Philanthropy and the State

Reconsidering Progressive Era Opposition to Foundation Activity: The Farm Demonstration Project Controversy

Editors’ Note: HistPhil continues its forum on philanthropy and the state with this contribution from Jesse Tarbert.

Scholars of philanthropy have long been preoccupied with puzzling out the motives of the progenitors and leaders of the large foundations of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Were the philanthropists benevolent industrial statesmen? Clever Robber Barons? Or were they agents of ruling-class hegemony? Arguments in favor of each of these positions­—or some cocktail mixture of two or all three–have proliferated in the literature of the past century and retain currency in debates about the role of philanthropy in society today. In contrast to this focus, however, the late-19th and early-20th century actors who criticized the foundations and their work have largely escaped serious scrutiny. Perhaps because much historical anti-foundation rhetoric fits so readily within the Robber Baron or Gramscian interpretations dominant within the academy, scholars have tended to be credulous in their treatment of early critics of the philanthropists—accepting anti-elite and anti-corporate rhetoric at face value.

The story of the Progressive Era controversy over the General Education Board’s farm demonstration project provides an example of the possibilities offered by a more thorough examination of the opponents of the early foundations. On its surface, the farm demonstration controversy reads like a classic case of Progressive resistance to corporate power. But a closer examination of the anti-foundation forces suggests that they were motivated as much by sectional politics as by class conflict.

The outlines of the farm demonstration controversy have been well traced in the literature. Most histories of philanthropy in this period deal with the episode at least in passing. In 1906, the General Education Board (GEB) agreed to fund a pilot agricultural extension program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In May 1914, the details of that arrangement came to the attention of Senator William Kenyon, Republican of Iowa, who condemned it as evidence that the Rockefellers were attempting to control the U.S. government through the family’s “silent empire” of philanthropic organizations. This came soon after the Ludlow Massacre and it provided a further rationale for the Commission on Industrial Relations (the “Walsh Commission”) to expand its investigation of the “interlocking directorates” of Rockefeller-funded projects. Ensuing debate aided the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created the agriculture extension service of the USDA, continuing that agency’s farm demonstration but removing philanthropic organizations from the equation.

While most readers are well acquainted with the activities of the Rockefellers and the GEB in this period, the critics of the farm demonstration project and the advocates of the Smith-Lever Act are perhaps less familiar.

The sponsor of the agricultural extension act in the Senate, Hoke Smith, Democrat of Georgia, was a prominent politician in the “New South” mold, and he had a reputation as an advocate for education and increased federal support for education. Accepting Kenyon’s argument against Rockefeller influence, Smith used the controversy as a rationale for increasing federal expenditures for the program. Like many of his peers, however, Smith was also committed to white supremacy, and he had record of promoting reforms that accommodated Southern segregation by ensuring local control over federal expenditures. During debate over the Smith-Lever Bill, Smith argued against allowing the Tuskegee Institute to receive and distribute federal extension funds—reversing the policy that prevailed under the GEB-USDA partnership. Also, while Smith supported the Walsh Commission’s investigation into the interlocking directorates of the Rockefeller philanthropies, he was not so supportive when Chairman Frank J. Walsh attempted to investigate child labor and labor conditions generally in the South. Smith helped lead an unsuccessful effort to lop off three-quarters of the commission’s budget.

Perhaps the most prominent and persistent Progressive Era critic of the GEB was William H. Allen. A former co-director of the Bureau of Municipal Research (BMR) in New York City, Allen was briefly employed as an investigator for the Walsh Commission and provided evidence relating to his own acrimonious departure from the BMR. He had resigned in protest after the Rockefellers began supporting the bureau. Allen’s career as a reformer was marked by a commitment to local control of public administration. Although he favored modern administrative methods in municipal government, Allen objected when President Taft’s Commission on Economy and Efficiency attempt to implement those methods at the national level.

The man who launched the farm demonstration project controversy with his denunciation of the Rockefellers’ “silent empire,” Senator William Kenyon, was known as a Progressive leader of the “Farm Bloc”—the alliance of Southern Democrat and Western Republican Congressmen. While Kenyon and his peers are commonly referred to as Progressive, their Progressivism was similar to that of Woodrow Wilson, in that it included a commitment to local control of public administration. Although Farm Bloc congressmen often proposed increased federal expenditures, in most cases those proposed expenditures were to be administered by state and local officers with little or no federal supervision. Also, the Farm Bloc often mobilized on issues having very little direct bearing on agriculture or economics. The most notable early example of the Southern-Western alliance in Congress came in opposition to the Lodge “Force Bill” in 1890 and 1891, when Southern Democrats were joined in their filibuster of the bill (which was meant to ensure African-American voting rights) by a group of Western “Silver” Republicans. The Farm Bloc also came together in the 1920s to oppose the anti-lynching bill.

This brief overview of the leading opponents of the GEB-USDA partnership—while of course far from conclusive—suggests that opposition to the arrangement between the GEB and the USDA was not primarily motivated by a general Progressive aversion to concentration of wealth and corporate power. Rather, it suggests that Smith, Allen, and Kenyon were pursuing a general Wilsonian opposition to central power in national public administration in alliance with defenders of Southern segregation. The outcome of the debate, with the Smith-Lever Act placing control of agricultural extension in the hands of local officials rather than funders in New York City, seems to have been a clear victory for this Wilsonian agenda.

These propositions also suggest qualifications to arguments—made by the historian Brian Balogh and others—about the primacy of “associational” policy solutions in American politics.[1] From the 19th century through the 20th, these scholars have argued, Americans have preferred governing power to work through intermediate institutions. Contrary to what the “Associational State” interpretation might lead us to expect, however, it was precisely the farm demonstration project’s associational features that came in for the most criticism. In this case, a powerful group of actors (Southern Democrats and their allies) were opposed to central control of policy whether it was associational or not. Their desire to protect local control over the administration of social policy was so strong that these famously anti-deficit policymakers were willing to spend federal dollars in order to dissolve the partnership between the GEB and USDA.

The controversy over the GEB’s partnership with the USDA provides a useful example for historians of philanthropy. Historically, critiques of philanthropy have often been couched in anti-elite or anti-corporate rhetoric. But if scholars focus too tightly on the rhetorical style of those historical critiques, they risk obscuring the political agendas that motivated those critiques. By placing opposition to foundation activity within this broader frame, however, scholars can begin to develop a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between philanthropy, the state, and society.

-Jesse Tarbert

Jesse Tarbert will receive his PhD in history from Case Western Reserve University later this month. His dissertation, “When Good Government Meant Big Government: Nationalism, Racism, and the Quest to Strengthen the American State, 1918-1933,” examines the efforts of nationalist Republicans, business leaders, and philanthropists to build central power in the federal government. During the 2016/17 academic year, he will teach at Loyola University Maryland.


[1] See Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press, 2009); and The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

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