New Works in the Field

Term of Abuse, Term of Praise: A History of the idea of the Philanthropist, From John Howard’s Day to our Own

Editors’ Note: Benjamin Soskis reviews The Reputation of Philanthropy Since 1750 Britain and Beyond, by Hugh Cunningham.

Hugh Cunningham’s new book, The Reputation of Philanthropy Since 1750 Britain and Beyond, helps to explain two conundrums related to discussions of contemporary philanthropy. The first is why, when referring to a philanthropist, do most people instantly imagine Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, or some other fantastically wealthy person, living or deceased, who has given large sums of money to charitable organizations? After all, the term itself, derived from the Greek philanthrôpía, translates roughly as “the friend of all humankind.” There is nothing in its etymology which should attach itself exclusively to oversized financial contributions.

The second question is why many people nowadays, when they refer to that philanthropist, don’t do so with the warm-heartedness you might expect a friend of humanity to engender. You’re just as often to get snicker, a rueful shake of the head, a roll of the eyes. Cunningham makes clear that these sorts of reactions aren’t novel. He quotes a London Times article from 1914, for instance, that claimed that “Philanthropist is about as much a term of abuse as of praise.” But Cunningham outlines that this abuse has a much longer historical legacy, extending well beyond the early 20th century (the Rockefeller charter fight, in other words, was not the beginning of the story). Contempt for philanthropists, understood as wealthy donors, he explains, is built upon deeper foundations of disdain for a broader understanding of what philanthropy encompasses.

Cunningham addresses these questions, within in a British context, by highlighting what’s become an important theme in many of the most important recent books on the history of voluntarism: the fluid and contested nature of what constitutes philanthropy, who is identified as practicing it, and what makes that practice legitimate. As Cunningham very forthrightly acknowledges, he has not written a history of giving or of voluntarism; those looking for rich biographical profiles or programmatic descriptions will be disappointed. Instead, he has written a version of what is sometimes termed “reception history.” Using online databases, he’s tracked a number of keywords—especially “philanthropy” and “philanthropist,” against some alternatives, such as “charity,” “benevolence,” and “service”—in public discourse: in newspapers (with special attention to the Times), periodicals, and books (fiction and non-fiction). Armed with that data, Cunningham chronicles how the meanings and associations of those terms have changed over time.

He finds that before the mid-eighteenth century, the terms philanthropy, and especially philanthropist, had little purchase in mainstream British discourse. There was a steady increase in their usage throughout the nineteenth century, with a peak in the 1880s and 1890s, and then a significant drop-off in the twentieth century. By 1940s, with the installation of the British welfare state, philanthropy and its cognates were mentioned less frequently in the publications Cunningham surveyed than they had been in the 1760s. Cunningham’s book is premised on the belief that these changes matter, that shifts in terminology and classification are manifestations of more “fundamental changes in thinking, feeling and acting.” His book makes a strong case that they do. If those changes are not revelatory of any major social changes in British history—there are no surprises for historians of British voluntarism in the book—they do clearly document the unstable legacy of philanthropy as a social ideal, one whose volatility is very much on display in our current day.


After some preliminary historiographical table-setting, Cunningham’s story begins with eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard. Howard was the first individual to be famous as a philanthropist—in fact, often as “the philanthropist.” In the eighteenth century, when the term first began to be widely used in Britain, it expressed Enlightenment virtues, describing a commitment to rationality and to universality (taking in the suffering stranger as much as neighbor or kin), and an optimism about the ability to improve the world. But, as Cunningham makes clear, it also carried a suggestion of Romanticism, depicting a powerful feeling, an overwhelming love for mankind.

Howard embodied both of these dimensions. As High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, he became aware of the horrid conditions in local jails, and with the fact that many individuals remained in them merely because they could not pay off debts incurred to the jailor. This discovery sparked a single-minded commitment to prison reform and a tour of prisons in England and continental Europe. Howard wasn’t known for his charisma—he was by most accounts socially awkward. And though he was a man of considerable inherited wealth, he wasn’t known for monetary benefactions. Instead, he was celebrated for his willingness to put aside his own comfort and safety on these fact-finding tours, risking “jail fever,” now known as typhus, to tend to individual prisoners. On one such campaign—his last, it turns out—he caught typhus in the Ukraine and died there in 1790.

Howard’s legacy, as Cunningham explains, was powerful yet complex. In the 1780s and 1790s, paeans to Howard as a “philanthropic hero” proliferated. He was praised for the universalism of his philanthropy but also as a symbol of national pride—signifying Britain’s distinctive claims to benevolence. Yet he left behind no organization or movement to carry on his mission, though in the coming decades, the idea of philanthropy would be closely attached to the surge in reformist organizations. Perhaps his most significant bequest to future generations was the ideal of the philanthropist as a distinct social type.

However, that ideal, no sooner eulogized, came under sustained assault. For one, through the association with Howard, “philanthropy” maintained strong connections to the cause of prison reform, whose advocates, like Howard, often promoted solitary confinement and hard labor along with other means of rehabilitating prisoners. Depending on what one made of those reforms, philanthropy could be repudiated as either too hard- or soft-hearted (in fact, soon after Howard’s death, a gendered critique of philanthropy as overly sentimental and effeminate began to develop).

Even more significant, philanthropy found itself vulnerable to attack from conservatives because of its association with the French Revolution, and especially with Jacobin (and British) radicalism, through the shared commitment to universalism. The “homicide philanthropy of France,” insisted Edmund Burke, ended at the guillotine, eating away at natural attachments to family, friends, and ultimately, country.

If philanthropy’s reputation among many Brits languished after the French Revolution, in the following decades, its linkages to anti-slavery activism, culminating in the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and then in slavery itself in 1833, elevated its status. Anti-slavery activists didn’t necessarily call themselves philanthropists, but their opponents did; the term was meant to capture, in an adaptation of the Burkean critique, the activists’ abstract and pretended regard for far-off strangers, while ignoring the suffering of those closer to home, British laborers whose livelihoods depended on the industry the slave trade promoted. (Charles Dickens would play on these critiques in his caricature of Mrs. Jellyby and her “telescopic philanthropy” in Bleak House). Paradoxically, the epithet of philanthropist was supposed to connote that anti-slavery activists suffered from excessive commitment to a cause—it was frequently joined with accusation of being “Puritanical”—as well as being fundamentally duplicitous. Philanthropy was assumed to be a mask for some baser instinct—the drive for financial gain or increased professional status, for instance.

And yet because for most British citizens, abolition of the slave trade was extremely popular, philanthropy’s status rebounded. The mid-Victorian years, writes Cunningham, were “the highpoint of the reputation of philanthropy.” Philanthropy also experienced a decisive shift in the identities of its most prominent acolytes, from Enlightenment to evangelical reformers. The term became increasingly applied to the professional “do-gooders” who staffed various benevolent agencies. It also began a dalliance with the discipline of political economy, though it was a stormy relationship. Some critics insisted that philanthropy, as practiced by reformers, had not accepted the discipline imposed by political economy, that it was impractical and too distanced from the dictates of the market and thus often did more harm than good (for instance, by encouraging dependency or coddling criminals). These attacks were often blatantly gendered; one critic spoke of “soi-disant philanthropists – the smelling-bottle and white handkerchief gentry of the present day.”

Yet by the final decades of the nineteenth century, philanthropy had developed closer bonds to political economy, to capitalism, and most significantly, to a rising corps of industrial capitalists. This development included an early version of what today might be considered impact investing: “5 percent philanthropy,” in which a philanthropist would accept submarket rates of return for investments into working-class housing stock. This was understood by its champions as a higher form of philanthropy, which allowed recipients to remain in market relations and not be demeaned by the indignities of charity. Even more generally, philanthropy came to be associated with the application of principles of rationality to social problems. This definition extended even to “the philanthropist” himself. At the centennial of his death, in 1890 the London Times noted that John Howard was celebrated less as a man of feeling than as one who “applied to philanthropy, almost for the first time, a patient process of research and inductive reasoning.”

The volume of discussion about philanthropy in the British press was near its highest point in the 1890s but it began to drop steadily at the start of the new century. This presents a strange trajectory, at least for a contemporary American reader: the moment at which philanthropy becomes associated with big donors—so familiar to our own understanding of the term—is also when it begins its decline as a central one in much of British political discourse.

In one sense, then, Cunningham’s British focus, coupled with his book’s particular timeframe, delivers something of an anti-climax, as much of the final section of the book is taken up with a narrative of eclipse or displacement—in two respects. First, the growth of the welfare state, of labor as a political force and of professionalized social work left an increasingly cramped space for philanthropy as a central keyword or ideal, one in which it was often characterized as amateurish and undemocratic. The other “crowding out” happened at a transnational level. For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British citizens could claim, with some justification, to be the most philanthropic country in the world, at least to the extent that they exemplified a certain dominant ideal of voluntary action. But for the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, when philanthropy became associated with the giving of large-scale financial donations, it was the United States that most often claimed to be the standard-bearer of the ideal.

This was the case because, at the end of the 19th century, the wealthiest Americans had much larger fortunes than did the wealthiest Brits (Cunningham cites research that claims American millionaires were twenty times wealthier than British business millionaires). It wouldn’t be till the establishment of the Nuffield Foundation in 1943 the Britain could claim a philanthropic foundation close to the same scale as the foundations that were proliferating in the United States. (Cunningham does note that, far from lamenting this imbalance, plenty of Brits insisted that it showed the superior egalitarianism of the British political system).

For this reason, the final section of the book, on the restoration of philanthropy’s salience in British public discourse, attached to “the critique of and rolling back of the welfare state, the growth of inequality and extreme wealth” and the rise of entrepreneurialism, represents a sort of transatlantic convergence. “The most fundamental change in the history of philanthropy, its monetisation, was a gradual process in Britain, but a sudden one in the United States,” writes Cunningham. Cunningham notes, for instance, that it was only in the most recent 21st-century edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that philanthropy was associated especially with the giving away of money. There was no mention of such an association when a previous edition was published in 1989 (and none in the first edition in 1909). He might also have mentioned that the term philanthrocapitalism, which came to stand-in for many of the market-based, high-net-worth trends in philanthropy, American and European, at the turn of this century, was coined by two Brits, one an editor at the Economist.

Cunningham’s narrative leads to an important question for contemporary readers: given the fluidity of philanthropy’s meanings and associations over the last several centuries, what should—or can—we make of the term today? His book ends with those associations being closely tethered to large-scale gifts from wealthy donors. But fueled by concerns with the fact that an increasingly large proportion of aggregate giving totals are coming from such donations, and that the donor base seems to be shrinking, recent campaigns have developed to “democratize” the title of philanthropist and to make sure that a wide range of givers, not just wealthy white men, are comfortable claiming it and are granted the respect the title confers. (See, for instance, the “I am a Philanthropist” campaign, sponsored by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, in partnership with YWCA and Facebook, or The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy, which presents philanthropy as the giving not just of money but of time, talent, and testimony, and argues that “too few Black women think of themselves as philanthropists” because the term “has been co-opted by elites.”)

On the one hand, Cunningham’s book would seem to support these efforts. If philanthropy has meant many other things in the past, there’s no reason it shouldn’t mean other things in the future; certainly, if John Howard were alive today, he would likely feel greater affinity for small acts of personal service and sacrifice than for the nine-digit donations announced in a New York Times op-ed. Yet, another reading of Cunningham’s book would offer a word of caution about such attempts to reclaim the term ‘philanthropy’ for small gifts, and this concern points to an ambiguity at the heart of Cunningham’s analysis. Throughout the book, two different understandings of the relationship between keywords and social change are advanced: changes in the shared definitions of those terms can reflect social and economic reality or can be agents in that reshaping. If the current push to redefine who is a philanthropist represents the former, there is the danger that such a campaign can obscure the current reality. In fact, part of me worries about seeking to banish the elitist associations of philanthropy, since those associations underscore key dimensions of political economy in which giving now transpires. If small donors want to call themselves and be celebrated as philanthropists, we should not lose sight of the very real disparities of resources and power between them and those who currently monopolize the title. In other words, we should be careful in asking nomenclature to do the work of politics. If we want to democratize the meaning of philanthropy, and to promote alternative, more egalitarian associations, one surer way to do so would be to address those disparities, through tax policy and regulation, at their roots.

-Benjamin Soskis

Benjamin Soskis is the co-editor of HistPhil and a research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s