Why should busy foundation or NGO representatives take time to read a book on the history of philanthropy in the US during the seemingly obscure 19th century Jacksonian (Antebellum) period? Historians like us to believe that their craft helps guide us in future decision-making, but more often its best role is to make the present meaningful.
Kathleen McCarthy helps us understand why certain US cultural, social and political features are the way they are, what they mean, how they came about and, most importantly, why they can seem so ‘peculiar’ to outsiders, so ‘taken-for-granted’ by Americans, and altogether different from virtually everywhere else.
Discourse on civil society is not common in the US, but even so there is a deep-seated cultural understanding – self-conscious awareness, even – that the US is the prototype of modern civil society. The clearest expression of this is the confident self-understanding that the US, despite its imperfections and injustices, is the embodiment of human social progress. This ‘ideology’ can assume mythological dimensions, perhaps because it is so closely linked to, and rests on, major documents, events and symbols of US political history, where government is understood in a broad sense. Governance, society’s constitution, and the rights and obligations of citizens are interlinked and part of the US political canon.
Development of US society is rooted in profound and successful reaction to 18th century European absolutism, the power of state-church relations, and the social rigidities of what the ‘Founding Fathers’, in the true spirit of the Enlightenment, saw as a dying political order. In its place, the US developed a complex political system of direct democracy based on checks and balances, put constraints on government, instituted clear separation of power at federal and state levels, allowed for a distinct economic class structure based on mobility which departed from the symbols of hereditary ranks, and encouraged a religious system based on voluntarism, with strict separation of church and state.
The ‘American Creed’ rests on five basic ideological factors: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. Nowhere else did these five factors come to shape society and polity as clearly. McCarthy shows how philanthropy helped shape the American Creed and successfully argues that philanthropy is very closely related to achieving a positive combination of the various ideological currents of early 19th century America. In this excellently researched and written book, she argues that in the early periods of US history many of the defining features of US civil society and non-profit–government relationships evolved in a highly political and contested process that involved three distinct phases:
· The first, 1780–1820, saw a growing associational charity infrastructure, the start of American associationalism, a revival missionary fervour, and the spread of religious organizations of many kinds.
· The second, 1820–40, partially described in De Tocqueville’s travelogues, witnessed American associationalism and participatory democracy at its height, but was also a period of political tension about social responsibility for poverty, violence, racism and other social problems. Jacksonian America marked the start of modern advocacy and political lobbying for diverse and conflicting interests by voluntary associations.
· The third phase saw nascent US civil society severely tested by growing tensions between North and South, the Civil War and the removal of Native Americans from vast regions, leading to broader political mobilization of different population groups and, in particular, the start of the women’s and civil rights movement.
To her credit, McCarthy correctly judges the development of US civil society as an arduous process, as ‘a story of gains won, rescinded, and reclaimed. This, then, is a book about the ebb and flow of democracy and the exercise of power: who wielded it, toward what end, and how Americans ultimately created a civil society’ (p9). It is also a history that shows how unlikely such a successful outcome ultimately was, how many uncertainties were in its way, and how developments could have turned out otherwise. This is the lesson we draw from this book for philanthropy in the early 21st century: as we try to ‘build’ civil society and philanthropy in many parts of the world, the highly contingent and long-term prospect of any such endeavour becomes apparent. Building sustainable civil society is not the work of singular events or projects; it is not the work of a decade but of generations.
Helmut K Anheier is Professor and Director of UCLA’s Center for Civil Society, and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics. He can be contacted at email@example.com
American Creed: Philanthropy and the rise of civil society, 1700–1865
Kathleen D McCarthy The University of Chicago Press $35