This was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on December 16, 2016.
If you think 2016 is the first time Americans have faced serious cultural problems and political dysfunction, think again. In the first half of the nineteenth century, alcohol consumption was three to four times current levels. Racial and ethnic antagonism was endemic. Riots and gang fights were common on the streets.
In politics, partisan feuds were often bloody. A tussle in the presidential race won by Andrew Jackson concerned who would be the more shameful first lady: Mrs. Jackson or Mrs. Adams. At that year’s inaugural reception, the crowd broke much of the White House glassware while pawing their way to the whiskey punch and cake. The mayhem was relieved only when White House stewards placed tubs of liquor on the lawn to draw people outside.
Then, as now, government entities and the political process showed little or no effectiveness at solving cultural rifts. How did we get from there to the Greatest Generation?
Americans dismayed by cultural crudity and dirty politics didn’t retreat into private affairs. They fought back, but not through elections. Instead, savvy cultural leaders, businessmen, preachers, and patriotic citizens built a series of philanthropic groups that targeted everything from illiteracy to poverty to moral decay. Men and women, like New York merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan, launched thousands of energetic charitable groups that collectively became known as the Benevolent Empire. These new charities took on America’s toughest problems.
• A vast movement to encourage voluntary temperance led by grassroots volunteers who were disproportionately women, as well as pastors and business leaders concerned about the workforce, chopped alcohol consumption to 2.6 gallons per capita from 7.5 gallons, according to U.S. Census data. This was before the government intervened with ill-fated Prohibition edicts.
• Sunday schools provided free literacy instruction and moral training to the half of U.S. children who received no formal schooling at that time.
• Legions of donors and volunteers, including the Tappan brothers, employed a blend of direct mail, legal defense, religious appeal and mass persuasion to make slavery odious to a large group of Americans for the first time, a generation before the government intervened.
• Charitable interventions from groups like the YMCA and American Sunday School Union healed cultural fractures, crime and community breakdown that were the result of immigration, industrialization and migration from small towns to big cities.
• Civil-society campaigns like the Chautauqua movement turned self improvement and continuing education into deep national habits.
We may think of sobriety, industriousness, thrift, neighborliness, self-discipline and truthfulness as classic American virtues, but they were far from universal before philanthropic reformers went to work. American philanthropy today is still capable of leading important alterations in society. Many examples already exist.
The most successful school reforms of the last two decades—charter schools, improved teacher assessment, new digital-learning options, Teach for America and the best STEM programs—were all sparked by philanthropy.
For urgent needs like job training, helping immigrants assimilate, repairing broken families, moving the homeless into the workforce, and fighting drug addiction, today’s most effective programs are voluntary efforts run by charitable organizations like the Doe Fund, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, and thousands of other grassroots groups. They work because what happens in our hearts, homes and interactions with neighbors are often more effective in shaping the nation than most of what happens in politics or policy.
When Americans address social maladies through community efforts, we do more than improve our neighborhoods. Energetic philanthropy can bring practical healing to our homes and streets and at the same time be an antidote to toxic political unrest. Grassroots action can ratchet down the polarization and anger bedeviling national politics. When people are involved in bettering their own place, they feel included in public life.
Mr. Zinsmeister, chief domestic policy adviser to President Bush (2006-09), is the author of “What Comes Next? How private giving can rescue America in an era of political frustration,” just out from The Philanthropy Roundtable.