- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

For a long time, the subject matter of history was politics, broadly defined to include dynasties and wars. In the first half of the 20th century its study was broadened to comprehend economic history, then social history, then intellectual history. During the closing decades of the century the content was expanded to cover every manner of human doings, including legitimate fields such as the study of women and ethnic and racial minorities.

Accompanying the expansion, however, was a goodly amount of froth, esoterica, trivia, special pleading, and pure nonsense. Anyone doubting that proposition can have it confirmed by consulting the program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

At first blush, one might suppose that the work of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at City University of New York, of which Kathleen D. McCarthy is the director, would rank high in the ho-hum department. But that skepticism would be wholly unwarranted, if Ms. McCarthy’s book “American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society,” be any guide.

Rejecting at the outset our current understanding of philanthropy as massive-scale endowments to foundations or causes such as those of the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, Bill Gates, and George Soros, Ms. McCarthy focuses upon an earlier definition that coupled giving of money with volunteer work on a personal basis through networks of small organizations. Such networks involved thousands upon thousands of people, a large proportion of them middle-class women of a Protestant evangelical persuasion, though Ms. McCarthy also devotes attention to Catholic women, Jewish women and free black males.

Among them, these groups profoundly transformed America, creating a “civil society” that filled the gaps left by our constitutional and political institutions as well as by the heritage of Revolutionary republicanism.

One way the volunteer associations helped bring about a transformation was economic. A central tenet of the republican ethos held that grubbing for money was simply not done, for it would undermine the necessary virtuous dedication to the public weal. Moreover, though the spirit of enterprise had been somewhat awakened as a result of Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal program, entrepreneurship was still frowned upon in most quarters, and besides, the country suffered from a chronic shortage of capital.

Enter the do-good ladies, who learned that they could pay for their efforts to succor the serving poor by pooling resources and investing in profit-making not-for-profit chartered organizations. Republican ideology permitted money-making if the proceeds went to recipients other than the officers or directors of the undertakings. The amounts involved were not trifling, even though the membership dues in the various associations were rarely more than a few dollars and sometimes as little as a few cents.

For example, 13 of the “Benevolent Empire” societies raised an estimated $2.8 million between 1816 and 1830, most of which went into financing internal improvements; this was two-thirds as much as the federal government spent on projects during the same period. And the Savings Bank of New York, created in 1819 by the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, was the single biggest investor of funds for the construction of the Erie Canal, holding $475,000 “in Erie Canal debt, as opposed to the $40,000” of the second largest investor.

Another way that philanthropic volunteerism helped transform America was in democratizing it — not in the narrow sense of enlarging the electorate, but in the more fundamental sense of democratizing society itself. Republicanism was a macho thing: Only self-supporting, arms-bearing white adult males could participate in the public thing, the res publica.

One aspect of that notion was that only independent men were called upon to imperil their lives in defense of the public. The idea was discredited in 1793, when women were requested by Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush to remain in the city to nurse the aflicted during the yellow fever epidemic that killed almost 5,000 in habitants, and large numbers of them did so.

Of greater importance in the long run, prevailing social mores held that women, as the softer sex, were better equipped than men to empathize with and alleviate suffering, with the result that such activities were generally turned over to them. Through what Ms. McCarthy calls the politics of chivalry, men in positions of power proved willing to grant women a wide range of rights, including corporate charters, for doing their thing.

The more industrious females took advantage of concessions to organize enormous and widely publicized campaigns to petition congress and state legislatures to enact reforms. Thus, though only men voted and held public office, the unfranchised ladies set much of the political agenda.

Ironically, the movement that resulted in granting the vote to almost every adult male (democratization in that sense, ushering in the Age of Jackson) temporarily threatened to minimize philanthropic volunteerism’s influence (democracy in the other sense). Pressures were exerted to limit the privileges of volunteers and to curtail their petitioning powers, largely in response to a movement that sought to end poor relief on the grounds that the poor must be made to care for themselves.

For a time funding almost dried up. But the volunteers persisted, challenging Jackson’s brutal Indian removal policy, attempting to force the post offices to close on Sundays, and, more importantly, supporting the antislavery crusade. In 1837 women accounted for about 70 percent of the signatures on antislavery petitions. Indeed, the antislavery movement was a women’s issue as much as a humanitarian one.

The book is replete with tidbits that normally do not find their way into the literature. For instance, the role of free blacks in reform movements was considerably greater than I had imagined. They were quite active in the campaign to end slavery; when the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator rolled off the press in 1831, “three-quarters of its charter subscribers were African-Americans.” Moreover, in the mob efforts to prevent the enforcement of the fugitive slave laws during the 1830s, blacks formed most of the mobs, though that is rarely mentioned in conventional accounts.

“American Creed” is not without flaws. Some interpretations, particularly concerning the South, can be challenged, and the writing is less than elegant. But the content more than makes the reading worth the effort.

Forrest McDonald is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama.

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