Americans have grown accustomed to certain types of collective biography. We notice volumes that tell the stories of U.S. presidents, literary greats, movie stars, and English royalty—their childhoods, rise to eminence, triumphs and tragedies. But a book on the lives of Amercan philanthropists? Now there’s a new idea, and perhaps one whose time has come.
The making of enormous fortunes in the 1990s has generated great expectations of philanthropy. President Bush now calls on all Americans to mobilize armies of compassion, animated by faith and dedicated to community. So perhaps it makes sense to look back at our history of voluntary benevolence. We need to know more about the men and women whose acts of generosity shaped our nation. Notable American Philanthropists usefully identifies great philanthropists and lists their most important gifts and good deeds. But the reader would be better served had it been organized to describe the history of American philanthropy or to explain how philanthropy serves society.
Editor Robert T. Grimm Jr. defines philanthropy very broadly: It is voluntary giving and action directed toward some notion of the social or common good. The volume looks at 110 individuals and surveys their activities in 80 mainly short (1,500-2,500 words) biographical essays written by 66 scholars. In this volume philanthropy takes in not only the giving of a Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, but it also includes those who today might be labeled “social entrepreneurs.” They include charity pioneers (Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull-House and a leader of the settlement movement), civil rights activists (Martin Luther King Jr. and ACLU founder Roger Baldwin), as well as builders of academic and cultural institutions (Benjamin Franklin, Boston Symphony benefactor Henry Lee Higginson, and think-tank sponsors Herbert Hoover and Robert Brookings). There are many profiles of what might best be called moral reformers like Dorothea Dix, who campaigned for mental hospitals, and Charles Loring Brace, whose “orphan trains” took destitute children from city streets and sent them to new homes out West. And social reformers of all stripes receive considerable attention. They include temperance activist Frances Willard and Sierra Club founder John Muir, Catholic radical Dorothy Day and union organizer Cesar Chavez.
Philanthropy in this reckoning means acting in service to others, an all-encompassing definition that was common in the nineteenth century. Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford, in her foreword to this book, recommends we see philanthropy in this light today. Certainly it has the advantage of allowing for a wide compass of human actions. But Grimm’s volume loses focus and direction precisely because it introduces so many advocates of so many social causes to which it can give only a passing glance.
From the utopian communitarian Robert Owen to birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, there’s an entry for every social concern. Readers who are skeptical of political and social advocacy may find themselves agreeing with the Oscar Wilde character in An Ideal Husband who says, “Philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures.”
This volume succeeds when it keeps to a more contemporary understanding of philanthropy as giving. The most informative biographical entries are about generous givers. These essays persuasively identify notable American philanthropists. They describe individuals who created wealth and then used it in an innovative manner for some larger social purpose.
For example, wholesale dry-goods merchandisers Arthur Tappan (1786-1865) and Lewis Tappan (1788-1873) were inspired by the ideal of Christian service to invent the first business credit-rating agency. Eventually it would become Dun & Bradstreet. They used their income to support the anti-slavery movement; helped bankroll the abolitionist Boston Liberator, edited by William Lloyd Garrison; and arranged for former President John Quincy Adams to argue the cause of Africans imprisoned on the slave-trader Amistad.
Inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper (1791-1883) dreamed of encouraging entrepreneurship and offering practical education to New York City’s working classes. He founded Cooper Union, which remains dedicated to preparing students for careers in art, architecture and engineering.
Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) endowed the Rosenwald Fund to promote teacher education and public schooling for black children. From 1917 to 1939 the fund contributed $28 million to construct 5,300 schools for black children in 14 southern states. Rosenwald is also notable for opposing perpetual endowments because he feared a foundation would become more interested in its own existence than in its mission. The fund—and Rosenwald—are now largely forgotten because the benefactor explicitly stipulated that the endowment’s principal and interest be spent within a generation after his death. Rosenwald made his fortune by turning Sears, Roebuck into the nation’s biggest mail-order retailer.
In 1914 Cleveland banker Frederick Harris Goff (1858-1923) developed the “living trust” to encourage donors to give during their lifetime. But he also created the nation’s first community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, to free donors’ bequests from the “dead hand” of expressed intent, which limited their use.
Midwestern industrialist John M. Olin (1892-1982) changed his foundation’s priorities in response to the political upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead of giving to museums and hospitals, Olin decided to use his philanthropy to support scholars and think-tanks that would wage a war of ideas in defense of democracy and free markets.
Osceola McCarty (1908-1999) gave her life savings of $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi in 1995. A retired African-American laundry worker who never earned more than $9,000 a year, her gift was widely celebrated as testimony to the habit of saving, belief in the importance of education, and faith in God and community.
Some of the best essays look at philanthropic families. Martin Morse Wooster’s essay on Andrew, Ailsa, and Paul Mellon portrays a family’s dedication to art and scholarship that spanned generations. Another Wooster essay on Meyer, Daniel, Solomon, Simon, Harry and Peggy Guggenheim is an entertaining tale of energetic and unusual giving. (After hearing a complaint from Charles Lindbergh, “Harry Guggenheim decided to start a drive to have cities and towns mark their roofs to enable aviators to figure out where they were. . .. By the close of 1929, more than 6,000 communities had added rooftop markings.”)
The lengthy entry on the Rockefeller family and foundations recounts their pioneer giving to social science research aimed at identifying the “root causes” of social problems. Author Kenneth Rose of the Rockefeller Archive Center can’t quite underscore the difference between “wholesale” philanthropy, as the Rockefellers put it, and the “retail” philanthropy of traditional charitable giving because he is obliged to recount the dizzying array of the Rockefellers’ diverse philanthropic interests.
Unfortunately, any compendium produces mixed results. Some philanthropists are well-served by their authors. Leslie Lenkowsky, President Bush’s national and community service chief, writes knowingly about John M. Olin and Pierre Goodrich, founder of the Liberty Fund. George Nash appreciatively recovers the forgotten philanthropic legacy of Herbert Hoover. But other figures (Leland Stanford, David and Lucile Packard) receive ho-hum treatment, their achievements lost in a welter of activities reported one after another.
Readers also will surely be frustrated by several editorial decisions regarding the organization of this book. It’s disheartening to see the entries assembled in alphabetical order. This deliberately undermines any common-sense attempt to place an individual’s philanthropy in historical and social context. Moreover, after a short general introduction, each entry begins with a tiresome lock-step description of the philanthropist’s family life, childhood, education, and early career experiences. The drill dulls the narrative and discourages creative interpretation. The publisher probably thinks this is necessary to hold the attention of younger readers and to justify purchases by school libraries. But from what’s written here I can report: Philanthropists do not have notable childhoods.
Notable American Philanthropists is a worthy effort. We can only hope that the many fine scholars who made contributions to it will be inspired to write other popular treatments of philanthropy outside its peculiar editorial straitjacket.
Robert Huberty is executive vice president and director of research at the Capital Research Center.