Was Benjamin Franklin the father of American philanthropy?

Daniel Gifford
December 1, 2015

Benjamin Franklin's reputation for invention and inventiveness looms large in our national imagination: Franklin stoves, Poor Richard's Almanac, bifocals, and of course that whole key and kite experiment. But many Americans do not connect Franklin with inventing a new form of American philanthropy.

Three-piece silk suit worn by Benjamin Franklin

Colonial Americans were charitable long before Franklin, as were their European forbearers. However, the ways in which colonial (and later newly-independent) Americans organized their giving and understood the process of giving was unique. And that uniqueness centered on the question of hierarchy. In the decades before Franklin and his peers, charity typically flowed from the top down—from church organizers and community leaders who gathered and administered funds and services.

It was this system of patronage and deference that Franklin chafed against. His experience as an apprentice to a printer led him to wonder why his questions and ambitions could only be funneled through—and addressed by—a master. It was a challenge of authority that later led him at age 21 to found the Junto, a group of similar young men from across professions whose association allowed them to pool their resources—books, contacts, paper, knowledge, and news—horizontally across a network of peers, rather than rely on a vertical power structure where aid could only come from above. This may not seem very revolutionary or charitable, but it ended up being both.

Printing press

From the 1730s through the 1750s, as Franklin matured and gained both success and an audience in his adopted home of Philadelphia, he applied what was essentially the same question over and over again: why shouldn't everyday people organize to create organizations and structures that benefited them, rather than rely on systems of patronage and largess from above? When Franklin applied that question to the pursuit of knowledge, the answer emerged for a subscription-based library, in which financial resources were pooled for the common good of buying books that could then be lent to subscribers. When applied to public safety, the idea of a volunteer fire company emerged. Franklin was also cannily aware that small donations might not stretch far enough and looked for ways to marry the two systems, linking everyday contributions with larger commitments from traditional, top-down institutions like the legislature. Thus when his basic question of the common good was applied to public health, a public-private partnership for a new Philadelphia hospital was born.

Fire hat featuring a portrait of Benjamin Franklin painted inside an oval frame

Americans have never fully given up on the idea of powerful individuals and institutions delegating resources as they see fit. Everything from government-backed aid programs to foundations' charitable agendas matches this top-down model. But what Franklin introduced was an alternative way of thinking about the redress of needs—a way that strived to be more democratic, egalitarian, creative, and resourceful, much like the new nation itself. This idea has carried forward to the present day in everything from community-backed efforts to build new schools or libraries, to national organizations built on small donations from across the country.

So today we embrace Franklin as the Founding Father who believed in the common good: that government and individuals could come together to better society through the concept of public-private partnerships. Philanthropy is not an American invention but it was shaped by one of America's greatest inventors and innovators who helped envision, and ultimately propel a new form of giving into the future.

Daniel Gifford is the Museum's former manager of museum advisory committees and project historian.

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