Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History
edited by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie
Cambridge University Press, 2002
467 pp., $40
Today, most people’s understanding of the history of American philanthropy is fairly broad but quite thin. Many people can identify key figures in the early development of the field, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, and some understand that American philanthropy sought to escape the limitation of never-ending charity and almsgiving by addressing the root causes of social problems.
This is the approach of historian Robert Bremner’s classic study, American Philanthropy, which can be found in university classrooms, private foundation reference libraries, and on bookshelves in development offices around the country. Though its narrative moves briskly along and never goes too deeply into any particular topic, Bremner’s introductory text has the virtue of giving the novice what he needs: an overview of the field, a compelling story line, and a valuable appendix containing a timeline of key events in the evolution of philanthropy.
Now comes a new history of American philanthropy, an edited volume with the long title Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History that makes two fairly grand claims. The first and most noteworthy claim is that this book is intended to overtake Bremner’s study, which editor Lawrence J. Friedman dismisses as too uncritical and, in the jargon of historians, inadequately historicized. In his introduction, Friedman also makes the audacious claim that because his book is written by historians who share a common set of assumptions and methods, it has greater coherence than other edited volumes written by social scientists from a variety of specializations. Both these claims turn out to be a bit misplaced.
Admittedly, those who know something about the history of American philanthropy (those who have read, say, Bremner) and seek in-depth examinations of a few critical elements in the American philanthropic tradition will find portions of this book quite useful. The volume provides a lot of social, cultural, and political background about the big sweep of giving in America.
Three of the book’s best chapters are those of Peter Dobkin Hall, David Hammack, and Emily Rosenberg. Hall takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the disputes over public-private boundaries involved in giving and the early attempts to create the field of philanthropy. Hammack considers the role of charities and major donors during the Great Depression and finds that there was little deviation during harsh economic times from earlier patterns of giving, with major educational, scientific, and cultural institutions receiving consistent support. Rosenberg delivers a concise and well-organized history of American charitable efforts abroad, including major relief efforts over the past century. The volume also includes fine pieces by Kathleen McCarthy on the way women have shaped the public sphere and by Judith Sealander on the emergence of organized philanthropy and foundations.
The book as a whole, however, suffers at times from a lack of consistency in style and perspective, an ironic fact given the claims made by the editors at the outset. The editors note that they had to reject several manuscripts during the process of turning what were a set of conference papers into the volume. But a number of chapters appear to have slipped by their editorial eyes. Chief among these is a biographical sketch of Mrs. Russell Sage, a major early philanthropist to be sure, but someone about whom much has already been written. Why this particular individual was singled out for the sole chapter devoted to telling a life story is baffling. A chapter on Dartmouth College in 1819 seems equally isolated and ill placed in the volume. Though the 1819 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to deny New Hampshire’s attempt to overthrow the college’s original charter stands among the most significant rulings on the right of private institutions to conduct their affairs without state influence, the topic has been covered many times in other places and few new insights are offered here.
The book also has a strange epilogue. It attempts a last-minute macro-comparative analysis that does not connect well at all with the preceding chapters. It reads as though it were added to say, “We feel bad writing a book just about America, so let’s be comparative, even if in a perfunctory way.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these particular contributions, they do not suggest that the volume has a coherent vision or an authoritative comprehensiveness.
All of which brings us back to the editors’ introduction, which is the most disturbing element in the entire book. The introduction, portions of which read like out-takes from a book prospectus sent to a publisher, oversells this competent collection of historical studies. Moreover, Friedman needlessly politicizes the topic, charging that previous scholarship, including Bremner’s, has ignored the role of women, ethnic minorities, and the poor in telling the story of America’s experiment with philanthropy. Friedman insists that Bremner focused on “white upper- and middle-class males—especially wealthy entrepreneurs and professionals” and missed the story of how “African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups pursued charity and philanthropy to voice concerns that elites ignored.”
What is strange about this claim is that the book does not introduce many overlooked and undiscovered figures from these neglected populations. If the goal is inclusion and diversity, why, for example, do we read about Mrs. Russell Sage, who inherited the wealth of her successful financier husband, rather than learn about Madam C.J. Walker, who made her own fortune in hair products at the turn of the century and then gave back to the African-American community? If the purpose of this book is to provide a more critical and progressive perspective on philanthropy, one cannot but conclude that many opportunities have certainly been missed.
In the end, for patient and forgiving readers willing to look beyond an overblown introduction and a few off-topic or weak contributions, this volume contains a number of valuable pieces of historical scholarship that will help us all expand our understanding of philanthropy’s past. Less-forgiving readers will find little reason to replace the copy of Bremner on their desks with Friedman and McGarvie’s more historicized—and politicized—collection.
Peter Frumkin is associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he is affiliated with the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. He is the author of On Being Nonprofit and the editor with Jonathan B. Imber of In Search of the Nonprofit Sector.