The question keeps coming up – why does the U.S. do philanthropy the way it does? It’s a peculiar form that in many ways is not so different from Roman foundation work – buildings built with benefactors’ names on them, sticky emergence of the state-philanthropy-civil society nexus, etc. There was even a bit of bullying back then. And there was something of a citizenship issue, too. So why is this so peculiar?
Well, it turns out that there are 2000+ years of history of charity and philanthropy in Europe (i use that term extremely loosely – for an interesting read on what “Europe” is, see Roberto Dainotto‘s Europe (In Theory)) that, well, has come round full circle. Charity (in the more pointed religious sense) emerged with Roman Emperor Constatine (272-337). He brought the Roman civic engagement model into practice with Christian values of caring for the poor. Further philosophical writings (particularly by St. Augustine and his contemporaries) actually draw their connection much deeper into a kind of charge to the Church for the stewardship of the poor. The poor, by this time, are seen as sacred – both as reminders of jesus’ poverty and an opportunity for those better off to practice their salvation through giving to the poor. And while there were differentiations made between the “sturdy beggar” and the “deserving poor”, these distinctions did not reach down to the level of actual giving. For the wealthy, then, there is a tie between salvation and almsgiving – one that begins to erode with the Reformation.
(and this is where it gets interesting)
The Reformation brought about new understandings of the poor and the need for their management. There is a shift from the glorification and redemption of poverty and charity to a new pathos of civic duty – one that sees the poor as both “a consequence of disorder and an obstacle to order” (see: Foucault’s History of Madness for a comprehensive break down of this pathos). The churches do not loose their grip on the process of caring for the poor, but it takes on a new guise, as they become a kind of intermediary between the state and the poor. Parishes take on the management of the poor, instituting the poorhouses and workhouses and sending overseers to check in on people.
Granted, this does not happen evenly across Europe. How this was managed in the Northern Italian principalities is very different from how it happens in the Low Countries. This variation is extremely important to a holistic story of the rise of charity and philanthropy, but for the purposes of where i’m forging ahead, not so much…
American charity and philanthropy was heavily informed in it early years by the codification of this shift in poverty management as outlined in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. The Puritans aboard the Arbella, in John Winthrop’s now-famous lay sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity” are instructed to build the “city on the hill” to be a beacon of Christian charity – a model community that was built on self-sacrifice for the sake of their neighbor and for the commonwealth. Again, there is regional variation (for instance, auctioning off the poor is not outlawed in Arkansas till 1903).
The break with European traditions of charity and philanthropy actually happens after the Revolution. The separation between church and state is so deeply ingrained within the now-not-colonial psyche that churches no longer receive funds collected through taxes to take care of their poor. The care of the poor is shifted from parishes to local governments, and parish-run poorhouses give way to specialized institutions which target specific populations such as the aged, delinquent, the physically and mentally dependent. These institutions are run through public and private programs, but the tie between charity and religion, itself, is not broken.
Insert perfunctory comment about Alex de Tocqueville’s excitement about American philanthropy, as reflected in Democracy in America.