How Private Givers Can Rescue America in an Era of Political Frustration

A roadmap to success, no matter what unfolds in Washington

Lots of Americans have grown discouraged over the last decade or so. Discouraged about social fractures that seem to be erupting everywhere. Discouraged about rising disorder—drug epidemics, racial unrest, murders up 11 percent in one year. Discouraged that some citizens are lagging economically. And discouraged about the prospects of government or politics improving any of this soon. For some time now, seven out of ten respondents have been saying our country is on the wrong track.

The reality is, it could be many years before we feel good about our public-sector institutions.

However dismayed patriotic Americans are about government, though, they don’t want to sit on their hands. They don’t want to pull back into their shells and give up on improving their nation. Yet they’re unsure how to proceed. Are there examples or roadmaps that can guide public-spirited donors and volunteers and philanthropists who want to carry out constructive reforms even while government remains frozen tundra?

The answer is yes. There are paths out of today’s wilderness that were tested and proven by previous philanthropists. We need only follow their blazes to find our own successful routes to culture change and social refinement. I’m going to take you in this essay to eras that were crucial in setting up our country for its great success, eras that have a huge amount to teach us today about our problems, and how we might solve them.

Been there, done that

I’ll begin by painting a little picture for you.

Demagogues and pundits have abandoned serious discussion of principles and stooped to slanders, falsehood, trickery, and the “scalping and roasting alive” of opponents. These cheap tricks have aroused “low passions” among the public, and “wild, blind reckless partisanship” is overtaking reason and individual judgment. Scholars say that no other era was more politically fractured and obsessed with ideology.

Many Americans are shocked by the crudeness of public discourse, and unprecedented eruptions of vulgarity in daily life. Substance abuse is on the rise, particularly among the working class, which is thought to be under serious stress due to national economic dislocations. Racial antagonism and scapegoating have resulted in violence and street clashes with authorities in places stretching from Ohio to New York to Missouri, plunging some cities into what observers call “mobocracy.”

All very familiar, right? Well, what you have just heard is a description, taken from mournful contemporary reports, of our country in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many Americans felt there was something going profoundly wrong. Millions pined for thoroughgoing reform.

One impressive young attorney warned a Midwestern audience in 1838 that “There is something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of sober judgment.” That young lawyer was named Abraham Lincoln.

Welcome to Jacksonian America. Its new party system included the idea that winners of elections earned the right to stuff the government with their cronies, and often their pockets with silver. From the national capital to Tammany Hall, this was an era of fraud, embezzlement, and self-enrichment at the public trough.

Elections turned into circuses. Votes were openly traded for booze, jobs, or favors. One South Carolinian observed that “civilization” retreats more in one month before an election than it can advance in six months afterward. A Presidential election was “a national calamity” in its effects on public morals.

A key tussle in the Presidential election of 1828 was whose wife was more shameful: Mrs. Jackson or Mrs. Adams. During Jackson’s inauguration, observers were amazed at the number of men who ended up with bloody noses incurred in fistfights. At the White House reception, the crowd broke much of the official china and glassware while pawing their way to the whiskey punch and cake. Destruction of the mansion was relieved only when stewards placed tubs of liquor on the front lawn to draw people outside.

Sensitive citizens decried “the evils of party spirit” that tore through our politics. Many retreated to quirky alternatives like the Anti-Masonic Party or the Liberty Party. If you think we live in a partisan world now, consider this description, by a Tennessean, of U.S. life in the mid-1800s: “The hotels, the stores, and even the shops, were regarded as Whig or Democratic, and thus patronized by the parties. There was scarcely any such thing as neutrality. Almost every one—high or low, rich or poor, black or white—was arrayed on one side or the other.”

Ethnicity and social class were sore points as millions of new immigrants started to flood into the U.S., bringing patterns of religious practice, family structure, alcohol use, work, and home life that were unfamiliar and often unwelcome. This was exacerbated by the surge of rural men and women pulled out of small towns by industrialization and urbanism. Farm boys poured into cities “looking for work and mostly finding crime, slums, whiskey, and poverty,” comments one historian.

Baleful influences were corrupting the character of individual citizens. Consumption of alcohol was three to four times today’s level. Drunken brawls, street persecutions, and riots were common, and there were many violent pastimes. Matches pitting a terrier against 100 starved rats were a favorite among gamblers of that day. A streetfighting style called “gouging” was a problem. Brawlers grew their fingernails long to make it easier to pop the eyeball out of an opponent’s head; some filed their teeth to assist in biting off appendages during frequent imbroglios.

So if you think we’re the first Americans to face serious cultural problems, and dispiriting political dysfunction, think again. We’ve been here before. In fact, we’ve been in worse places in times past. And guess what: government entities were not effective at turning any of this around.

Fighting back

But here is the exciting other half of that history. Middle-class Americans and principled leaders who were dismayed by this ugliness didn’t just retreat or throw up their hands. Nor did they partake of the blood-sport politics of the day. They fought back against cultural crudity and dirty politics—but they fought back through philanthropy and civic action.

The problems afflicting Jacksonian America were not the kinds of things that politics and policy changes can do much to cure. So savvy cultural leaders, businessmen, preachers, and even wise government officials increasingly turned away from policies and government programs and elections as panaceas. And they started looking for deeper ways to fix what ailed America.

Solid citizens decided they had a duty to help create a better and more orderly nation, so they went to work at fixing and elevating our society. At a time when it was almost impossible to make progress via our electoral system, men and women poured their energy and money into repairing our culture through charity, voluntary associations, mass movements, business innovations, and grassroots action.

And I don’t just mean clubs that bought flagpoles for the town square. Many of the most consequential reforms ever accomplished in America—inventive fixes to problems that cast dark shadows over our future, problems that had stumped all levels of government—were the products of direct citizen action. Thousands of spontaneous private efforts took the raw edges off nineteenth-century America, and positioned us to thrive among nations. These included campaigns that:

  • Brought literacy to the half of our democracy that was locked in ignorance.
  • Moderated our terrible national drinking problem.
  • Turned American public opinion against the stain of slavery.
  • Tamed the cultural fractures, crime, and community breakdown produced by massive immigration, industrialization, and dislocation of small-town residents into big cities.
  • Elevated individual character through religious revival and self-improvement crusades that defined what we now think of as the quintessential American values.

Qualities like sobriety, neighborliness, modesty, thrift, self-discipline, and truthfulness that we think of as classic American virtues were actually far from universal in Jacksonian America. It was civil-society campaigning during the nineteenth century that turned them into widely admired and practiced norms.

The social reformers of this era recognized that self-discipline is the foundation for success, happiness, and good citizenship. What happens in our hearts, in our families, and in our interactions with our neighbors, they insisted, is far more important in shaping our future prospects (and the collective course of our nation) than most of what happens in politics, policy, or law. These reformers wanted to help Americans refine their souls, and then take interest in the success of other citizens, so all could work together to build a better country.

The short book What Comes Next? from which this article is excerpted contains many astonishing, and encouraging, details on how they accomplished this. They used all the tools of civil society and grassroots action: New technologies that enabled mass persuasion via journals, newspapers, lecture campaigns, and other means of communication. Music and novels used to grab people’s hearts. Passionate young-adult volunteers recruited by the hundreds of thousands to develop role-modeling and mentoring relationships with needy youngsters.
Our nineteenth-century philanthropists launched powerful legal interventions to establish new precedents in the courts. They created thousands of schools, churches, and fraternal clubs in barren spots. They cleverly wooed reporters, and ministers, and merchants.

All of these things were successfully achieved, not so long ago, through strong leadership from donors, volunteers, and social entrepreneurs of all stripes. Similar things can be done today. To give you ideas and inspiration, let’s go time traveling and look at some of their accomplishments in a bit more detail.

Second Great Awakening

During the first half of the nineteenth century, a great moral movement rose and peaked in our country. Historians call it our Second Great Awakening. It arose spontaneously, but was then extended by philanthropic support. Protestant church membership grew twice as fast as population over the multidecade course of the awakening. This paved the way for dramatic changes in both personal behavior and social practices.

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French artist Jacques Milbert drew this image of a Methodist camp meeting in 1819. Clergy, evangelical donors, and millions of reborn believers powered dramatic change in personal behavior and social life in what historians call our Second Great Awakening.

For an amusing glimpse of the strong internal restraints nurtured within Americans by the Second Great Awakening, consider these motherly instructions mailed to an unmarried daughter while she visited a friend in a nearby city during that period:

Be cautious of speaking about any person.
(That’s good Christian counsel discouraging gossip.)

Put your trust where it can never be disappointed.
(For those of you who didn’t have evangelical mothers—this is code.)

Don’t go out in the evening.
(Blatant code.)

Keep near your friend Miss Smith.
(More strong code.)

Write me immediately if you have been dancing.
(Foundational dogma of both the Methodist and Baptist churches.)


Reformers of the day did much more than encourage careful personal behavior, though. They also built an astonishing array of philanthropic organizations to change the way society operated. Look beneath their sometimes ornate nineteenth-century titles and you will get a sense of the breathtaking ambition of these associations, which quickly numbered in the thousands: the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, Provident Society for Employing the Poor, Society for the Promotion of Industry among the Poor, American Education Society, Philadelphia Society for the Establishment and Support of Charity Schools, American Temperance Society, Sons and Daughters of Temperance, American Bible Society, American Tract Society, Prison Discipline Society, Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, American Female Guardian Society, Home for the Friendless, American Seamen’s Friend Society, American Home Missionary Society, Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, American Sunday School Union, American Anti-Slavery Society.

Collectively, this remarkable ecosystem of volunteer societies became known as the Benevolent Empire. And empire is not too strong a word. By 1834, when the voluntary wave was still in its early days, the total annual income donated to the major Benevolent Empire groups rivaled the size of the entire federal budget of that day.

Funders and volunteers produced orphanages, old-age homes, houses for delinquent children, hospitals, job-training programs for former prostitutes, new or expanded churches, shelters for the poor, legal defense for Indians facing removal from their lands, anti-alcohol self-help groups, Sunday schools, seminaries, new colleges, schools catering to girls and blacks and Native Americans, advocacy for the rights of wives whose husbands had abandoned them, clubs that discouraged profanity among children, groups that pushed businesses to close on Sunday and let their workers rest and worship with their families, visiting nurses, milk stations for children, hostels to protect new arrivals from the countryside from urban corruptions, you name it. These creations were crucial in bringing cohesion, order, decency, fairness, and stability to jam-packed cities and rough frontiers where many virtues had leaked away.

Awakened citizens gave money and raised it from their friends. And they volunteered their time and labor in vast quantities. The organizer of one charity created to teach children wrote that “Members were not to attempt to do good merely by pecuniary contributions, but especially by personal exertions and labors. Every member of the Society was to be ‘a working man.’”

One important sociological benefit of this was that it got millions of middle-class businessmen and housewives and students into direct contact with the poor, slaves, drunkards, lonely seamen, abandoned widows, and disenfranchised minorities. The helpers thus developed real understanding and expertise in what was going on in our tenements and docks and servants’ quarters.

Charitable activists tinkered with a vast range of new weapons for fighting problems. “Early nineteenth-century evangelicals did not possess extraordinary vision or wisdom; they merely experimented with various solutions to the problems they saw and then focused their energies on those that seemed to work best,” reports historian Anne Boylan.

Sunday schooling 

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, fully half of all American children were not given formal schooling. Many of these children missed an education because they were sent out to work. Trudging off to a job six days a week, they had no opportunity to pick up reading, writing, and arithmetic. So at an accelerating pace from the early 1800s on, a large group of volunteers and donors went to work to compensate for that—by offering free literacy lessons (and much more) on the one day when almost everyone had free time: Sunday. 

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In the first half of the nineteenth century, only about 50 percent of American children were given formal schooling. Many youngsters worked all day—like these Delaware newsgirls. Volunteer schools set up on the day of rest, Sunday, changed the lives of these children.

Sunday schools were formed where children were first taught the alphabet, then how to read and write, and sometimes arithmetic. The Bible was used as a main text, transmitting religious knowledge while providing the tools of communication. Children were also taught valuable techniques of memorization, and public speaking skills, and offered extensive moral instruction and character training. Concerted effort was made to keep the instructional materials broad enough to include all Christian denominations, and the schools were surprisingly successful at avoiding religious battles.

These schools tapped into deep hungers in the U.S. population, and became wildly popular. Parents were enthusiastic. And Sunday school became a highlight of the week for lots of American youngsters.

Many children picked up more of their literacy, and their moral compass, at Sunday school than they did in our uneven, inadequate, and often nonexistent public schools. “As an agency of cultural transmission,” concludes the leading historian on this topic, the charitable Sunday school “rivaled in importance the nineteenth-century public school.”

The founders of Sunday schools were especially concerned about poor and working-class children, blacks and Native Americans, newly arrived immigrants, and other youngsters facing disadvantages, and began their efforts there. But middle-class children soon flocked to classrooms as well. Adult Sunday schools were also formed so laborers could get instruction outside of working hours. Organizers placed schools in factories, homes, shops, and other public buildings in addition to churches, to make sure they reached those in need.

Thanks to energetic organizing, steady contributions, and large expenditures of time by volunteer teachers, Sunday-school growth was meteoric. When the American Sunday School Union was founded in 1824 as a coordinating body, it attracted 723 local schools as members. Just eight years later, the ASSU represented 8,268 schools. At the time of the Civil War there were more than 60,000 schools, and by 1920 there were 200,000 Sunday schools in the U.S. Tens of millions of young and old Americans received instruction every year.

The Sunday-school movement’s most potent asset was its cadre of volunteer teachers. Most were enthusiastic young adults just a decade or so older than their students. Think of them as the talented Teach For America recruits of their era. Teachers became mentors and role models, not just instructors.

Sunday schooling also became a force in publishing. Not only study plans and Bible lessons but also popular magazines, children’s stories, novels, and morality tales that were avidly absorbed by millions of adolescents and young adults flew off presses, with funding and energy from philanthropists. As early as 1829, the American Sunday School Union was printing hundreds of thousands of pages every day of the year.

At a time when fiction was dismissed by many Americans as useless or even harmful, a new genre of Christian fiction for children was created and distributed through Sunday schools. Movement leaders were wise enough to understand that stories that pull children to the printed word both train their brains and open opportunities to inform appetites and values. Sunday-school fiction was crafted to make reading fun, even addictive, while inculcating wholesome ideas.

Sunday schools also built up remarkable lending libraries with donor funding. By 1832, there were about 3,500 Sunday schools with libraries that children could borrow from, and the average collection contained around 100 books. Libraries became even commoner, and larger, as the years passed, and these helped prepare many children for life in a nation where reading was becoming essential to success.

A whole culture of reading grew out of Sunday schooling, and historians report that this was a prime factor in making American laborers the most literate in the world. Sunday schools also transmitted a large complex of Protestant virtues, personal disciplines, and moral perspectives that equipped poor children to move quickly into America’s burgeoning middle class.

Abolition

The most consequential social reform of all in America—the movement to abolish slavery—was fueled entirely by philanthropists. To get a sense of how important donors were in repairing this Achilles Heel of our otherwise free country, consider the life works of Arthur and Lewis Tappan. Forget about Wilbur and Orville Wright, or the Kennedys, or the Kochs. These two men did more to shape America than any other brothers in our history. 

The Tappans were successful entrepreneurs, working just off Wall Street in lower Manhattan. And they were among the most potent philanthropists ever to operate in America. They combined their business, their faith, and their philanthropy in almost everything they did.

To give you a taste of their business skills, Lewis invented the industry of credit reporting. Until his time, when a merchant from St. Louis or New Orleans showed up in New York wanting to fill a ship with goods to bring back to his trading area, there was no way to know if his credit was good. Lewis recruited a network of correspondents all across the country who reported on the character and economic trustworthiness of local merchants. This allowed credit to flow, and sparked an economic boom. It also “purified the air in American business” as Lewis put it, rewarding people who kept their word, and punishing those who walked away from responsibilities. This firm evolved into today’s Dun & Bradstreet.

On the philanthropic side, the Tappans were even more influential. Arthur was known as the most generous donor in New York City, and he inspired many other Manhattan merchants to become much more open-handed. Through heavy giving and brilliant organizing, they built up a huge number of charitable organizations that worked on the nation’s problems.

And the Tappans had courage to go with their convictions. Culture change is not for cowards. Abolitionists were bullied from the moment they first stuck their heads up.

In 1832, Arthur and Lewis converted a rundown old circus hall in lower Manhattan into a church called the Chatham Street Chapel. The premises were used for worship, education, concerts, charitable meetings, and public discussion among New Yorkers of all races. The brothers organized the New York Anti-Slavery Society there, in 1833. And before that new charity was two hours old, a riot broke out.

When they heard that an anti-slavery association was being created, a group of opponents gathered a crowd for a counter-meeting. It turned violent. The Tappans were not cowed, however. Arthur immediately provided grants to set up anti-slavery societies in other states, and funded a new abolitionist newspaper called The Emancipator. Then he and Lewis helped organize the first national convention of abolitionists.

As prominent merchants, famous backers of benevolent groups, and now chief donors and organizers of slavery-fighting charities, the Tappan brothers developed a high profile. Vicious rumors began to be spread in New York City about their aims and practices. On a hot July 4 seven months after the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Lewis Tappan opened the Chatham Street Chapel to a racially mixed congregation for a special worship service. He gave a “forcible and impressive” presentation of abolitionist principles. Then white and black choirs began to sing a new anti-slavery hymn written for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier. But slavery apologists had infiltrated the balcony, and now they rained down prayer books and hymnals from above. Stomping, hissing, and fighting, they drove the worshipers away.

The pro-slavery press celebrated the action, and published more slander about what the Anti-Slavery Society and its backers were up to. A few days later, bullies were back at the chapel, throwing benches, trashing the premises, and beating bystanders. The next evening, a mob of several thousand people began to maraud.

A well-dressed man on a horse led the crowd to Lewis Tappan’s house on Rose Street. Lewis had been warned that trouble was on the way and he and his family fled. The rabble broke down his front door and dragged all of the family’s personal possessions into the street, and then set them on fire.

The next day they were out again, smashing black and white abolitionist churches, beating blacks on the street, and threatening to destroy Chatham Street Chapel, the offices of abolitionist charities, and homes of donors and leaders. They roared up to the three-story warehouse and store run by the Tappan brothers on Hanover Square, where they beat police trying to guard the premises, pummeled the building with rocks, and attempted to batter in the front door with a street pole. But it was a heavy granite building, and Arthur Tappan had holed up inside with clerks and friends to whom he handed out 36 muskets. When a watchman told the attackers as he was being stabbed and beaten that the building was full of armed men, the invasion halted.

By now the Tammany Democrats who had fomented the anti-abolitionist uproar were concerned that the violence was out of control, so they belatedly called in cavalry troops and infantry and placed the city under martial law. Police and soldiers were told to deal leniently with the ruffians, though, and most of the 150 leaders of the multiday violence who were arrested got quickly released by political authorities.

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Brothers Lewis (below) and Arthur (above) Tappan were pioneering businessmen, and even more remarkable as philanthropic organizers of both personal transformation and social change. They pioneered a "comprehensive" style of civic action that left deep imprints on America in numerous sectors. (Granger, NYC)

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The great mailing campaign

The final accounting from this riot included seven churches and a dozen houses wrecked, and fires smoldering across southern Manhattan. Scores of private citizens had been beaten, and many police and members of the 27th Regiment of Infantry had been clubbed, stoned, or stabbed.

New York’s political establishment, and pro-slavery elements of the press, tried to airbrush this violence. The destruction of Lewis Tappan’s home was described in the Courier and Enquirer newspapers as a peaceful demonstration by some gentlemen, in the course of which a window was broken. To put the lie to this false reporting, Lewis announced he was going to leave the ruined shell of his house, strewn with his destroyed personal possessions and those of his wife and children, exactly as the attackers left things, to serve as a “silent anti-slavery preacher to the crowds who will flock to see it.”

This became national news. Descriptions of how white and black advocates of ending slavery were being violently persecuted spread across the country. The same stories outlined the principles of the new national and state-level Anti-Slavery Societies.

Despite their several narrow escapes, the Tappan brothers recognized that their personal misfortune offered an opportunity to advance their charitable cause. In the aftermath of the riots, one ally observed that Arthur Tappan’s “whole soul never seemed so enlisted.” Lewis too was invigorated by the danger.

In the weeks after the biggest riot, the two brothers and their abolitionist allies fought back. They wielded words rather than battering rams and stones. They devised a plan to flood the U.S. with anti-slavery mailings.

These philanthropists founded, expanded, and subsidized a host of weekly and monthly publications devoted to popularizing arguments against enslavement. These included high-circulation newspapers, a children’s magazine (which Lewis Tappan headed up himself as it was being created), a more philosophical journal, and a heavily illustrated monthly. These publications were churned out in volume on new steam-powered presses, and then staged at New York City post offices to be hurried across the country. The campaign was powered by $30,000 of personal donations pledged to the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The abolitionists called this their effort in “moral suasion.” The National Postal Museum has described it as America’s first-ever direct-mail campaign. It was certainly one of the most ambitious polemical blitzes ever conducted in our country. The main targets of the mailings were ministers, local legislators, businessmen, and judges living all across the country, including in the South. Over a period of just ten months, the American Anti-Slavery Society’s publications committee, headed by Lewis Tappan, mailed out more than a million pieces of anti-slavery literature.

Speaking and authoring

At the same time, the American Anti-Slavery Society launched special efforts to woo ministers. Anti-slavery materials were printed up for use by the Sunday schools beginning to burgeon across the land. And Arthur Tappan spearheaded a program that hired gifted lecturers to go on public-speaking tours across the country presenting the case against slavery.

Soon, a carefully trained cadre of 70 lecturers was roving across the nation. These 70 orators—described at the time as “he-goat men…butting everything in the line of their march…made up of vinegar, aqua fortis, and oil of vitriol, with brimstone, saltpeter and charcoal, to explode and scatter the corrosive matter”—soon became famous for stirring up listeners and bringing this first bloom of abolitionism to a climax.

This moral-suasion campaign absolutely maddened apologists for slavery. In particular, the circulation of abolitionist arguments through the federal mail hit a nerve. Anti-slavery mailings began to be methodically pulled out of post offices and burned. Threats were floated against anyone who subscribed. The U.S. Postmaster General gave aid and comfort to local postmasters who abetted these acts of censorship and intimidation, and U.S. President Andrew Jackson actively urged postal authorities to suppress deliveries of all abolitionist documents, or at least look the other way while others did. In his 1835 message to Congress, Jackson called for a national censorship law that would shut down the charitable mailings of “incendiary” writings, and severely punish the men organizing them.

Faced with a well-funded mass charitable campaign that informed people and mobilized volunteers, defenders of slavery lashed out. Arthur Tappan was hung in effigy in town squares, as torches were put to piles of newspapers and magazines. Lewis was mailed a slave’s ear, a hangman’s rope, and many written threats. A Virginia grand jury indicted him and other members of the Abolition Society of New York. Offers of $30,000 and $50,000 were made for delivery of Arthur’s or Lewis’s head to Louisiana. A South Carolinian raised the bid to $100,000 for Arthur. After hearing of these prizes, Arthur was reported to have said in an uncommon moment of humor that “if that sum is placed in a New York bank, I may possibly think of giving myself up.”

A boycott of the Tappans’ business operations was launched. This was one of the first organized attempts to damage a national business because of the moral and political convictions of its proprietors. It would not be the last.

Amidst this struggle, the hearts and minds of many Americans were won by the anti-slavery forces. The attacks on the New York City homes and churches, the violation of the mail, the suppression of speech in American precincts, the attempts to have the Tappans and other advocates extradited to the South, the many acts of thuggish violence by slavery apologists—these actions turned large chunks of public opinion firmly against slavery.

The rioters and mail burners who were hoping to suppress the American Anti-Slavery Society and intimidate its charitable backers had exactly the opposite effect. In the year after Lewis Tappan’s home was invaded, 15,000 Americans bought new subscriptions to AASS publications. Anti-slavery societies began to spread like wildfire all across the country. There were 200 chapters in 1835, then 527 a year later, and 1,300 just two years further on. In an era of difficult communications, the American Anti-Slavery Society had by then enrolled 250,000 paying members—a full 2 percent of our national population. In comparative terms, that made the AASS bigger than today’s Boy Scouts, or National Rifle Association, or U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For the first time, philanthropists had turned abolition into a major popular crusade, and slavery was now a subject no American could ignore.

Legal defense

A final piece of the Tappan philanthropy was their marshaling of important legal-defense efforts. By this means they were able to protect pioneer activists. They established vital precedents in courtrooms. And they used high-profile proceedings to educate Americans on the realities of slavery and get them involved in righting the wrong.

First Arthur paid the fines and court costs for jailed anti-slavery journalist William Lloyd Garrison. Then he defended a Connecticut schoolmistress who enrolled a black girl in one of her classes. “Consider me your banker. Spare no necessary expense. Command the services of the ablest lawyers,” he wrote her.

The most dramatic Tappan courtroom drama began to unfold in 1839. Rogue slavers were continuing to run Africans into the Americas—sometimes protected by corrupt government officials. Several dozen Africans kidnapped from the nation of Sierra Leone managed to take over a ship called La Amistad, killing the captain and ordering the remaining crew members to sail them back to their home. Instead, the navigators landed the ship near Long Island. The Africans were taken into custody and charged with murder.

As soon as he heard of the case, Lewis Tappan leapt into action. He engaged a first-rate legal team, then launched a savvy journalistic and public-relations effort. He used the case as a teachable moment for informing Americans on the realities of slavery.

It took two years for the case to wend its way through the courts, drawing banner headlines over many months. As in their great mailing campaign a few years earlier, the Tappans had to battle a U.S. President and the weight of the federal government—spurred by Southern interests, President Martin Van Buren appealed lower-court verdicts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. At that point, Lewis Tappan convinced former President John Quincy Adams to join the all-star legal team for the final appeal. Our highest court ultimately ruled that the Africans were kidnap victims, not property, with a right to defend themselves. They were declared wholly free.

Lewis Tappan had almost single-handedly orchestrated this defense and engineered the communications and reporting that transfixed many Americans. And all across America, the courtroom struggle aroused new disgust with human bondage. Thousands of people started donating money to abolitionist charities, and subscribing to their journals. Abolition turned a huge corner toward a wide popular following.

The most consequential social change in the history of the United States had begun. And two philanthropist brothers were at the center of it.

Triumph of the temperance volunteers

Another triumph of American civil society was the Temperance movement. Powered by charitable donations and volunteers, it organized local groups and mutual-aid programs to temper drinking and stop drunkenness. Consumption of alcohol was dramatically reduced, and American social life was transformed.

I realize today’s common view is that alcohol prohibition was nothing but a puritanical flop. But the late-in-the-game flop of a law-enforcement effort by the national government obscures a much deeper success. Encouraged by a powerful charitable effort, huge numbers of Americans voluntarily stepped away from booze.

One historian described our pre-temperance nation this way: “Americans drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn.” Hard numbers prove that an alcoholic haze hung over many of our communities. In 1830, the average adult American imbibed more than seven gallons of pure alcohol each year. San Francisco hosted one saloon for every 58 residents in 1890—and that counted men, women, and children. A similar tally in Manhattan that same year found that just in the area south of 14th Street, which was packed with poor immigrants, there were 4,065 liquor and beer shops. Journalist Jacob Riis described how drunkard parents would send their children to bars with a tin pail to have it filled with beer. They coated their buckets with lard on the inside to keep the foam down so they could maximize the quantity of drink received.

Plenty of propaganda and exploitation went into building up this level of drinking. Advertisements pushed the idea that booze was healthful, invigorating, and good for calming children. But in practice, America’s high rate of alcohol consumption brought domestic violence, damaged health, family turmoil, workplace costs, and other ugly social fallout.

Stepping up to battle the problems that resulted from heavy drinking were a series of volunteer and charitable organizations: the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and many others. As early as 1833, more than 700 separate Temperance Society branches had been organized in our largest state (New York), and 12 out of every 100 New York residents had signed a pledge of alcohol abstinence, shutting down 133 out of 292 distilleries in the state.

The popularity and success of the anti-alcohol charities continued to grow. By 1909 the secretary of the United States Brewers’ Association was warning his membership that “we have to reckon with” the Anti-Saloon League, which “has over 800 business offices, and at least 500 men and women on its regular salary list…. It employs large numbers of speakers on contract, from the governor of Indiana down to the local pastor of the Methodist Church.”

Temperance philanthropists believed that alleviating problem-drinking would require individual transformation. But they also thought it required social betterment. They wanted to speed both kinds of change. And they created all sorts of charities to make that happen.

For many decades before it turned into a Constitutional amendment, the civil-action portion of the anti-alcohol campaign was built on persuasion. It became a multimedia effort, propelled by millions of published words, the most popular public speakers of the day, a flood of instructional material for schools, prominent blue-ribbon commissions, celebrity endorsements, and popular entertainment.

There were essay contests on the damage done by alcohol, with substantial prizes. Doctors were recruited to sign statements on the unhealthfulness of distilled spirits. Early anti-alcohol societies were launched at colleges like Amherst, Williams, Union, Andover, and Colgate. Temperance activists stirred up voluntary boycotts which convinced the New York Tribune, Boston Record, Chicago Herald, and other newspapers to stop accepting liquor advertisements.

Fraternal organizations were created to offer social life, mutual support, and benefits like insurance to Americans who favored temperance. Songs were written and performed to catch people’s hearts. A little ditty called “Blue Monday” mourned wasted pay checks. This was a people’s campaign, though, not a guilt trip. So temperance “glee singers” also made merry with bouncy singalongs like “Close Up the Booze Shop,” and “Girls, Wait for a Temperance Man.”

The campaign against bondage to alcohol involved one of the widest coalitions ever assembled for social change—running from unionists to manufacturers, political conservatives to avid progressives, rural pastors to urban settlement-house activists, very rich to very poor. There were charitable groups working to change conditions at every level: nationally, in states and counties, within workplaces, through individuals by asking them to sign personal pledges.

And all of this civil organizing eventually told. Drinking was throttled back from our frontier-era average of 7.5 gallons of pure alcohol per adult per year all the way down to 2.6 gallons in the years before prohibition. During prohibition, drinking was slashed even further, and even after repeal, drinking levels remained at 1.5 gallons per adult for a decade.

So what about today? Well, American alcohol consumption is now about 2.2 gallons per adult per year. That’s a 71 percent whack off the levels that prevailed when the temperance activists first went to work.

And historians point out that the temperance movement did more than just reduce binge drinking. It “profoundly influenced American values”—popularizing the idea of self-improvement, and strengthening our attachment not only to sobriety but also to frugality, work, and middle-class respectability.

This transformation was driven by volunteers and donors—men and women pursuing the national interest, but more often through philanthropy than politics. 

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