Historical Impacts on the Philanthropical American Tradition

Seminar Paper, 2012

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Impacts on the Philanthropical American Tradition
2.1. Native American Philanthropy
2.2. The Mayflower Compact (1620)
2.3. Religious Influences
2.3.1. Puritan Beliefs and Calvinism
2.3.2. Freedom of Religion
2.4. The U.S. Constitution (1789)
2.4.1. Democracy and Philanthropy
2.4.2. Statutory Framework for Philanthropy
2.4.3. Tax Deduction
2.5. U.S. Patriotism

3. American Philanthropy and the National Character

4. Revealing the Philanthropical American Tradition

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Philanthropy1 constitutes an integral and important part of American culture, and “the United States probably outstrips all other [countries] in the size and autonomy of its nongovernmental sector” (Gardner ix). Originally, the term ‘Philanthropy’ derives from the Ancient Greek phrase ‘philanthropia’ and means “love to mankind” (“Philanthropy” 1989). Today, the American philanthropic sector is unique in its dimension and organization among all countries in the world and “no other nation manages its religious, cultural, social service, health care, and educational activities in this way” (Hamrack xv). To explore the role of philanthropy in the United States of America, it is necessary to analyze the number of cultural and historical influences and events from which the Philanthropical American Tradition emerged.

Affected by the Native American culture, Puritan beliefs, the Mayflower Compact from 1620 up to the adaption of the democratic U.S. Constitution in 1789 and the phenomena of U.S. patriotism, a rich tradition of philanthropy developed in the USA. By providing the impact of historical events shaping the Philanthropical American Tradition, it is due to the multitude of influences only possible to examine the most important ones in this paper. The impact of these historical influences on the Philanthropical American Tradition will be exposed in consideration of the American culture and character. Finally, against the background of the strong American Philanthropical Tradition, the importance of America’s non-profit sector will be revealed from a historical perspective.

2. Historical Impacts on the Philanthropical American Tradition

2.1. Native American Philanthropy

"If we are to understand the complex motives and meanings that drive philanthropic behavior across the spectrum of human cultures, Native American cultures of giving offer extraordinarily clear illuminations and insights” (Wells 1). This quotation shows the huge influence of the Native American culture on the Philanthropical American Tradition. The historian Robert Bremner describes the Native Americans “who greeted Columbus at his first landfall in the New World” as “the earliest American philanthropists” (Wells 1). These founders of the Philanthropical American Tradition were “most likely the inhabitants of San Salvador and Hispaniola, who, in 1492, Christopher Columbus observed, were “ingenious and free” with their possessions to his men after landfall” (Kelley 4). The national holiday Thanksgiving, initially celebrated in 1621, is still today a commemoration of early Native American acts of helping and giving towards the early colonists (Kelley 4).

Characterizing Native American philanthropy, Roland Austin Wells states that in native cultures philanthropy means the “honor of giving” (39). In this sense Sherry Salway Black sees Native philanthropy as a “tradition of sharing and honoring, which is a question of mutual responsibility. To share wealth is a responsibility of every caring member of a community” (Newman 42). This tradition of giving as a form of sharing is based on both the honor of giving and receiving, which means that “the beneficiary [of the gift] is expected also to give, not necessarily back, but on, so the gift is always alive” (Wells 36). Thus, the “Native worldview of giving away one's wealth as a benefit to others has historically helped […] to maintain harmony and economic balance […] [and] has exemplified Native respect for nature and the commitment to future generations” (Wisdom 3).

This concept of philanthropy being an integral part of Native communities, however, differs from the Euro-American view of philanthropy today (Wells 37). While in today’s society “the philanthropist may be glorified for his largesse, […] the recipient […] may be made to feel inferior” (Wells 37). In contrast, in Native communities “the focus [of giving] is on the exchange and on the relationship of the giver and receiver” (Wisdom 3). Nevertheless, the Native American culture involving deeply rooted giving practices had great impact on forming the Philanthropical American Tradition. The Native approach of “helping and generously assisting others” (Carson 251) is still today the fundamental idea beyond American philanthropy and was the origin for developing America’s non-profit sector in the next centuries. Then and today philanthropic actions and organizations are “motivated by something quite akin to the classical Greek philos/anthropos, a love for humankind, a love for the People” (Wells 1).

2.2. The Mayflower Compact (1620)

The Mayflower Compact, a document singed aboard the ship Mayflower in 1620 by the Pilgrims, established a temporary government of the Plymouth Colony in New England. The agreement set four principles of tolerance and liberty for the government and continued the idea of law made by and for the people. The intention of the Mayflower Compact was to establish just and equal laws upon which would be built a truly democratic form of government. By signing the compact, the Founding Fathers entered a covenant with god and with each other “into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid” (Haxtun 5). Realizing the necessity of working together, the Pilgrims created a self-governing body which ruled for the “general good” (Haxtun 5).

However, the initial weakness of early colonial governments and the faced hardships of North American settlers at that time “forced people to join together to govern themselves, to help each other and to undertake community activities, such as building schools and churches and fighting fires” (“History of Philanthropy”). In his famous text Democracy in America the French theorist Alexander de Tocqueville called these organizations which were building up the colonial society “voluntary associations” (2008 4), which were “ancestors of our modern foundations and nonprofits” (2008 4). The experiences of early philanthropy initiated and enhanced “the tradition of citizen initiatives and individual efforts to promote the public welfare” (“History of Philanthropy”). In his essay Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy, Robert

A. Gross also reveals the connection between charity of colonial days and philanthropy today: For him, Tocqueville described “an older tradition of charity [which] gave way before a new mode of philanthropy, with enduring consequences for how we carry on our lives today” (30). Concerning this context, Lawrence Friedman and Mark McGravie state in their research-book Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History that the colonial collaboration of public and private initiatives showed the social responsibility of the Pilgrims, which was also indicated in the sentences in the Mayflower Compact (25). For the Pilgrims, “philanthropy […] was not a private alternative to public action” (Friedman and McGravie 25) but a crucial attitude of serving “the general good” (Haxtun 5) of the colony. This importance of philanthropy has not changed since that times and is still a deeply rooted attitude in the American society.

Consequently, comparing the elements and reasons of early philanthropy in colonial times, issues relating to the philanthropic sector of the present day can be drawn. With the Mayflower Compact, the colonials of Plymouth created a mutual submission for the greater good of their society by divesting themselves as resources for causing “furtherance” (Haxtun 5) of society objectives (London). Today’s philanthropists follow similar motives: The individuals expect to reach a result for the benefit of the greater good by donating money or goods to charity or by volunteering besides governmental initiatives (Salmon 8). As in times of the Mayflower Compact, “the philanthropic sector [still] provides a mechanism for self-help, assistance to the needy and the pursuit of a wide array of interests and beliefs” (London). Additionally, by drawing comparisons between the Mayflower Compact and philanthropic organizations like foundations, it can be stated, that both establish structures to succeed with objectives by individual participation (London). Thus, philanthropy can be seen as an integral part of the American experience since colonial days and the Mayflower Compact as the heart of the foundation of philanthropy and the nonprofit community.

2.3. Religious Influences

Since the American society has a strong and rich tradition of religious voluntarism, the connections between philanthropy and religious faiths are complex and diverse. The exploration of the role of religion in America’s voluntary sector requires knowledge of the basic characteristics of religious organizations in the USA. In his book Faith and Philanthropy in America, Robert Wuthnow attributes the American religious sector “enormous organizational and cultural resources” which are “unique among the nations of the world” (4). Thus, he draws a connection between the religious importance and the strong voluntary spirit in the USA (Wuthnow 4). This relationship derives from the early history of the United States, in which religion has played a key role in shaping the Philanthropical American Tradition to this date.

2.3.1. Puritan Beliefs and Charity

The New England Puritans epitomized “the first tradition - charity - [which] governed the practice of benevolence from the beginnings of English settlement in the seventeenth century down through the Revolution and Constitution” (Gross 32). In the years after 1630, the Puritans of England emigrated by ship supporting the founding of new settlements in New England. These men and women who “crossed the Atlantic to establish communities that would be better than […] the ones they had known at home” (Bremner 1983 36) are “the real founders of American philanthropy” (Bremner 1983 36). In 1630, John Winthrop, one of the leading figures in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared the purpose of the Puritan colony in a sermon which is now known as “A Model of Christian Charity”: For the establishment of a new colony, he used the spiritual ideal of a “City upon a Hill” including a society imbued with a religious obligation to do good (Gross 32). A basic requirement for this concept was that the citizens saw themselves “as members of the same body” (Gross 32).

Although Winthrop did not use the word charity in our modern sense of aid to the poor but rather as a synonym for love (Bremner 1983, 36), “the Puritans established a culture of philanthropy geared to strengthen communities and build institutions to help the poor raise themselves out of poverty” (“Philanthropy” 2003) and therefor introduced “a system of nongovernmental-agencies” (“Philanthropy” 2003) which had great influence in initiating the Philanthropical American Tradition.

This thinking of the Puritan settlers was highly influenced by the theories of John Calvin, which “expected that Christian values would be lived out in every aspect of society” (Strong xviii) and “included both a person’s morals and his or her corporate life in the broader society” (Strong xviii). In short, “the Puritans acquired from Calvinism a theology of Christian vocation expressed in social obligation” (Strong xviii). This religious belief emphasized a basic principle which is still essential to the society and to social action in America: “[The] Puritans considered economic success to be a mark of hard work and frugality, but they also considered too much wealth to be a sinful sign of ostentatious pride and insensitivity to the needy” (Strong xviii). Thus, Calvinism was and still is an important motivating factor for philanthropic behavior as it “taught that the rich man is a trustee for wealth which he disposes for benefit of mankind, as a steward who lies under direct obligation to do Christ’s will” (Jordan 406). For Douglas M. Strong, Calvinism even “became the primary influence on religious attitudes toward public affairs” (xix) in America up to this date and even one of the most important philanthropists in the history of the USA, Andrew Carnegie, referred to Calvinism in his famous Article The Gospel of Wealth describing the perfect philanthropist.

The Calvinist thoughts are also at the heart of the American Dream of moving from rags to riches; a myth, which also plays an essential role in the Philanthropical American Tradition. As a reason for signing The Giving Pledge which was initiated in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the billionaire and CEO of Omega Advisors Leon G. Cooperman stated that his pledge is “a testimony to the American Dream” (Cooperman). For him and his company, it is a “moral imperative to give others the opportunity to pursue the American Dream by sharing our financial success” (Cooperman). Consequently, the Puritan tradition of private philanthropy with its Calvinist influences starting in the 17th century has been characteristic for the USA and its philanthropical sector down to our day (Baltzell 77).


1 Between the usage of the terms philanthropic sector and non-profit sector no explicit differentiation is made in this paper.

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Historical Impacts on the Philanthropical American Tradition
University of Passau
From John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates: The Philanthropical American Tradition
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historical, impacts, philanthropical, american, tradition
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Stephan Katzbichler (Author), 2012, Historical Impacts on the Philanthropical American Tradition, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/262272


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