The Hand That Feeds: Olivier Zunz’s “Philanthropy in America”

By Malcolm HarrisMarch 13, 2012

Philanthropy in America by Olivier Zunz

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 happens to the wealth the elite doesn’t have time to spend, Zunz’s may be a history of American philanthropy, but it is, by any reasonable contemporary standard, the wrong one. Zunz is so univocal with his plot, including minor objections to his thesis only to reject them quickly and cleanly, that his sole virtue as a historian seems to be the negative space his argument structures. The overwhelming focus of Zunz’s inquiry is “the partnership between the rich, who have made their careers as organizational wizards, and the various progressive elites of the academic world, local governments, the judiciary, and emerging professional associations” without whom “the much-heralded shift from charity to philanthropy could not have happened.” Philanthropy becomes a one-directional internal function of the ruling class that affects but does not truly include the desperate, dirty (and, often, dark-skinned) crowds. These crowds are silent in Zunz’s history, their mouths open to receive donated food, but never to speak.

At the turn of the twentieth century, reformers and revolutionaries alike targeted wealthy philanthropists for their brutal corporate practices, and even Zunz concedes that “philanthropists were the titans of industry who caused the very afflictions that reformers sought to undo.” But to describe the murder of twenty striking coal miners and their family members in Ludlow, Colorado — an incident already described more fully in the preceding clause than it is in Zunz’s book — as “disastrous” betrays his managerial perspective. At the end of the section on progressive and labor critiques, he offers a thoroughly unconvincing two-sentence apologia:

Listen to such voices, and it would seem that philanthropic institutions could not contribute much good to society. But history has shown that enough wealthy Americans and reformers, including reformers who were critical of the industrialists’ labor and economic practices, found ways to achieve détente and to further a larger social agenda that benefited millions.

This is a decidedly unserious response to a deep line of critique; to the charge that the industrialists always extracted more in hardship than they dispersed in charity, he responds that, well, they dispersed a lot in charity. Zunz’s answer is not to confront this counter-history, but to shut his ears to those common voices.


The real explosion in institutionalized American philanthropy came with World War I and the campaign to support the effort abroad from home soil. During this time, the Red Cross went from an underfunded and reactive relief organization to America’s biggest mass charity, with a membership that grew from under 17,000 to over 20 million between 1914 and 1918. At the same time, the government funded the war by borrowing from its citizens in the form of bonds pitched as a form of civil philanthropy. Many of these new, small-scale donors and volunteers were women encouraged to support a war for a country that still denied them suffrage. Zunz frames this outpouring as an admirable display of Americans rising to the occasion: “Some school children and girls working in offices, stores, and factories repeatedly gave so much as to be left hungry.” In her 1939 short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter satirizes such pious, industrious behavior:

It keeps them busy and makes them feel useful, and all these women running wild with the men away are dangerous, if they aren’t given something to keep their little minds out of mischief. So rows of young girls, the intact cradles of the future, with their pure serious faces framed becomingly in Red Cross wimples, roll cock-eyed bandages that will never reach a base hospital, and knit sweaters that will never warm a manly chest, their minds dwelling lovingly on all the blood and mud and the next dance at the Acanthus Club for the officers of the flying corps. Keeping still and quiet will win the war.

Over the course of Philanthropy in America, Zunz is conspicuously quiet about the possibility that wealthy philanthropists and senior government officials (never two fully distinct groups) might have ulterior motives. The omission is especially flagrant in his discussion of eugenics, which Zunz defines, with pause-inducing neutrality, as “scientifically informed efforts to encourage persons with high intelligence to have children and to discourage reproduction among persons thought inferior.” There was not much debate among the elites as to the identity of these inferior persons, though it’s kind of Zunz to imply that they might not actually have been inferior.

Despite being a focus of early twentieth century philanthropy that led to long-enduring policies in over thirty states, eugenics only gets a page and a half in the book, as an aside to a story about Margaret Sanger navigating tax regulations around birth control advocacy. Rather than tar Sanger as a sincere eugenicist — a favorite pastime of anti-abortion organizations — Zunz makes the case that she feigned interest in the cause in order to secure legitimacy, money, and legal protection for her work on contraception. Here, as so often in Philanthropy in America, the human consequences of these donations are obfuscated by the mechanics of fundraising:

In the summer of 1905, [pioneering American eugenicist Charles] Davenport approached the mother of Mary Harriman, a Barnard undergraduate, settlement-house worker, and student in his Cold Springs Harbor Biological Lab, and stimulated her interest in the cause. Mrs. E. H. Harriman, who had recently taken over the management of her late husband’s immense railroad fortune, rapidly agreed to fund Davenport’s research on a grand scale. She established the Eugenics Record Office and turned the entire establishment over to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which incorporated it in 1918 as its Department of Genetics. Mrs. Harriman’s gift to the Carnegie Institution amounted to $300,000. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., also supported Davenport with fellowships for the summer training of field workers … Moving to the center of political and scientific discourse paid off. Integrating eugenics into a larger rationale for birth control got Sanger closer to real money.

As to why the wealthy would want to donate so much money to the cause of controlling the birth rates of undesirables, Zunz offers only the observation that “eugenics was widely considered a mainstream science.” Addressing the Ford Foundation’s investment in population control, he writes curtly: “Few then worried about such abuses as the involuntary sterilization programs in India and other places that have since been exposed.” These “few” certainly included the victims themselves in those “other places,” like the tens of thousands of Americans sterilized at the Ford Foundation’s urging from the early thirties through the late seventies (including 7,600 people in North Carolina alone, according to a state inquiry). They don’t merit a mention. It’s a testament to Zunz’s ability to remove any element of human-scale pathos from his histories that the reader’s blood doesn’t run cold on the first reading of the phrase “on a grand scale.” Eugenics wasn’t just another 20th century faddish pseudoscience, it was the central intellectual justification for a very American attempt to systematically eliminate entire “undesirable” races and classes of people. The reader wouldn’t know from Zunz’s description that the records in the Eugenics Records Office cataloged “inferior” Americans. It was ventures like this that led Adolf Hitler to write in Mein Kampf that “[t]here is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.” The philanthropists’ aid to the formation of this “conception” was more than just inspirational; in addition to the Carnegie Institution’s support of the Davenport project, the Rockefeller family sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute where the Third Reich would recruit its top racial scientists. The Nazis frequently cited American eugenics laws, aspirationally, during their rise to power and defensively at Nuremberg. The ERO was shut down in 1939 when the Nazi connections became suddenly indefensible, but state eugenics laws lasted decades longer.

It’s true that racial politics aren’t entirely absent from Zunz’s account, but he twists the history into a blunt instrument to defend those who least deserve it. In a section called “Investing in Civil Rights,” for instance, the author pits Northern philanthropists against Southern bigots in a simplified dichotomy that wouldn’t fly in a high school history class. During the 1960s, a few politicians accused philanthropists of using charitable foundations as tax shelters to keep wealth within their families. Instead of engaging with these accusations, Zunz writes them off as part of a segregationist politics of resentment against northeast elites who wanted to raise the station of blacks in the South. Throughout the book, Zunz is willing to bend over backwards to play down racism among well-meaning philanthropists while painting their opponents as motivated solely by irredeemable unscientific prejudice. “It is important to note,” he writes of Rockefeller and Carnegie, “that philanthropists and reformers alike were genuine in their desire for improvement in race relations and should not be confused with the hardline Jim Crow biological racists to whom they conceded race inequality.”

But grouping together Tennessee senator Albert Gore Sr. (one of three Democratic senators in the 11 rebel states not to sign Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Southern Manifesto) with white supremacist congressman Wright Patman as “segregationists” who “resented the advantage the tax code afforded the wealthy” seems, shall we say, uncharitable; and Zunz’s regional narrative of a high-minded, egalitarian North and a resentful, racist South is far too Manichaean. There was a time in the American academy when it was acceptable to describe white supremacy as a Southern phenomenon to which Northerners only conceded some ground in a pragmatic effort to improve race relations, but this explanation always flew in the face of what black Americans knew to be true. (In 1964, Malcolm X spoke of Northern foxes and Southern wolves, noting: “No matter what, they’ll both eat you.”) But Zunz clearly prefers the scientifically justified racism of rich philanthropists who smiled and advocated interracial harmony while working in earnest to solve “the overpopulation issue” to the prejudice of poor white Southerners complaining at car dealerships about the Ford Foundation’s black charity programs — an anecdote that so perfectly captures working class stupidity and resentment (they don’t even know how nonprofit boards work!) that Zunz mentions it twice. To W.E.B. Du Bois’s contention that rich donors wanted to use black workers to “break the power of trade unions,” Zunz suggests some executives were open to collective bargaining, and describes their intentions as “sincere.”

But even when he’s addressing the cause of black uplift, Zunz is more impressed with contributions made in dollars than blood. Look at how he uses the murder of Medgar Evers — a landmark event in the civil rights movement — to contextualize the contributions of a pair of young philanthropists recently graduated (as Zunz tells the reader twice in as many sentences) from Harvard. “The Curriers redoubled their funding and fundraising efforts following Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers’s assassination in June 1963. Not long after, in January of 1967, the generous couple tragically disappeared in a plane crash over the Caribbean. In their short lives they had shown how philanthropists could change the American political landscape.” Zunz’s ambiguous syntax has a moral dimension here: It’s not clear if “their” refers to just the Curriers, or if Evers’s short life also showed how philanthropists could change the American political landscape. This account of history isn’t wrong per se, any more than a meticulously researched book narrowly focused on fascism’s contribution to public transportation would be. But the use of an American martyr to lend weight to the death of two jet-setting Ivy Leaguers three and a half years later shows where the author’s real attention lies. Any intellectual project that begins with the premise of the power elite’s positive contribution to American social progress will be necessarily deaf, blind, and tasteless.


But just because ruling class historians refuse to question the origins of philanthropists’ accumulation doesn’t mean Americans haven’t. The suspicion of institutionalized giving is just as deeply American as the giving itself, and not all Americans have been as sanguine as Zunz is about the intrusion of capitalist values into charity. Herman Melville satirized the transformation in his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man, when the titular grifter passes himself off as a philanthropist of the new sort to a surprised mark:

“Missions I would quicken with the Wall street spirit.”

“The Wall street spirit?”

“Yes; for if, confessedly, certain spiritual ends are to be gained but through the auxiliary agency of worldly means, then, to the surer gaining of such spiritual ends, the example of worldly policy in worldly projects should not by spiritual projectors be slighted. In brief, the conversion of the heathen, so far, at least, as depending on human effort, would, by the world’s charity, be let out on contract. So much by bid for converting India, so much for Borneo, so much for Africa. Competition allowed, stimulus would be given.”

Zunz has all the confidence in the free enterprise system Melville mocked, and some to spare. He sees its oligarchs as magicians uniquely qualified to remake the world, to harness “the auxiliary agency of worldly means … to the surer gaining of spiritual ends” as effectively as they harnessed the steam engine or the spinning jenny.

Similarly, if he had wanted to give an American tradition of small-scale mutual aid a voice, Zunz could have turned to Melville’s great contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me … It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. We can receive anything from love, for that is a way of receiving it from ourselves; but not from any one who assumes to bestow.

It’s when he addresses giving that the full meaning of Emerson’s “self-reliance” comes through. Americans might not recognize the essayist who wrote of gifts, “All his are mine, all mine his. I say to him, How can you give me this pot of oil or this flagon of wine when all your oil and wine is mine?” Gone is the hermit founder of U.S. individualism, instead we recognize the revolutionary spirit of the 1840s, and an egalitarian Emerson writing sympathetically of beneficiaries who “not at all considering the value of the gift, look back to the greater store it was taken from.” At the turn of the next century, Wisconsin sociologist Thorstein Veblen continued in this Emersonian vein by questioning whether the supposed distance from petty competition that their wealth afforded the leisure class really made them any more interested in the betterment of mankind. He concluded that the opposite was the case, noting that “the leisure class of today is recruited from those who have been successful in a pecuniary way, and who, therefore, are presumably endowed with more than an even complement of the predatory traits.”

Yet Zunz is unable to see any refusal of the bounty of philanthropy as anything other than working-class ignorance or idiocy. In a gesture he characterizes as proletarian anti-intellectualism, 20 municipalities in Pennsylvania turned down Andrew Carnegie’s offered buildings: “They did not believe that what they needed first were libraries.” Perhaps the steel towns didn’t need to read him in a library to see Emerson’s description of a rich man’s gift as “a kind of symbolic sin-offering, or payment of blackmail” in the boss’s donation. As the sage of Concord knew, there are always good reasons to snarl at a hand that condescends to feed.


By the end of the book, Zunz’s insistence on the angelic capitalists and the evil racist rabble who tried to stop them feels like something worse than bad scholarship. When he gets to the contemporary, the author slips from revisionism to plain old public relations, prematurely suggesting that a Gates Foundation AIDS program in India “will serve to illustrate the profound contributions that this infusion of big-money philanthropy is making in local communities.” The contributions are assumed in advance, as if in AIDS prevention it’s the thought that counts. That the program’s first head, former McKinsey & Co. managing director Rajat Gupta, had to step down after the FBI charged him with securities fraud goes unmentioned. Indeed, the near absence of such scandals in Philanthropy in America, when the reader knows that the first thing any high society criminal has to do upon prosecution is resign from nonprofit boards, gives off the antiseptic stench of paid programming. To say Zunz is looking at these foundations through rose-colored glasses would be a grave insult to the clarity of rose-colored glasses everywhere.

It’s tempting to see Zunz as the hapless victim of an extraordinarily well-funded PR apparatus, but a quick glance at the “Acknowledgments” page reveals that Philanthropy in America is not just a dull whitewash, but actual advertising. The sentence that begins the text is, “My heartfelt thanks go first to an extraordinary group of people at the Ford Foundation.” He proceeds to list them by name. Then on to the Kellogg and Mott Foundations. The farcically named Bankard Fund for the Study of Political Economy (a family foundation that exists to exercise “influence upon the development and continuation of the public policy necessary for a healthy private business system and a healthy national economy”) has funded Zunz’s research for years. He co-edited two essay collections the Russell Sage Foundation was generous enough to publish, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986. Zunz isn’t a victim of the philanthropists’ PR; he is the PR.

Readers wouldn’t take a history of guns in America seriously if it opened with a heartfelt thank-you to the author’s dear friends Smith and Wesson, nor a history of Islam in America funded by a coalition of mosques. But these philanthropists, the ones who really capture the author’s interest, have bought a special privilege. What Philanthropy in America proves is that, with enough money in the right place, the ultra-rich can purchase an exemption from the perception of self-interest. They have bought not only indulgences for their predation, but entrance to a canon of saints. The catechism comes after Sesame Street and Morning Edition in the space where advertisements are supposed to go, and American children store these names, complete with proper pronunciation and cadence, in the part of the brain reserved for fundamentals like the alphabet and sounds farm animals make. The particular names may vary, but they’re always distinguished from viewers or listeners “like you.”



LARB Contributor

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn.


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