The Philanthropic Revolution

The historical displacement of charity by philanthropy represents a radical transformation in how we think about voluntary giving. The consequences of this shift have been socially revolutionary.

The Philanthropic Revolution
An Alternative History of American Charity

Jeremy Beer

2015 | 134 pages | Cloth $19.95
Political Science | Philosophy
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Table of Contents

Introduction. What's Missing from the Story of American Philanthropy
Chapter 1. Unlocking the Universe's Secret: The Theological Roots of American Charity
Chapter 2. Enemies of This Ordinance of God: American Charity from the Colonial Period to the Civil War
Chapter 3. Infinitely More than Almsgiving: American Charity from the Civil War to the Great Depression
Chapter 4. To Love and Be Loved: The Growth of Professional Philanthropy and the Case for Philanthrolocalism


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In this book, I argue that the shift from charity to philanthropy as the preferred framework for understanding the voluntary use of private resources to benefit others has had surprising, and mostly overlooked, significance. Most fundamentally, this shift has been the result of a reconceptualization of voluntary giving as primarily a tool for social change.

Until the nineteenth century, to engage in charity had been for nearly all Americans to affirm, if only implicitly, particular theological claims arising out of traditional Judaism and Christianity. With the rise of philanthropy, the nature of these theological claims changed dramatically. They became bound up with the attempt to assert technological mastery over the social world. Philanthropy has thus served at once as a technique for and a manifestation of revolutionary changes in American life, including secularization, centralization, the bureaucratization of personal relations, and the relative devaluing of locality and place.

I do not argue that charity is religious whereas philanthropy is secular: both are associated with certain theological presuppositions, not only in the most fundamental sense that there is no escaping such presuppositions but also in the historical sense that philanthropy arises out of a reimagining of Christian eschatology and the proper role of Christianity in society. Nor do I argue that charity is more effective than philanthropy: effectiveness, of course, can only be assessed with respect to specific ends, and with respect to its own fundamentally technological ends philanthropy is clearly more effective than charity (although perhaps not as effective as its practitioners sometimes claim). Philanthropy's proponents, however, have usually failed to acknowledge that traditional charity's ends are quite different from its own. We are talking about two different things.

I do argue that charity is uniquely associated with certain goods—we might call them personalist goods—that are largely unavailable to or tend to be undermined by philanthropy on its own terms, and that insofar as we value those goods we must look to inject the logic of charity into the modern practice of philanthropy. The halfway-tongue-in-cheek term I assign to this modified, charity-inflected form of philanthropy is philanthrolocalism.

In any case, this is an episodic, illustrative, and extremely brief account of why the denigration of charity, and the concomitant rise of philanthropy, is an underappreciated chapter in the American story. My limited goal in this extended essay is to suggest a line of interpretation that has not often been given voice, in the hope that it will prove fruitful to those who carry out more detailed and scholarly investigations.

* * *

No one has written more intelligently on modern philanthropy than William Schambra, formerly director of the Bradley Institute for Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute. I do not wish to burden him with my own mistakes and opinions, but it is nonetheless the case that this book is thoroughly permeated by what I have learned from Bill's important writing. Whatever is worthwhile here is due to his influence and example. Along with his many other contributions, Bill directed me to the work of Benjamin Soskis, whose historical insights have significantly shaped my own thinking. One needn't be a very attentive reader to detect that there is little original scholarship contained in these pages, so I would like to express my gratitude to Ben and all of the other scholars on whose work this account depends, even as I'm sure they would frequently, perhaps vehemently, disagree with my arguments and conclusions.

I have learned much about the challenges and possibilities presented by contemporary philanthropy from my observations of and conversations with Howard Ahmanson, Wick Allison, Fred Clark, Scott McConnell, George O'Neill Jr., Greg Pfundstein, Tom Riley, and Jon Basil Utley. My colleagues at American Philanthropic and Philanthropy Daily have all provided assistance in various ways throughout this project, especially Jeff Cain, Matt Gerken, and Liz Palla. Damon Linker, my fine editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, helped shape this book's argument into something approaching coherence. The editors of Communio allowed me to reprint some of the text that originally appeared in "Satan Was the First Philanthropist," Communio 41 (Fall 2014). And my wife, Kara, patiently listened to my rehearsal of the arguments made herein and helped sharpen my thinking about them. My hearty thanks to all.