A History of Giving & Philanthropy in America

A History of Giving & Philanthropy in America

Sources: The Storied History of Giving in America, A History of Giving, A History of Modern Philanthropy

Philanthropy has a complicated and important role in American culture. It has aided in creating new, whole bonds and repairing brokenness caused by prejudice, racism, and human suffering. At the same time, this history shows how the practice can lead to oppression and reinforcement of inequity.

According to Smithsonian curator, Amanda B. Moniz, “Philanthropy can best be defined as ‘recognizing and supporting the humanity of others.’” Previously, in the mid 1800’s, “philanthropic” also meant “love of humanity” (2020).

Philanthropy has helped heal ties between black and white Americans in the mid 1800’s. It became a widely accepted way for women to influence public life in the late 1800’s, prior to their right to vote, and it has upheld democracy when the government failed (2020).

An example a Tzedakah box

However, “philanthropy also sustained Americans whose grueling labor fashioned the fine goods that wealthier countrymen would collect for their estates and in turn, deem worthy of being donated to the Smithsonian” (Moniz 2020). When used for selfish gain or to improve one’s image, philanthropy or “generosity” only succeeds in inflating one’s ego (giving one the false impression of self-righteousness).

In addition to the American notion of philanthropy, I thought it crucial to take into account the act of giving and its history in another culture, in order to examine what helps philanthropy to flourish and accomplish its mission more effectively. Specifically, I want to take a look at Middle Eastern practices, since they predate those of American and European cultures by a great deal.

New York Times writer Laura Joseph Mogil, says this about the term “giving” in Jewish culture, specifically:

“Frequently translated as ‘charity,’ the word ‘tzedakah’ comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice.’ The prototype tzedakah box can be traced back thousands of years, described in an Old Testament verse that relates how the First Temple in Jerusalem collected donations for its repair in a chest with a hole bored through the top” (2007).

It is important to note, Tzedakah boxes are not only ornate and artistically beautiful, but they also symbolize the spirit of giving anonymously. They allow the gift recipient to retain dignity in the act of receiving (Mogil 2007). Giving, though helpful when publically acted out, can also be just as beneficial when done in anonymity.

Lady Justice

As history shows, philanthropy can only truly succeed in “recognizing and supporting humanity” alongside some other clarifying/defining set of morals.

Looking at the Jewish lexical entry of giving helps one understand the nature of good and effective philanthropy; justice and righteousness, as expressed in the Jewish definition, must be the products of good philanthropy.

In sum, whether the act of giving is done publicly or anonymously, philanthropy is crucial in any culture, in order to sustain equality and equity among all peoples.

Moniz agrees, stating, “Everyday philanthropists from the early republic to today have recognized that pursuing the country’s promise was not just the work of formal politics. Engaged philanthropy is vital to democracy” (2020).

Still, I would suggest that the most fruitful act philanthropy cannot be fully accomplished without the accompaniment of selfless or unconditional love (agape). Let us not dismiss the philanthropic side of philanthropy, simply because it isn’t “modern.” We can support humanity, but not without love. The term “justice” can be manipulated and used for selfish gain, but agape keeps it in check— so that all may be eligible to change, give, and receive.

Democracy, by definition, is for everyone. Without unconditional love, true democracy can't occur.

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