Philanthropy and Giving

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Since the arrival of the Mayflower on North America's shores in 1620, millions of Europeans have set sail for the new continent to find a better life. The settlers created communities, organized a social and cultural infrastructure, and—after some time—even established philanthropic networks. None of these structures was entirely new; the settlers often recreated institutions they had already known from their European home. According to historian Robert A. Gross, there were some two thousand benevolent institutions in New England by 1820. German immigrants, for example, established aid societies for fellow migrants who had just arrived in New York City or New Orleans and needed assistance in finding a place to live and work. One such association was the German Society of the City of New York, founded in 1784 to relieve the local German churches of their charitable burdens and to take effective steps to deal with problems emerging from the influx of German immigrants.

In the South, philanthropy followed the color line and played its part in preserving a racist society. Visiting the poor and caring for orphans was, according to Gross, at the heart of Southern philanthropy and reaffirmed a patron-client relationship. Philanthropy by free and wealthy blacks for slaves and blacks in need, however, challenged this society. Henriette Delille, a wealthy offspring of one of the oldest families of free blacks, supported by several other women, established the Sisters of the Presentation (later renamed Sisters of the Holy Family). The members of this Catholic order worked among the poor, the sick, the elderly and also among slaves. Delille also founded a school for girls and opened a hospital for needy blacks in New Orleans. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in 1831, he was impressed by the wide array of these associations, which had been founded to support the poor, build schools and colleges, organize hospitals, and create libraries.

Dartmouth College was such a privately founded college in New England. Chartered in 1769 by Dr. Eleazar Wheelock, it became the center of a legal fight between the state legislature of New Hampshire and the trustees of Dartmouth College—a struggle that defined American philanthropic culture. Since the college received state aid and fulfilled a public task (education), William Plumer, the state's governor (1812–1813, 1816–1819), asserted that the state government had a right to interfere in the administration of the college and its curriculum. The ensuing legal conflict, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), resulted in the reassertion of the trustees' rights and the clear separation of state and private spheres in the provision of public services. After the Dartmouth decision, philanthropy's place in American society was defined. State legislatures could no longer expect to interfere into the operations of private associations. Subsequently, state governments evaluated the importance of certain fields such as education and social welfare and decided to leave aspects of these fields to private and religious associations. The Dartmouth decision also accounts for the nation's reliance on philanthropy rather than a comprehensive, state-organized system of social welfare. Private associations, as the legal scholar Mark D. McGarvie has pointed out, did not assume responsibility in matters that would otherwise have been government functions; they occupied spaces left vacant by the local, state, and federal governments. The clergy seized this opportunity and filled the emerging void by creating a dense network of church-affiliated philanthropic institutions. In the early years of the American Republic, clergymen lost the status and political authority that went with representing a state church. But in philanthropy they recognized the potential for the realization of a religiously inspired vision of social organization.

Thus, philanthropy became a force for social change. Some historians go even further in their assessment of philanthropy by suggesting that it constituted some form of "counter-government" to political authority. This aspect of philanthropy was not lost on persons excluded from civil society because of their religion or gender. Long before women received the right to vote, they organized, financed, and ran voluntary associations. For example, they established the Female Society for the Relief of the Distressed in Philadelphia (1795) and the New York Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797). Within society, philanthropy assumed an exclusionary as well as an inclusionary function. It gave women an opportunity to step out of the domestic sphere and gain a voice in dealing with society's most pressing issues. It even allowed women to shape society. On the other hand, however, it also allowed for excluding Catholics and Jews from Protestant establishments and promoted the creation of ethnically and religiously defined philanthropic spheres in American cities.

See alsoDartmouth College v. Woodward; Education: Education of African Americans; Welfare and Charity; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers .


McCarthy, Kathleen D. Noblesse Oblige: Charity and Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago, 1849–1929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

——. Women's Culture: American Philanthropy and Art, 1830–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Hall, Peter Dobkin. Inventing the Nonprofit Sector and Other Essays on Philanthropy, Voluntarism, and Nonprofit Organizations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Jaher, Frederic Cople. The Urban Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Charleston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Friedman, Lawrence J., and Mark D. McGarvie, eds. Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thomas Adam

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Philanthropy and Giving

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