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American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865

American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865

by Kathleen D. McCarthy

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Since the dawn of the republic, faith in social equality, religious freedom, and the right to engage in civic activism have constituted our national creed. In this bracing history, Kathleen D. McCarthy traces the evolution of these ideals, exploring the impact of philanthropy and volunteerism on America from 1700 to 1865. What results is a vital reevaluation of public


Since the dawn of the republic, faith in social equality, religious freedom, and the right to engage in civic activism have constituted our national creed. In this bracing history, Kathleen D. McCarthy traces the evolution of these ideals, exploring the impact of philanthropy and volunteerism on America from 1700 to 1865. What results is a vital reevaluation of public life during the pivotal decades leading up to the Civil War.

The market revolution, participatory democracy, and voluntary associations have all been closely linked since the birth of the United States. American Creed explores the relationships among these three institutions, showing how charities and reform associations forged partnerships with government, provided important safety valves for popular discontent, and sparked much-needed economic development. McCarthy also demonstrates how the idea of philanthropy became crucially wedded to social activism during the Jacksonian era. She explores how acts of volunteerism and charity became involved with the abolitionist movement, educational patronage, the struggle against racism, and female social justice campaigns. What resulted, she contends, were heated political battles over the extent to which women and African Americans would occupy the public stage.

Tracing, then, the evolution of civil society and the pivotal role of philanthropy in the search for and exercise of political and economic power, this book will prove essential to anyone interested in American history and government.

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American Creed
Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society 1700-1865

The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-56201-8

Chapter One
Forging the Creed

* * *

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Few phrases have been invoked as often or as fervently as this section of the Declaration of Independence. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, it became a mantra for reform, used by men and women, black and white, elites and laborers to promote their causes and their rights. To quote Jefferson's biographer, Joseph Ellis, "the entire history of liberal reform in America can be written as a process of discovery, within Jefferson's words, of a spiritually sanctioned mandate for ending slavery, providing the rights of citizenship to blacks and women, justifying welfare programs for the poor and expanding individual freedoms."

It was an unanticipated legacy. When Jefferson wrote the declaration, voluntary associations were almost exclusively the province of white male elites. Two decades later, African American mutual aid societies were evolving into the nucleus of the black church, and the first women's charities were seeking charters in Philadelphia and New York. Over the ensuing years, a growing array of groups would create charities, participate in state and federal policymaking and economic development, compete for public funding, and forge distinctive political cultures uniquely their own.

It was a stunning transformation, born of colonial precedents, revolutionary ideals, and the ideas and actions of the statesmen who led the Revolution. One man, in particular, exemplified the trends that set America's associational revolution in motion: Benjamin Franklin. While Franklin forged a highly visible model for combining philanthropic, public, and market activities for communal ends, his fellow revolutionary leaders-men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison-minted much of the egalitarian rhetoric, the religious libertarianism, and the philosophical backing behind the American creed. Franklin's career illustrates the ways in which the scaffolding for American civil society was built over the course of the eighteenth century, including early examples of the ways in which associations built social capital among men of middling means, public-private partnerships, market activities, and a broadened mandate for social advocacy.

Colonial Precedents

Franklin's career heralded a new chapter in a transatlantic philanthropic revolution that began with the Reformation. Earlier historians such as W. K. Jordan and David Owen ably traced the evolution of English beneficence from donations to voluntarism. As Jordan explains, the creation of the Anglican Church and the dissolution of monastic properties under Henry VIII ushered in a new era in secular giving by wealthy merchants in the middle of the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century, Puritan businessmen had become the country's most generous donors, moved by religiously bound notions of stewardship and the desire to apply their riches to the solution of social ills. The embourgeoisement of British philanthropy entered a second stage in the seventeenth century, as men of still more modest means began to pool their resources and time to create voluntary associations and broadly based subscription drives. Some turned to mutual aid while others used their donations to set up hospitals, charity schools, and colonial libraries, efforts inspired by the rise of joint-stock companies (which popularized the idea of pooled funds), a growing faith in progress, and personal piety. By the time of Franklin's birth in 1706, ample precedents for associational activity were flourishing in England, and a few fledgling ventures had been introduced into the colonies by innovative clerics like Boston's Cotton Mather.

At first glance, Franklin seemed an unlikely philanthropist. Unlike the aristocratic Jefferson, he was born into humble circumstances, one of seventeen children of a Boston chandler. Rather than inheriting his wealth, he became the quintessential self-made man. He was also a man of his times, and his Autobiography provides significant clues to the origins of his lifelong fascination with philanthropy through his literary tastes. According to Franklin, three works were particularly influential: Bonifacious: An Essay upon the Good, by Cotton Mather; Daniel Defoe's Essay upon Projects; and Plutarch's Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

Bonifacious was a clarion call for social activism. Massachusetts already had a well-defined rationale for philanthropic stewardship in the idea that citizens were duty bound to share their wealth with their communities. In effect, personal wealth and public gain were ideologically linked. Mather extended this notion of civic duty to include voluntarism. Toward this end, he urged his readers to embrace "an unfainting resolution to do good" through the creation of societies of "Young Men Associated." Rather than focusing on elites, he sought to mobilize men of all ranks, both young and old. "A little man may do a great deal ... of good!" Mather exclaimed. "It is possible the wisdom of a poor man, may start a proposal, that may save a city, serve a nation!"

Readers were offered a list of suggestions for possible activities, most of which were based on British precedents, ranging from efforts to curb sinful behavior through "Reforming Societies, or Societies for the Suppression of Disorders" to charity schools. Missionary work among foreigners, Catholics, soldiers, sailors, and Indians was also recommended, as were the creation of tradesmen's libraries, colleges, and seminaries.

Although Mather's book failed to evoke much of an upsurge of voluntarism aside from a few short-lived ventures in New England, Franklin fastened on his ideas, secularized them, and made them his own. To quote one of his many biographers, he transformed the notion of associated public service into "a kind of religion." As he later admitted, Essay upon the Good inspired him to "set a greater value on the character of a doer of good, than on any other kind of reputation."

Like Mather, Defoe offered a menu of potential activities, from insurance schemes to schools for women. Unlike Mather, however, he rooted these activities in self-interest. Carefully sidestepping the idea that one could buy one's way into heaven through good works, Mather gloweringly warned: "when you have done all the good that you can, reckon yourself well paid ... if you are not punished for what you do. In short, be insensible to any merits of your performance." Conversely, Defoe emphasized the ties between "Publick Good, and Private Advantage." By linking public service to self-interest, Defoe's work underscored the possibilities for doing well by doing good-lessons not lost on the ambitious Franklin.

Plutarch cast the theme of service in more patriotic terms. Histories of ancient Greece and Rome fueled the transatlantic fascination with republican ideals that so profoundly shaped the thinking of the revolutionary generation. Republicanism was predicated, among other things, on a set of values that stressed simplicity, patriotism, integrity, valor, and a love of justice and liberty, ideas popularized in the writings of seventeenth-century English "country" writers such as James Harrington and eighteenth-century critics such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Republican theorists stressed the need for a virtuous citizenry ready to set aside personal honors and gain for the good of the community. Luxury went hand in hand with corruption and vice in this scenario, undermining the societies in which they were tolerated. In the process, republicanism helped to forge a new definition of manhood, one that moved beyond men's traditional roles as heads of households by linking individual virtue to public service in pursuit of the common weal.

Although seldom interpreted in this light, Franklin's Autobiography can be read as a primer in republicanism. Franklin was a man obsessed with virtue: its practice, its achievement, its results. For him, virtue was a quarry to be stalked through charts and graphs to monitor behavior, and countless rules and maxims for subduing the all-too-human desire to grasp, to sin, and to offend. The Autobiography was also a primer in manly conduct. Notions of republican virtue were inevitably presented against the foil of an insidious feminized "other." Republican theorists continually invoked the trinity of luxury, effeminacy, and vice in their cautionary treatises. To be virtuous, self-abnegating, and dedicated to the common welfare, therefore, was to be a man. Franklin embraced these ideas and translated them into a variety of associational experiments, beginning with the Junto.

Founded in 1727, Franklin's circle of "Leather Apron Men," or Junto, borrowed liberally from Mather, Defoe, and Plutarch to forge a new kind of "volitional community" composed of fictive kin. It was a novel experiment. Voluntary associations were just beginning to surface in the North American colonies by the early eighteenth century. Aside from Mather's ill-starred ventures, Boston had recorded two groups by the time the Junto was founded, the Scot's Charitable Society, a mutual aid association that dated from 1657, and the Episcopal Charitable Society, founded in 1724. Newport also had a volunteer fire club, created two years later. The Junto was distinguished by its novel blend of self-help and civic aims, and by the relatively humble status of its members, most of whom were ambitious apprentices like Franklin. To quote Gordon Wood, this was an era when "mechanics and others who worked with their hands were thought servile and totally absorbed in their narrow occupations, and thus ... having no leisure for public service." The Junto refuted this idea.

For Franklin, public service was both an avocation and a necessity. At sixteen, he fled his family and an unhappy apprenticeship under his brother, James, who managed the Boston newspaper, the Courant. The split occurred after the youngster anonymously published his "Silence Do- Good" letters under a pseudonym. Ironically, the popular series was aimed at the pious Mather, causing the stricken cleric to damn the essays as efforts to "blacken and burlesque" his reputation and to urge local magistrates to monitor the Courant, surveillance that ultimately landed Franklin's brother in jail for contempt. Perhaps as a hedge against future incarceration, after his release James published the Courant under his brother's name, signing a bogus discharge on Benjamin's contract of indenture to make the arrangement seem legitimate. When the paper prospered under the younger brother's editorship, rivalries flared, and Benjamin began to push to be released from his apprenticeship in earnest, signed papers in hand. James ultimately capitulated, but he retaliated by blacklisting the youngster among other Boston printers. Unable to find work, Franklin decided to leave, a decision which brought him to Philadelphia in 1723.

Franklin's unconventional behavior could have cost him his career. Bereft of kin, even letters of introduction and an adequate supply of cash, he effectively cut himself off from most traditional sources of professional, emotional, and financial support that a young man of his station could rely on in starting his career. His rendition of his subsequent adventures is a picaresque novel in miniature. Shortly after landing in Philadelphia he was befriended by the governor, who sent him on a disastrous excursion to London, where the young printer found himself nearly penniless. He ultimately found work in the printing houses of London, returning to Philadelphia in 1726, first as an apprentice and journeyman, then as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729.

Cut adrift from his own family at a point in his career when kinship networks were often the primary determinant of one's failure or success, Franklin crafted his own circle of "brethren" to fill the void. In the process, he began to recast the boundaries between public and private affairs by drawing his fellow apprentices away from the isolation of their individual workshops and into the public sphere of social service and action. The association embraced a variety of aims. At one level, it was an informal university, where members discussed weekly reading assignments on history, ethics, literature, and science. At a time when a classical education was an indispensable credential of elite status, these activities provided members with a means of hurdling social distinctions-an advantage rarely available to young men of their station.

Junto members coupled self-education with public service and self-help. Weekly meetings began with a series of questions concerning everything from business trends to public needs. In addition to discussing reading assignments, members pooled information on recent business failures and coups, the personal foibles and gains of individual citizens, worthy deeds, and ideas for ways "in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind." Queries were also made about individuals' needs and how their fellow members might be of assistance. It was a highly successful alliance, lasting over three decades. Rather than extend the original circle, Franklin ultimately encouraged each member to start a group of his own, to better promote "our particular interests in business ... the increase of our influence in public affairs, and our power of doing good."

More than a club, the Junto was a template for the creation of social capital, the trust that enables individuals to work collaboratively to benefit themselves and the larger society. It was certainly an important prop to Franklin's career. In addition to pooling information and contacts, members lent the funds that enabled him to set himself up as the editor of the Gazette, a function normally filled by kin in an era when cash was scarce and loans from strangers both risky and difficult to obtain. The meetings provided items for the columns of his paper, and inside information on emerging business trends. They also served as a crucible for many of the public ventures that burnished Franklin's reputation, such as the Library Company of Philadelphia, the city's first subscription library (which ultimately resided in the State House, bolstering Franklin's "private" organization with public housing); the American Philosophical Society, a pancolonial community of intellectuals, scientists, and inventors; and the Union Fire Company, the city's first volunteer fire brigade. In the words of one observer, the Junto "was his benevolent lobby for the benefit of Philadelphia, and now and then for the advantage of Benjamin Franklin." It was also the template for a lifetime of good works.

Government Funding and the Commonwealth Ideal

Despite his personal generosity, Franklin harbored a glowering dislike of public poor relief, which he deemed the wellspring of indolence, idleness, and prodigality, attitudes that presaged the Draconian poor laws of the 1820s. In his estimation, public support for the poor offered "a premium for the encouragement of idleness." "Giving mankind a dependence on any thing for support in age or sickness, besides industry and frugality during youth and health," he gloomily predicted, "tends to ... promote and increase ... the very evil it was intended to cure." Franklin's dictum was that the "best way of doing good to the poor is [by] ... driving them out of it." Yet he was quick to draw on public support for his own philanthropic ventures, patterns codified in English law and rooted in colonial necessity. In an era of limited personal fortunes and public expenditures, Franklin realized that collaboration was imperative.

Perhaps the most ingenious example of Franklin's skill at cobbling together public and private support was his work on behalf of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Sick Poor. Initially proposed by Dr. Thomas Bond, the hospital was the first of its kind in North America. Because of its novelty, Bond had difficulty in raising funds and turned to Franklin for help. Franklin publicized the venture in the Pennsylvania Gazette, launched a subscription drive, donating twenty-five pounds from his own pocket, and drafted a petition to the Pennsylvania Assembly (he was the clerk) when the fund-raising campaign began to falter.


Excerpted from American Creed by KATHLEEN D. McCARTHY Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kathleen D. McCarthy is a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author or editor of five other books, including Women's Culture: American Philanthropy and Art, 1830-1930, published by the University of Chicago Press, and Women, Philanthropy, and Civil Society.

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