American Philanthropy: A new Smithsonian initiative

By David K. Allison
Case with objects inside

"In the United States associations are established to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion; for there is no end which the human will, seconded by the collective exertions of individuals, despairs of attaining."

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

Philanthropy has been a critical element of American society from the beginning. Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, keen observer of the United States in its formative years, concluded that the success of the new nation depended heavily on voluntary associations and giving. For democracy to work, Americans had to participate in it actively, both as individuals and through organizations. He was encouraged to find that Americans relished the opportunity to shape their civic life themselves and to take responsibility for nurturing the common good. 

For the past few years, I served as project director for the major new exhibition that just opened on the first floor of the Museum, American Enterprise. It traces the history of business and innovation in America from the 1770s to the present. The exhibit chronicles the interaction of capitalism and democracy in the nation throughout this period, and how that dynamic interaction has shaped economic development.

Thinking about the ways that capitalism works within our democracy led our exhibit team to consider how and why Americans become motivated to give back to support the common good. Some are motivated by their religious convictions, others by family traditions, and still others simply by a sense of gratitude for the opportunities they have in this country. We were also interested to see how American giving has continually changed, from the first March of Dimes on the eve of World War II, to telethons, to the Internet-based crowdfunding of today.

Our investigations led us to ask: if philanthropy has been so important to American history, shouldn't the Smithsonian document its development and role in our national life? After all, the Smithsonian itself was the outgrowth of the astonishing philanthropy of Englishman James Smithson—who never even visited this country. And like many other museums, universities, hospitals, and similar institutions, it can only continue to exist with ongoing voluntary support.

Museum case containing a bust, a gown, paper documents, and a framed painting

Consequently we are launching a new Philanthropy Initiative on December 1, #GivingTuesday. We will seek to document, preserve, interpret, and exhibit at the Smithsonian the role of philanthropy in American history, as well as the role of Americans in encouraging and using philanthropy throughout the world. As first steps in this initiative, we are opening preview cases for Giving in America coinciding with The Power of Giving: Philanthropy's Impact on American Life, the first in a series of annual symposiums dedicated to exploring the past, present, and future of American philanthropy.

The Giving in America preview focuses on how philanthropy has shaped American civic culture in two eras—the Gilded Age (1870s–1900) and the present day. In the years following the Civil War, American capitalism boomed, and the United States became the leading industrial nation in the world. Some Americans became very wealthy, and this presented new challenges to American social life. In an article on "Wealth" he published in 1889, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie stated, "The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship." 

Bust of Andrew Carnegie, white painted plaster

Carnegie believed that the right way to dispose of wealth was not to leave it all to descendants. Nor did he think it should be taxed away and distributed by the government. Rather he thought that individuals with substantial wealth beyond their needs should distribute it to worthy social causes of their own choosing during their lifetimes. In his mind, they themselves were the best judges of how their money could best benefit the common good. He followed this precept with most of his own vast riches, giving them to libraries, universities, trusts, and a variety of learned institutions.

Carnegie's perspective on the responsibilities of the very wealthy was controversial in America then and remains so today. Yet underneath it is the same idea that Tocqueville espoused, and that most Americans accept: those who have benefitted significantly from living in the United States, with the freedoms and opportunities it affords, have a responsibility to give back to their society to support its maintenance and improvement. In a representative democracy based on individual freedom, this is not solely the government's responsibility. And this principle applies not only to the very wealthy, but also to citizens of modest means. Giving back is among the fundamental ideals that define us as Americans.

Among the most important recent innovations is The Giving Pledge, which arose in 2010 out of conversations that Bill and Melinda Gates had with Warren Buffett and other wealthy individuals. They decided they should invite the world's wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropic or charitable causes to help address society's most pressing problems. To date, nearly 140 have publically made that pledge, and the number continues to grow. The new display will feature a rotating selection of original Giving Pledge letters which are on long-term loan to the museum as well as a computer kiosk on which all the letters may be accessed. 


White nurses cap

As the Philanthropy Initiative moves forward, we will be hiring a full-time Curator of Philanthropy, creating a permanent Giving in America exhibition, and seeking philanthropy-related artifacts and documents to add to our permanent collections. These will all support a wide range research, scholarship, and exhibition.

Our initiative will focus on American giving at all levels. And it will include how Americans give of their time and talents as well as their money. We invite you to keep an eye on our website to see how this initiative develops—and also to join in! The success of American democracy depends in large part on the participation and spirit of giving that characterizes the American people. Help us document and preserve this story permanently at the Smithsonian.

David Allison is associate director of the Office of Curatorial Affairs.

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.