Founding Funders

Notable early American philanthropists, from the Philanthropy Hall of Fame

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From Philanthropy, Winter 2013, “American History’s Great Philanthropists

Benjamin Franklin

“It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man, if he will make a business of it,” Benjamin Franklin once observed. From a young age, Franklin made doing good his business. Biographer Edmund Morgan once suggested he “was behind virtually every scheme that made [Philadelphia] an attractive place to live.” Indeed, Benjamin Franklin may well be considered the father of American civil society.


In 1731, when Franklin was 25 years old, he led the effort to incorporate the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first such library in British North America. Five years later, he conceived and founded the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire brigade in Pennsylvania, with each of the company’s 30 charter members pledging to protect one another’s homes against fire.

Franklin also played a crucial role in the movement to bring higher education to Philadelphia. Around 1743, he began circulating his proposal for the Academy of Philadelphia. Unlike other colonial colleges, which preferred the sons of leading families, Franklin’s college would be open to all deserving young men. (It also differed from other schools in that it lacked a denominational affiliation.) Franklin was elected president of the nascent institution, and saw it through to its opening day. The Academy of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania, opened its doors in January 1750. Within two years, it had 300 students.

Franklin then turned his attention to founding a charitable hospital. In doing so, he pioneered the concept of the matching grant, approaching the colonial legislature and proposing that once the hospital had raised £2,000 in private contributions, the colonial government contribute another £2,000 to the effort. When it began admitting patients in 1756, it was the nation’s first hospital, a charitable enterprise that served all comers, regardless of their ability to pay.

In addition to the institutions he founded, Franklin supported scores of others. Franklin’s name, notes one biographer, appears “at the head of many a subscription list, whether for the College of Philadelphia, to support the botanizing of John Bartram, or to construct a synagogue for Mikveh Israel Congregation. (He was often the most generous contributor as well.)” Even late in life, he was an inveterate joiner. Only a few years before his death, Franklin became the president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.

As a final bequest, Franklin left £1,000 to his native Boston and another £1,000 to his adopted Philadelphia. Both bequests were held in trust, to gather interest for 200 years. In 1990, the trusts were required to sunset. Philadelphia elected to spend its funds on scholarships for local high school students, while Boston established a trade school: the Franklin Institute of Boston.

Judah Touro

Judah Touro was the nation’s first great Jewish philanthropist. Born in 1775 in Newport, Rhode Island, Touro was the second son of Rabbi Isaac Touro, leader of Newport’s famed synagogue. As a young man, Touro moved to New Orleans, where he made a fortune—and gave it away. In 1824, he erected a free public library. Later, he purchased a Christian church building and assumed its debts, while allowing the congregation to use the building rent-free in perpetuity. (When a friend suggested the property might be valuable if sold for commercial purposes, Touro responded, “I am a friend to religion and I will not pull down the church to increase my means!”) Influenced by the abolitionist views of his former Boston employer, he purchased slaves in order to manumit them. He founded a home for the poor, and during a yellow fever epidemic, he established a hospital. After his death, it became known as Touro Infirmary, and it remains the only nonprofit, faith-based community hospital in New Orleans.


Both Perkins and Touro were major benefactors of the Bunker Hill Monument.

Thomas Perkins

Thomas Handasyd Perkins was a wealthy Boston merchant who traded slaves in Hispaniola, exported Turkish opium to China, and smuggled Lafayette’s son out of Revolutionary France. With his wealth, Perkins became one of the civic leaders of early 19th century Boston. He was an active supporter of the Mercantile Association of Young Men in Boston, the McLean Asylum for the Insane, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But he dedicated most of his time and funding to four causes: the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument, and the Boston Athenaeum. But his signature achievement is known today as the Perkins School for the Blind. With his own eyesight failing, Perkins gave his Pearl Street mansion and ample funding to the first American school for the disabled, the alma mater of Anne Sullivan and, later, her student Helen Keller.

Thomas Eddy


Thomas Eddy was one of New York City’s first financiers, a Quaker banker who led some of the most innovative philanthropic efforts of the early republic. A leader in penal reform (he helped end whipping and branding) and a benefactor of the New York Hospital, perhaps his greatest philanthropic accomplishment was the Savings Bank of New York. Largely forgotten today, the mutual savings banks of the 19th century were an invaluable resource for the working poor. Unlike commercial banks of the era, mutual savings banks were open to small depositors of modest means. They did not pay dividends, and, rather than re-investing the profits in paid staff, most were run by trustees who volunteered their time. When Eddy died in 1827, about 10,000 passbook holders had $1.4 million on deposit; ten years later, the number of investors had risen to 23,000, with $3 million in funds; by 1860 over 50,000 New Yorkers had nearly $10 million on deposit. At a time when deposits were unsecure, the SBNY offered working Americans a safe way to save money—with reasonable rates of interest.

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