Book Forum on Philanthropy in Democratic Societies / New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

Why is the History of Philanthropy not a Part of American History?

Editors’ Note: We have asked the authors of the recently-published volume Philanthropy in Democratic Societies to present synopses of their contributions. Continuing this forumOlivier Zunz discusses his chapter on the historical study of philanthropy. 

If philanthropy were only an activity of the very wealthy, then the historical inquiry could safely center on the democratic legitimacy of large donations. But the debate takes on a larger significance when one realizes that not only the few but the many contribute to philanthropy. Why aren’t more historians trying to understand how the capitalist system, based on generating profit, can simultaneously produce a nonprofit sector? Why are historians ignoring an enormous experimental power that has mediated and continues to mediate much of the interaction between state and civil society?

This has not always been the case. Both “progressive” and “consensus” historians had converging views on the influence of philanthropy. They understood philanthropy’s ubiquity, the broad spectrum of participation underwriting it, the mix of self-interest and altruism characterizing it, and its consequences for social change.

Representative of the progressive view is Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization, first published in 1927. The Beards explained that the wealthy transformed “noblesse oblige” into a generalized system of “prevention,” which in turn led to a systematic “attack on the roots of poverty and distress.” The Beards also witnessed the growth of mass philanthropy stimulated by humanitarian efforts during the First World War, public health campaigns, and community funds. They recognized that not just the rich but “all classes of American society were stirred to action.” That was the most significant assertion on the part of authors who intended their book to be not only a “history of civilization,” but also “an instrument of civilization.”

The Beards’ influence on the writing of American history continued unabated during the postwar years under the leadership of University of Wisconsin historian Merle Curti, who specifically recognized the history of philanthropy’s potential for reading American history in a new way. Other historians of the postwar years left the progressive heritage behind in favor of a new “cult of consensus.” It is all the more remarkable that the more conservative historians associated with the consensus school, Daniel Boorstin first among them, shared the Beards and Curti’s inclusive view of philanthropy. They were impressed by the level of participation in philanthropic causes. Boorstin emphasized giving not only by the well-to-do but also by the mass of Americans—not just the “millions of dollars” but the “millions of pennies.”

Then most historians fell silent. To suggest a partial explanation as to why philanthropy has for all practical purposes disappeared from the narrative of American history, I focus in my paper on three distinct subfields: business history, the history of foreign policy, and policy history.

Business historians should have had much to say about the ways in which capitalists fund parallel nonprofit organizations devoted to reinvesting their wealth. That they have not is an odd story of attention diverted during the Great Depression. As businesses collapsed, and philanthropies, if still functioning, proved unequal to the task of helping the needy or reversing the tide (despite U.S. President Herbert Hoover’s calling on them to come to the rescue), a dark assessment of big-money philanthropy found a ready publicist in Matthew Josephson. In The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 (1934), Josephson embarked on an unequivocal attack on the wealthy, as one-sided as the muckrakers’ exposés he largely copied. Business history, to the extent that it emerged as a visible subfield at mid-century, became in substantial part a rebuttal of Josephson. It developed as a morality play, where neo-muckrakers and writers of company history assigned fixed roles to their characters and then exchanged gunshots on their behalf. They were not seriously investigating philanthropy. Rather, they were using it to score points. One side exposed manipulative strategies behind giving by the wealthy; the other praised their generosity.

When Alfred Chandler decisively reoriented business history with the publication of The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977), the debate on philanthropy went underground with the Robber Barons. From Chandler’s masterful revision emerged, no longer a morality play, but an “organizational synthesis,” alas one that was now blind to that sense of large philanthropic participation in society which the Beards, Curti, and Boorstin had heralded.

Historians of foreign relations in the last forty years have also neglected philanthropy. Although often informed by social history, they did not emulate the refreshing assessment of the philanthropic and humanitarian work many ordinary Americans had done abroad, often without official sanction, that Merle Curti had offered in American Philanthropy Abroad (1963).

There are some hopeful signs that this theme is resurfacing. The history of foreign relations has recently focused on nonstate actors—mass philanthropic organizations and NGOs. Studies of international humanitarianism and human rights are combining into a new international history. Not all of these studies connect their subjects to philanthropy, but the connection is unavoidable.

Moreover, participants in a still young collaborative venture between policy history and political science are documenting the coming of what they label a “contract state.” Pioneers here were historians Ellis Hawley and Barry Karl who brought to light the importance of foundations and think tanks as policy incubators in the Hoover years. Others have focused on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, which were so clearly dependent on efficiently linking resources from governments and nonprofits in a mixed political economy.

I must add that women’s history has been the subfield where philanthropy has received the highest recognition for its role in formulating important social policies and funding social movements. There is fortunately beginning to appear also a literature on philanthropy’s support of the civil rights movement as the most striking testimony in the history of the twentieth century to the multiple alliances among sectors of society in the name of justice, and the place where funding and politics most openly meet.

Historians have perhaps been reluctant to conceive of giving as a broad historical subject ever since they abandoned the notion of national character that progressive and consensus historians shared. In my essay, I do not suggest to revive such a study of national character any more than I did in my book, Philanthropy in America. I see giving as a strategy of social change, made all the more important in a political economy that combines state and civil society resources. A continuing reflection on philanthropy in American history is needed not only for the sake of historians encompassing all dimensions of the past, but also for them to play their civic role and help the country debate its goals.

-Olivier Zunz

Olivier Zunz, Commonwealth Professor of History, University of Virginia, is the author of Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton, 2012). 

2 thoughts on “Why is the History of Philanthropy not a Part of American History?

  1. Without detracting at all from Prof. Zunz’ discussion here, there is a deeper approach to the history of philanthropy in America, connecting it directly with the long Classical tradition of the concept going back to its original coinage in Prometheus Bound (line 11), grounding it in our founding as a nation, and continuing today among leading philanthropists. On page 1, paragraph 1, of the First Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton launched the Founders’ argument for ratification of our Constitution, saying: “It has been frequently remarked” that Americans were at a new place in history, testing whether human societies can create good government by reflection and choice, rather than accident and force. “This idea will add THE INDUCEMENTS OF PHILANTHROPY (caps mine) to those of patriotism….” This, I suggest, is the LOCUS CLASSICUS for any adequate treatment of American philanthropy.

    What Hamilton was saying was that our Founders intended this to be a philanthropic nation, in the Classical humanistic sense of “loving humanity” or humaneness, capable of raising the human condition itself—i.e. the quality of life for all mankind—to a higher and nobler level, through our predicating values of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. It was in this Classical tradition that all our major social movements have arisen—e.g., anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, the environmental movement, et al.

    I believe the reason this profound text and theme have not been noticed by historians is that we have been mistaught to think the word “philanthropy” means only “giving”, or what modern foundations and wealthy people do, so that its significant place in the opening paragraph of the Federalist Papers has been meaningless—not appreciated. But this is an unhistorical misunderstanding; the Founders got the word from philosophers in the Scottish Enlightenment (e.g. Shaftesbury, Hutchison), for whom “philanthropy” in the Classical Greek sense was the cardinal ethical precept. This etymologically and historically correct understanding of the word was lost in the 19th and 20th centuries with the decline of Classics and the rise of social sciences, for which it had no significance. By the end of the last century, the word was almost completely absent from our profession, until revived by laymen in reference to their own philanthropy (e.g. Gates/Buffett, Bono, Brangelina) and currently by a few humanistic historians within the field.

    For those of us who are working to revive a culture of philanthropy in America, this deeper thread of our history can be an eloquent and powerful instrument.


  2. I think Professor Zunz’s comments are seriously misleading. It may well be that philanthropy should play a greater role than it does in introductory history textbooks, but I see increasing amounts of interest in the field from social historians and business historians. There’s still a lot more work to do, of course, but there is a lot more to read about the history of philanthropy than when I started researching the field in 1989.


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