New Works in the Field

The Long History of U.S. Philanthropy Abroad

Editors’ Note: Anelise Hanson Shrout introduces her recent chapter-length review of scholarship on U.S. philanthropy in the Early Republic, published in A Companion to the History of U.S. Foreign Relations: Colonial Era to the Present (ed. Christopher R.W. Dietrich) (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2020). Here, Shrout argues that: “The fact that a wide range of people and institutions, often with different—or even competing—motivations, came in these years to consider their obligations to people across national borders, and, furthermore, acted financially and materially on those obligations, helps to decenter Gilded Age titans as originators and definers of U.S. international philanthropy and to extend the timeline of international philanthropic history to include the eighteenth century.”

For historians of the United States, the phrase “international philanthropy” conjures up large foundations (such as MacArthur, Gates, and Hewlett), intertwined with government in both official and unofficial ways, and working to effect change for global social benefit. These named foundations, and others, were built on a model that originated in the first few decades of the twentieth century, when wealthy industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie set up eponymous foundations to (in the words of Rockefeller) “promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”

This is obviously a gloss on a rich and expansive body of scholarship, though the dominance of named foundations in the U.S. philanthropic sector today has meant that many historians have located the origins of U.S. international philanthropy in the early twentieth century, and in the motivations of (mostly white, male and American) founder-philanthropists. While their stories are an important part of the development of U.S. international philanthropy, these men were neither the first people in the United States to consider their obligations to people at a distance, nor the first to send money overseas.

As the title of Merle Curti’s foundational text reminds us, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, charity in the United States was transformed into American Philanthropy Abroad. In my recent review of the scholarship on philanthropy in the Early Republic for the Companion to the History of U.S. Foreign Relations, I argue for a “big tent” approach to the history of U.S. philanthropy on the global stage. Such a tent would accommodate individual donations of a few cents sent by people in North America to distant victims of famine, multimillion-dollar infrastructural campaigns headquartered in the United States and targeted at “developing” countries in the Global South, and everything in between. This expansive framework makes historiographically visible people who gave money in the past, but who have not been included in many historians’ frameworks of U.S. international philanthropy. This framework also highlights the ways in which distant giving has long been a way for both individuals and institutions in the U.S. to engage with the world beyond the country’s borders.

In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States, governing bodies, collectives and individuals; men and women; wealthy and working-class people; U.S. citizens, immigrants, free people, enslaved people, and Native people sent money beyond the boundaries of the United States. These donors used a multiplicity of terms to describe their acts of giving. Some used words such as “charity” or “alms,” which could, but did not necessarily, signify donations a religious cause. For example, in a January 1794 Congressional debate, U.S. Representative Elias Boudinot argued that the U.S. government had a long tradition of expenditures to aid people outside of the United States. He invoked “Indians [who] frequently come down to this city on embassies” and who “were unable to pay for themselves.” In these cases, “the Executive, without consulting Congress at all pay their lodging for weeks, nay for whole months together.” Boudinot contended that this “act of charity” clearly set a precedent for other kinds of distant giving. This example illustrates one of the many descriptors of philanthropy, but also clearly demonstrates the ways in which philanthropy was deployed in service of imperial projects in the early United States.

Other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators used terms such as “humanitarian” or “humanitarianism” to signal interest in the humanity of others, material aid that transcended national or religious identities, or fundraising campaigns in service of particular causes. One such campaign, detailed in Amanda Moniz’s excellent From Empire to Humanity (2016), was led by “resuscitation” societies in Europe and North America. These societies began as efforts to save people from drowning, and evolved to include aid to shipwrecked mariners. Still other early U.S. philanthropists used the Greek “filantropía” (love of mankind) or the English “philanthropy.” For example, a report in the New York Tribune of a meeting held in New York City in 1846 to raise money for “Suffering Millions in Ireland” celebrated the over eight hundred dollars raised as “results honorable to the philanthropy of New York, and cheering to many a despondent heart.” Still other early U.S. philanthropists used simply “donations,” “aid,” or “funds.” Each of these terms could be used to refer to both local and distant giving.

In addition to using many and varied words to describe giving, international philanthropists from the U.S. also associated these terms with diverse and emotion-laden motives. Determining the authentic interiority of people in the past is likely impossible, though historians of emotion have worked to parse historical emotional expressions for modern audiences. Nicole Eustace’s Passion is the Gale (2008) details, for instance, the eighteenth-century significance of emotional words that might have prompted philanthropic acts. According to Eustace, the word “mercy” implied that the donor was in a position to judge the recipient, but that they were also able to (and did) use their donation to offer clemency. The word “pity” similarly signaled judgement, but instead of clemency offered moral censure. Although “compassion” did not imply judgement, it was an emotion that was directed to someone who was in distress by a person who was free from it. In consequence, “compassion” could be a term that indicated a difference in social status between giver and recipient. In contrast, “sympathy” was less freighted with status meaning, because it implied shared feeling among social equals. These different emotion-laden terms meant that apparently identical international philanthropic acts might be freighted with significantly different meanings.

Because there was no set and single vocabulary for describing giving in the Early Republic, because the emotions and motivations behind donations varied from person to person and over time, and because donors in this era were testing out different kinds of giving beyond national borders, it might seem as though the category of international philanthropy in the early United States is too fragile to be useful. However, I would like to argue that this variety is precisely what makes international philanthropy from the U.S. during this period worth studying. The fact that a wide range of people and institutions, often with different—or even competing—motivations, came in these years to consider their obligations to people across national borders, and, furthermore, acted financially and materially on those obligations, helps to decenter Gilded Age titans as originators and definers of U.S. international philanthropy and to extend the timeline of international philanthropic history to include the eighteenth century.

This is not to say that U.S. philanthropic causes or movements in the Early Republic did not share important characteristics with those in the Gilded Age. One of the most significant resonances across U.S. philanthropic history is the relationship between philanthropy and imperialism. In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States, international philanthropy was often irrevocably entangled with the nation’s growing empire (as Rep. Boudinot illustrated in his description of financially needy Native diplomats who required U.S. aid). This entanglement was particularly visible in missionary work that sought to convert, save or reform the world beyond the boundaries of the United States and Europe. Historians, including Emily Conroy-Krutz and Ian Tyrrell, have argued that international missionary projects were manifestations of imperial assumptions that people who were not white, European, or U.S. citizens were and always would be, “civilizationally inferior” and consequently in need of philanthropic aid. This framing echoes debates about modern U.S. philanthropy, which consider the degree to which international philanthropic foundations and institutions in the U.S. have worked as a “soft power” empire facilitating the expansion and promulgation of U.S. capitalism, power and ideals throughout the world. Considering earlier international philanthropic projects (such as those spearheaded by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or the Catholic Church in the United States) as part of this longer history of soft power helps to explain some of the institutions that were already “on the ground” for the advent of foundation philanthropy in the twentieth century.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to note that the majority of this post, and much of the scholarship on international philanthropy in the early United States centers the experiences of people who were white, and middle-class or elite. This is despite longstanding philanthropic traditions among people of African descent and indigenous people living within what are now the borders of the United States. However, historians of U.S. international philanthropy rarely put the giving practiced by these groups in the same conceptual frame as that of white philanthropists. I would argue that those of us who study early U.S. international philanthropy must include in our historiographical cannons scholars such as Dylan C. Penningroth, Midori Takagi, and Ira Berlin, who have demonstrated that enslaved people accrued capital, in part, to participate in church-based philanthropy, much of which remained within local communities, but some of which was sent overseas. This Black international philanthropy supported missionary and colonization society work in Africa. It also supported as disaster relief in other parts of the world.  For example, in 1847 the First African Baptist Church of Richmond collected funds “for the suffering poor of Ireland.”

Historians of U.S. international philanthropy should also engage with scholars who fundamentally decenter the United States as a political entity. For example, Julie L. Reed’s Serving the Nation (2016) explores the ways in which charity within the Cherokee nation developed to counteract the nominally (according to U.S. government officials) benevolent but decidedly imperialist programs associated with the burgeoning American welfare state. Works like those mentioned here force historians of U.S. philanthropy to consider what our own narratives about the history of U.S. philanthropy would look like if we move beyond white donors and white institutions, to explore the wide range of transnational giving practices and a broader diversity of donors.

These brief thoughts are not meant to merely extend the timeline of the history of philanthropy and suggest that the kind of giving practiced by people living within the borders of the early United States inevitably inspired Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller in their own efforts to expand their philanthropic work on the global stage. The experiences, practices, and habits of these early U.S. donors to international causes signaled earlier engagement with the world among Americans than many histories of international U.S. philanthropy might suggest and offer a richer version of the long history of international U.S. philanthropy.

-Anelise Hanson Shrout

Anelise Hanson Shrout holds a PhD in Atlantic history from New York University. She is currently an assistant professor, focusing on digital history and humanities, in the Digital and Computational Studies program at Bates College. Her work explores non-elite participation in international philanthropy in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world.


Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. Pantheon, 1975.

Conroy-Krutz, Emily. Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic. The United States in the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Curti, Merle. American Philanthropy Abroad. New Brunswick, N.J.,: Rutgers University Press, 1963.

Eustace, Nicole. Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. UNC Press Books, 2008.

Moniz, Amanda B. From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims of Kinfolk African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Reed, Julie L. Serving the Nation: Cherokee Sovereignty and Social Welfare, 1800–1907. University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

Shrout, Anelise Hanson. “Time, Talent, and Treasure: Philanthropy in the Early Republic.” In A Companion to US Foreign Relations: Colonial Era to the Present, edited by Christopher R. W. Dietrich. John Wiley & Sons, 2020.

Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction : Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Tyrrell, Ian. Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. Princeton University Press, 2010.


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