Never mind the Wright brothers. Ignore the Kennedys. Forget the Kochs. Arthur and Lewis Tappan had a bigger transformative effect on America than any other brothers in our history.
Highly successful Wall Street merchants and energized evangelical Christians, the Tappan brothers mastered both sides of the philanthrocapitalist formula. Amid the popular revival known as our Second Great Awakening, their organizing, giving, and undaunted leadership powered a flurry of influential culture reforms. The America they left behind was profoundly different from the Jacksonian society in which they came of age—in large measure thanks to their philanthropic action.
Arthur and Lewis grew up in a middle-class home in small-town western Massachusetts, thoroughly immersed in Puritan culture and religion. They were introduced as young men to the writings of British philanthropist and politician William Wilberforce, recommended by their uncle for three qualities: his “ardent piety,” his “patriotism,” and his “philanthropy.”
The boys’ mother was kin to Ben Franklin, and in their marriages they connected themselves to other public-spirited American families. Lewis’s father-in-law was a famously kind, religious, and locally beloved physician in Brookline, Massachusetts, who saved many lives from smallpox and other afflictions. Arthur’s bride grew up in the New York City home of Alexander Hamilton. Her father had been one of Hamilton’s closest friends during the Revolution, so when both of her parents died while she was a toddler, Hamilton stepped in as surrogate father and raised her like one of his own offspring.
Though they were excoriated in the partisan press, physically attacked, and eventually financially ruined through business boycotts, the Tappans never blanched from their culture-change philosophy.
As young men, Arthur and Lewis pitched in on a variety of charitable causes. Arthur supported many churches in lower Manhattan. He campaigned for businesses to give their workers Sunday off as a day of rest. He founded missionary groups, and battled sex trafficking. He was a director of the Seaman’s Friend Society that offered aid to elderly sailors. Lewis volunteered as a counselor with a temperance group, and donated and raised money to support the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, Hospital for the Sick, Asylum for the Insane, and Asylum for Indigent Boys. He supported the American Bible Society, and helped start the Boston Provident Institution—one of the very first banks created to help the poor accumulate wealth.
After the textile business Lewis had built to success became overextended and went bankrupt, he went to work as a partner in Arthur’s silk-importing firm. The two labored hand-in-glove for much of the rest of their lives. Arthur was already making a remarkable array of potent donations, establishing new charities, and offering them managerial expertise. When he saw up close the life his brother had carved out as a Christian businessman and philanthropist in Manhattan, Lewis was deeply impressed.
Arthur had also built his faith right into his merchant practices. He viewed stiff interest charges as un-Christian, so eschewed the common trading practice that joined high prices with easy credit and usurious borrowing rates. Instead, he built his firm on a new pattern of consistently low cash prices, high transparency and fairness, and sterling honesty—yielding heavy sales volumes that made his low-margin model work financially. Arthur used his own funds to boost up libraries, chapels, meeting rooms, and decent rooming houses where young apprentices newly relocated from countryside to city could live, improve themselves, and socialize away from the corrupting streets. He gifted money to many of his former employees to set them up in business, knowing that most would end up competing with him in the same markets.
Looking over his brother’s profoundly ambitious experiment in Christian living, Lewis marveled that “this is enjoying riches in a high degree…in the good he achieves while living.” For both brothers, moral considerations became a centerpiece of their commerce and philanthropy alike. Lewis eventually created (with Arthur as a partner) the first firm for rating the honesty and reliability of businesses and businessmen. It “checks knavery, and purifies the mercantile air,” said Lewis, and eventually evolved into Dun & Bradstreet. It was an ethical and economic two-for-one, because by cleaning up business practices it also reduced the corporate collapses that were then so common, and put national growth on a firmer footing.
Though they labored in close parallel for decades, and agreed on nearly all matters of principle and practice, Arthur and Lewis Tappan had contrasting personalities, and achieved their good works in quite different ways. Arthur was taciturn, sensitive, and a bit forbidding. He kept no guest chairs in his small office because he believed they only encouraged visitors to tarry, distracting him from getting things done.
Lewis was much more social, indeed a tireless extrovert, and a compelling public speaker. He “performed the muscular work” that allowed the brothers’ business ventures and philanthropic projects to thrive. He was a master strategist and natural leader, and showed repeated brilliance at turning current events into object lessons for the American public.
Even at the peak of their business careers and philanthropic leadership, both Lewis and Arthur always made time to join small prayer meetings, visit the sick, and hand out Bibles in the sterile countinghouses lining Wall Street or the dank taverns that sprouted like mushrooms along the East River wharves. There were occasions where they charged into grim brothels “to pluck fallen women from roaring lions who seek to devour them,” placing their rescues in homes with food and clothing, mentoring, and training for respectable employment.
For most of their lives, Arthur was much wealthier than Lewis, and a far heavier donor. (But then, he was a heavier donor than perhaps anyone else in his half century.) Arthur was abstemious and frugal, spending almost nothing on himself, and modestly on his family. He viewed his money as a resource entrusted to him by Providence, to be used accountably to improve life on earth and lift men’s eyes to higher goals. In typical seasons he gave away the lion’s share of his yearly income.
Arthur Tappan had a razor-sharp philanthropic vision and the courage to put down large sums for difficult or unpopular work. He was one of the first American philanthropists to act on a “comprehensive” scale—launching new organizations when they were wanting, sticking with recipient groups through thick and thin over decades, making huge investments in particular charities as they hit a crossroads, pursuing long-term goals.
Almost without exception, Arthur left speaking and writing to others. He made his contributions by volunteering his managerial expertise behind the scenes, soliciting fellow members of his New York City merchant class to pitch in for charitable causes, and making heavy gifts of his own (even when his business and income were tottering). Arthur Tappan’s main means of expressing himself, as one biographer put it, was “the metallic eloquence of his money.”
And that was a huge contribution. “Our great benevolent system owes its expansion and power to his influence,” observed one contemporary. “His example inspired the merchants of New York…leading them to give hundreds and thousands where before they gave tens and fifties.” By the 1820s Arthur was known as the most generous donor in New York City, and is estimated to have donated roughly $50,000 every year for decades. (As a fraction of the national economy, that is the current-day equivalent of distributing more than half a billion dollars annually.) John Pintard, a formidable businessman and Christian philanthropist in his own right, marveled in 1830 that “he is truly a wonderful benefactor.… I wish we had more Arthur Tappans.”
The Tappan brothers were linchpins in building up the so-called Benevolent Empire—a thick web of thousands of local and national charitable groups established in the first half of our nineteenth century to ameliorate a host of social problems plaguing the nation. About half of American children, for instance, were not attending school at that point. So the Tappans, and many allies, fueled the Sunday-school movement—which created tens of thousands of free schools starting in the 1820s, and became the nation’s major source of improved literacy as well as character training.
The Tappans were also stalwarts of the temperance movement. When they began their work, alcohol consumption was shockingly high in the U.S.—three to four times current per capita levels. They subsidized and spread across our land many local programs of education, voluntary persuasion, and peer support that eventually reduced drinking dramatically (which in turn improved family life, public safety, work productivity, and other indicators of societal health).
The brothers planted new churches in New York City and brought in popular pastors like Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher to inspire personal transformations and Christian service. They supported Bible societies, and missions aiding blacks, Indians, poor people overseas, and others. They established several schools and colleges—like Oberlin, which they insisted be open to African Americans and women at a time when that was unknown, and even illegal in many places.
Fired by their deep Christian convictions, the Tappan brothers built the then-controversial cause of abolishing slavery into a popular national movement. Arthur was the lead funder and visionary and Lewis the vital organizer behind the American Anti-Slavery Society. Starting from nothing in 1833, it quickly became the largest and most effective culture-change organization in American history, initiating a massive shift in public sentiment on the most contentious issue our nation has ever faced.
Arthur dispatched 70 talented orators to spread the anti-slavery message all across the countryside. Lewis set up and circulated magazines and journals that could reach everyone from children to pastors to judges. They paid for legal defenses of journalists, teachers, and others who ran afoul of laws perpetuating enslavement. A large grant from Arthur helped put more than a million pieces of anti-slavery literature into the U.S. mail. Lewis brilliantly made a cause célèbre of the trial of some Africans who had taken over their slave ship, the Amistad. The brothers hired interpreters and tutors, engaged a crack legal team that included former President John Quincy Adams, fed daily updates to the national newspapers, and used the incident as a teachable moment that turned many citizens against human bondage.
For sparking the abolition movement in these ways, the Tappans were excoriated in the partisan press, physically attacked, and eventually financially ruined through business boycotts. Vandals destroyed Lewis’s home, trashed Arthur’s store, and wrecked churches established by the brothers. When the Tammany Hall political machine turned a blind eye, this marauding by slavery apologists turned into a seven-day riot that ended only when martial law was declared in Manhattan. Vilification of the Tappans then went national. President Jackson and his underlings encouraged vigilantes to break into post offices and destroy the abolitionist literature mailed by Tappan-supported charities. The brothers were hung in effigy in many cities, and large bounties were offered across the South for their assassination.
Very soon, the liberties of all Americans were imperiled by this backlash against charitable efforts to make the nation understand the true nature of slavery. While “we commenced the present struggle to obtain the freedom of the slave,” commented William Jay, son of first U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay, “we are compelled to continue it to preserve our own. We are now contending, not so much with the slaveholders of the South about human rights, as with the political and commercial aristocracy of the North for the liberty of speech, of the press, and of conscience.”
Arthur and Lewis Tappan never blanched in the face of this pressure. It did eventually cost them their livelihoods. But thanks to their efforts, the hearts and minds of many middle-class Northerners were won over to the cause of emancipation. For the first time in our history, abolition developed a wide popular following. The most consequential social change in the history of the United States had begun, and two philanthropist brothers were at the center of it.
- The Life of Arthur Tappan, Lewis Tappan (General Books, 1870)
- What Comes Next?, Karl Zinsmeister (Philanthropy Roundtable, 2016)