to Abigail Green’s “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context”

  1. Speaking of “la longue durée” and “presentism” in discussing humanitarianism acquires greater depth if one invokes the original etymology and long history of the word and concept of “philanthropy”, which was coined 2500 years ago on line 11 of Prometheus Bound in the phrase “philanthropos tropos”—”humanity-loving character”—meaning NOT the loving of all humans, but the loving (cherishing, nourishing, developing, as in philosophía) of “what it is to be human.”

    The purpose of the new word was to explain why the Titan Prometheus gave to proto-humans, who originally had no culture—no language, knowledge, skills, tools, arts, etc.—and so lived in darkness, in caves, in constant fear for their lives. To save these humanoid creatures from Zeus’ destruction, Prometheus gave them two gifts: “fire”, symbolizing all elements of culture, and “blind hope” or optimism. The two went together—with fire humans could be optimistic, and with optimism they would put fire to good uses. The new coinage was not a noun referring to the gifts, nor a verb referring to the act of giving, but an adjective, referring to Prometheus’ character—what motivated him to give those gifts.

    The basic idea was that endowing proto-humans with “fire” and “optimism” gave them the power, uniquely distinguishing them from all other animals, to complete their own creation—to define who they were, individually and collectively, by acting knowledgeably and skillfully to improve their quality of life, thus strengthening and enhancing their own humanity. This new coinage—in 5th-century BCE Periclean Athens, no less—was the birth of the notions that human history could be progressive, unlike that of all other animals, and that the purpose of culture is educational, or self-developing.

    The first recorded use of the concept as a noun—philanthropía—is in an early Platonic dialogue, the Euthyphro, in which Socrates is reported saying that his “pouring out” of his ideas freely to his listeners was his “philanthropía.” The philosophical dictionary of the Platonic Academy later defined “philanthropy” as “a state of well-educated habits stemming from love of humanity. A state of being productive of benefit to humans.” The word was translated into Latin simply as “humanitas”, in the sense of “humaneness.”

    The Classical concept was revived in the Renaissance, and entered the English language with Sir Francis Bacon’s essay “On Goodness” (1608) which he defined as “the affecting of the weal of men, what the Grecians call philanthropía.” Henry Cockeram’s first English dictionary (1623) revived the synonymy of “humanitie” and “philanthropie”, and from there and especially through the Scottish Enlightenment (Cooper,Hutcheson) the Classical concept came to America, where with the practical necessity of “voluntary associations” to accomplish large projects (private initiatives, for public good) a culture of popular collaboration developed that informed the American Revolution and Constitution.

    Thus the locus classicus of American philanthropy is Alexander Hamilton’s declaration launching the Founders’ argument for ratification of the Constitution in the First Federalist (page 1, paragraph 1) that Americans’ creating their own government added “the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism.” He was not talking about rich people helping poor people, or of what private foundations do, but rather asserting that the United States of America was created to be a philanthropic nation, to improve the human condition—squarely in the Classical, Promethean, humanitarian, tradition.

    A Google N-Gram of the word “philanthropy” in American English from 1710 to the present shows two periods of our history when usage of the word spiked dramatically upward: at the end of the 18th century around the Revolution, and in the mid-19th century with the anti-slavery and early women’s suffrage movements. In both instances philanthropy meant humanitarianism—”loving what it is to be human.” Since then the decline of Classical education and the shift in practical philanthropy from humanistic to social scientific emphases, tended to fragment and exclusively specialize the concept and tradition of humanitarianism.


  2. Thank you for this fascinating and very eduational explanation of the word and concept, “philanthropy.” I’m curious by what you meant that the social scientific emphasis has “exclusively specialize[d] the concept and tradition of humanitarianism.” I would love to hear more from you about this topic.


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