The problem of charity in industrial America, 1873-1915

by Soskis, Benjamin, Ph.D., COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 2010, 425 pages; 3400615


This dissertation examines the intersection of two prominent strains of thought within American moral theory and practice: the discourses of American benevolent exceptionalism and of the problem of charity. Americans have long insisted that they were a nation of "cheerful givers." Yet, at the close of the nineteenth century, as the rise of industrialization and surges of immigration placed even greater burdens on private benevolence, many Americans came to believe that traditional modes of giving threatened other cherished American values or institutions. I explore these challenges to private benevolence and highlight the extent to which they became regarded as higher forms of moral action themselves. Establishing charity as a problem, my dissertation demonstrates, became for many Americans the prerequisite to the attainment of a more highly developed or authentic benevolent status.

I begin by discussing the scientific charity movement of the late nineteenth century, which sought to rationalize and systematize private giving in cities throughout the nation, and in the process, to abolish the tradition of indiscriminate almsgiving. I demonstrate the ways in which scientific charity reformers established "benevolent restraint," the willingness to withhold material relief in favor of the provision of spiritual aid or moral uplift, as fundamental to their reformist identities, while struggling with the realization that an emphasis on "not giving" could be abused by the miserly or the indifferent.

I next investigate the battles between Protestants and Catholics, the most vocal defenders of the tradition of almsgiving, over the status of charity in a modern industrial democracy. I document the ways in which the problem of charity became encoded in a sectarian idiom, as well as the attempts by individuals on both sides of the sectarian divide to reconcile Protestant and Catholic understandings of giving.

The same forces of industrialization that helped to produce increased levels of poverty in the late nineteenth century also generated colossal fortunes, parts of which were channeled back to address the social ills confronting the nation. Americans approached the advent of large-scale philanthropy with a mixture of apprehension and pride, and I demonstrate the ways in which philanthropists sought to justify their giving in light of the public's fears regarding the place of philanthropy in a democracy as well as doubts as to the legitimacy of the wealth from which the philanthropy derived. I also explore the public's emerging understanding of their ethical and administrative responsibilities as beneficiaries by examining a controversy over the implications of accepting "tainted money."

Finally, my dissertation details the ways in which the problem of charity discourse, embraced initially by scientific charity reformers who opposed public relief, was subsequently adopted by those who sought to expand the social welfare state. These reformers grappled with the proper relation between the philanthropist and governmental authority. Warning that private givers might pauperize a public just as easily as public relief, they sought to determine the means by which challenges to private philanthropy could be employed to bolster a commitment to public responsibility for social welfare, without rejecting the offerings of private wealth entirely.

AdviserElizabeth Blackmar
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAmerican history
Publication Number3400615

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