Philanthropy and Democracy

What if Tocqueville had travelled to Prussia, instead of the U.S.?

Editors’ Note: Earlier this week, Olivier Zunz and Emma Saunders-Hastings discussed Alexis de Tocqueville’s views on philanthropy, with Saunders-Hastings arguing that the sector today is more aristocratic than democratic in the Tocquevillian sense. Responding to this ongoing conversation on Tocqueville’s observations of American life, Thomas Adam explains that philanthropy is not unique to democracies nor does it necessarily signal a democratizing society. Rather, it has been a consequence of economic modernization in authoritarian and democratic regimes alike. 

Twentieth-century scholars used Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of voluntary associations in the United States to establish a causal relationship between philanthropy and democracy, and in the process, made the United States the beacon of civil society and philanthropy. Further, much of this scholarship seemed to suggest that only American society was characterized by the existence of voluntary action. The end result was an unfortunate contrast that often appeared to undergird American exceptionalist accounts of the development of the non-profit sector in the United States: Americans came together and founded associations to address social ills while Europeans waited for the state to intervene. Today, this assumption is deeply engrained in American and European social sciences.

Yet positing a causal relationship between philanthropy and democracy is deeply problematic. Tocqueville’s observation provides no empirical evidence to support such a far-reaching interpretation. When Tocqueville travelled to the United States, his home country had been under the spell of enlightened thinkers, such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who had advocated the complete destruction of philanthropic institutions. Because of their intergenerational reach, foundations in particular appeared to Turgot a danger to a society that underwent constant change. Turgot’s ideas and suggestions provided the basis for the destruction of most philanthropic institutions in the course of the French Revolution. Voluntary action was in the eyes of enlightened thinkers and French revolutionary politicians not considered essential to democracy. After the Napoleonic Wars, French society only slowly provided a place for philanthropy. France did not become a country without philanthropy, as Kathleen McCarthy has recently demonstrated. When Tocqueville praised voluntary associations in the United States, however, he was also lamenting its diminished role in French society.

Yet the characterization of voluntary associations as an American phenomenon is misguided. Voluntary associations, formed to address social problems, fund educational institutions, and support art and culture, were a transnational phenomenon that shaped the nineteenth century. From Saint Petersburg in Russia to Philadelphia in the United States associations emerged everywhere within the cities and towns in between. Recent research on Prussia reveals the scope of that country’s voluntary sector. From the 1820s onwards, hundreds of associations that involved men and women emerged across this central-European state. By 1865, there were 1280 associations with tens of thousands of members across the country. In addition nearly 3000 foundations provided funding for all kinds of social, educational, and cultural services and institutions. Both the democratic United States and monarchical Prussia were home to a vibrant civil society, in which citizens took charge of social affairs rather than waiting for the state to intervene. If Tocqueville travelled to Prussia instead of the United States, he would have encountered a similarly rich associational culture, and it is quite possible that he would have concluded that monarchy and voluntarism go hand in hand. Indeed, the prevalence of foundations in Prussia calls into question the conventional wisdom about the relationship between democracy and philanthropy. Many, including historians and political scientists, argue that philanthropy contributed to the democratization of society. However, a comparison between Prussia and the United States reveals that democracy and philanthropy are not causally linked. Studying philanthropy as a transnational phenomenon allows us to see that the formation of associations and foundations resulted from economic modernization, since these organizations required a high level of wealth accumulated in the pockets of citizens, rather than from democratization. In other words, civil society is causally linked to economic modernization but not to democratic modernization.

The remarkable and unlimited growth of philanthropy in the German Empire provides conclusive evidence that philanthropy has flourished in authoritarian systems just as it has in democratic ones. In fact, in contrast to German society, American society in the time of Tocqueville was paradoxically a highly inhospitable environment for philanthropy. While German law did not put limits on amounts that could be transferred into the philanthropic sphere or require incorporation of trusts, American states regulated and, more importantly, limited both. Laws in New York and Pennsylvania, to take just two examples that have already received attention by scholars such as HistPhil’s own Stanley Katz, imposed limits on the transfer of funds, limited the holdings of incorporated trusts, and even required incorporation of trusts. The absence of the separation of state and church in the German case, further, proved a great advantage to the expansion of philanthropy since the political elites did not view the flow of money into religious charities as a danger. According to Lawrence M. Friedman, American society was suspicious about the transfer of money into charities that appeared to be dominated by religious sects. Some contemporaries even saw in the growth of charitable funds a back-door to power for religious communities that had lost dominance with the separation of church and state at the country’s founding. German society shared only with Americans the concern that the transfer of too much money into the “dead hand” could endanger economic modernization, since these funds appeared to be withheld from the free market.

A comparative study of philanthropy in the United States and Germany before World War I shows that Germany served as a fertile ground for the unhindered growth of philanthropy. In an ironic twist, philanthropy and civil society were badly harmed by democratization in Germany. It was, after all, a democratic system that in 1925 expropriated foundations, endowments, and associations by devaluing by 98% the war bonds that had been forced upon these institutions as the exclusive investment option for their principal capital during the course of the war. Economic recovery after the Great Depression, which coincided with the introduction of authoritarian rule by Adolf Hitler, led to a significant recovery of philanthropy in Germany. Older foundations were able to build up their principal capital again and many new foundations and endowments were created. After World War II philanthropy fared badly in both democratic West Germany and authoritarian East Germany since both systems preferred government intervention over civil society.

American scholars embraced Tocqueville’s description of associational life in the nascent American Republic and integrated it into an increasingly exceptionalist narrative of American history. In this narrative, voluntarism became a cornerstone of American society which set American society apart from other Western societies. Such an exceptionalist narrative has dominated the writing of American history and American non-profit studies for far too long. And it seems time for American scholars to follow in Tocqueville’s footsteps and embark on transnational explorations of philanthropy. A comparative and transnational approach will help us understand that the relationship between civil society and democracy is not a causal one.

-Thomas Adam

Thomas Adam is professor of transnational history at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the editor of Philanthropy, Patronage, and Civil Society: Experiences from Germany, Great Britain, and North America (2004)and the author of Buying Respectability: Philanthropy and Urban Society in Transnational Perspective, 1840s to 1930s (2009). He recently finished two new books “German History Reconsidered: Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State in German History, 1815-1989” as well as “Living and Giving Transnationally: The Mond’s Family Private Support for Public Institutions in Western Europe from 1890 to 1938.”

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