Orphan Trains has twin merits. It is a thoughtful and evenhanded biography of one of the greatest (and unjustly forgotten) figures in American philanthropic history: Charles Loring Brace, who founded New York’s Children’s Aid Society in 1853. As Stephen O’Connor rightly notes, Brace “remains to this day perhaps the preeminent figure in American child welfare history.” In addition, by focusing on the history of CAS the book offers a useful vantage point from which to consider contemporary America’s attempts to assist at-risk youths.
Charles Loring Brace was born in Connecticut in 1826, raised by parents who were disciples of the notable Congregational minister Henry Ward Beecher. Brace attended Yale College and then pursued theological studies at Yale Divinity School and New York’s Union Theological Seminary. He was more interested in social service than in pulpit preaching, however, and soon began to minister to the poor inhabitants of New York’s notorious Five Points slum.
Brace eventually concluded that impoverished adults were frequently lost causes, and he chose instead to aid poor children, because he believed that their lives could more easily be transformed for the better. The specific target of his efforts consisted of the 3,000 or so vagrant children—either orphaned or unsupported by parents—who lived on the streets of mid-19th-century Manhattan (out of a total population of half a million). Brace’s agency for helping them was the CAS, which he headed until his death in 1890.
Brace strove to help the youthful beneficiaries of his charitable work by improving their character, and particularly their capacity for self-reliance. The CAS offered basic education and job training at numerous industrial schools, and it provided lodging houses for young boys and girls without parental support who earned their living in street trades—for example, by selling newspapers or shining shoes. (The youthful inhabitants of these lodging houses paid a nominal fee for room and board, because Brace believed that charity does moral harm when it gives something for nothing.)
But the most important CAS program—and the appropriate focus of Orphan Trains—was what Brace called its “Emigration Plan.” Brace believed that children’s lives could be improved by growing up in a more wholesome environment. Kids from the city slums (often but not always orphans) were sent westward, to live with new families who sometimes adopted the kids and sometimes hired them as workers. Between 1854 and 1929, the CAS transported over 100,000 New York children on the “orphan trains” to start new lives in this way.
O’Connor’s ambivalent assessment of the program is suggested by the book’s subtitle: in his view, the program “saved” some slum kids and “failed” others. To illustrate these divergent outcomes, O’Connor spends a great deal of time telling the story of one boy who rode an orphan train and became governor of the territory of Alaska—and the story of another who was executed after being convicted of two murders.
O’Connor does not suggest that the Emigration Plan was somehow responsible for these murders, because he understands that in social service, “the most earnest and well-conceived efforts often come to nothing.” On the other hand, while O’Connor does not assert that the plan failed, he rightly argues that we have no idea how often it succeeded, and neither did Brace.
The success of the program was and is hard to assess, because after children were placed with families, there was almost no way for the CAS to check on the children. No more than 5 percent of the families that took in children responded to the CAS’s subsequent requests for information about the placements. And as O’Connor points out, before telephones and automobiles existed, CAS staffers themselves could not easily check up on the children’s new families.
O’Connor’s book invites comparisons between Brace’s handling of foster care and its more bureaucratically structured administration today. To their credit, social service agencies undoubtedly have far better and more detailed records today than Brace’s CAS did, and they monitor children’s placements much more closely.
On the other hand, our uncontestable gain in administrative efficiency has arguably been matched by a loss in moral purpose. Brace’s child-welfare policy explicitly sought to assist children in developing the virtues—such as “economy, good order, cleanliness, and morality”—that he reasonably believed would enable them to lead healthy lives as self-reliant adults.
By contrast, social-service agencies today shy away from the project of shaping character in any comparable way. They—and American society as a whole—too often lack the moral self-confidence, the conviction that some traits are indisputably virtues and others indisputably vices, that is needed to foster good character.
As O’Connor observes (he does not mean this as a criticism, though one might reasonably view it that way), the CAS today—in this respect like virtually all other mainstream child-welfare agencies—has “long since ceased to strive to save children by encouraging them to be virtuous or independent.” One can only wonder whether it now does more or less to help children than it did under the leadership of its founder.
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editor of Philanthropy and the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.