IN HIS NEW BOOK, University of Virginia history professor Olivier Zunz seeks to shape snippets of biography, a constellation of financial records, and selected political and legal histories into an overarching story about the progressive effect of charity on the development of American democracy. Philanthropy in America is a thorough endorsement of what Zunz describes as a secular, sophisticated, and, in his telling, admirably American form of giving: “a capitalist venture in social betterment, not an act of kindness as understood in Christianity.”
Though he has nothing but admiration for his subjects, it wouldn’t be quite fair to call Philanthropy in America a hagiography (and not only because its author makes such a careful distinction between Christians and capitalists). Zunz doesn’t deploy the expected folksy anecdotes to humanize monopolists whose magnanimous facade crumbles under the slightest historical scrutiny. Instead, like the former Société Tocqueville president he is, Zunz sticks to tracing the founding and direction of institutions and their co-determination. There are no central, colorful characters in this narrative: Individuals become important if and only if they come into contact with large sums of money. The heroes of this story are the ones whose names decorate foundation lobbies long after their deaths, the first generation of wealthy philanthropists: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, et al.
This super-class, in the author’s telling, is birthed curiously mature:
In the span of two generations following the Civil War, an unprecedented number of Americans became rich and powerful enough to shape community and national affairs by themselves. In the 1870s, there were just 100 millionaires in the United States. During the next twenty years, more people made more money more rapidly than ever before in history, and they made very large gifts to society.
As to the source of their unprecedented riches, or what they took from society in sweat and blood that allowed them to make these gifts, Zunz is silent, ignoring the stories told through the murals that decorate union halls around the country. (Suffice it to say that they weren’t called robber barons because they didn’t rob people.) What the reader of Philanthropy in America receives is a caricature of elite history, a solemn recitation of foundations’ changing board compositions and rich men’s names copied down from NPR and PBS programming breaks. As befits the concerns of his protagonists, the expansion of tax exemptions is central to Zunz’s analysis.
As the story of what ...read more