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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Book cover: Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History

Editor's response


Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History

ed. Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 2003
ISBN: 0-521-603-53-6; 467 pages, price £18.99

Axel Schäfer

University of Keele

We find Dr Schäfer's review of Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History remarkably penetrating. With clarity and precision, he has delineated our essential themes. His criticisms are also trenchant. We might argue with him on some specifics – whether, for example, William Cohen's chapter comparing European with American philanthropy is an ‘add-on’, or whether we should have included chapters on other topics. But that would be less than helpful.

Although our book was published early in 2003, significant changes in American philanthropy are already detectable. As the Bush Administration has slashed at welfare state traditions with increasing rigour, it has been reshaping essential dimensions of public-non-profit partnerships. The awkwardness of those partnerships during Hurricane Katrina relief was a case in point. The Administration has also eroded longstanding patterns of church-state separation, and there has been unprecedented federal support of faith-based non-profit initiatives. As Bush foreign policy adventurism has run into staunch opposition abroad, especially from traditional allies, non-profit organisations have sometimes represented a less threatening face to the rest of the world of American values and ideals.

These and other changes within recent years underscore a fundamental point made in the introduction to our book. Historians should not tarry in seeking to update our volume or to provide an alternative interpretive framework. Ours was a very difficult venture because historians had allowed Robert Bremner's American Philanthropy (1960) to serve as their synthetic volume on the topic for over forty years. Whatever its merits, no single volume can withstand the interpretive and informational innovations of several generations of scholarship. Indeed, by the late 1990s, the task of replacing Bremner on a great many fronts was so formidable that it could only be done through the cooperation of a group of historians. Given the accelerating pace of specialised scholarship on the history of American philanthropy, the task of a post Friedman-McGarvie synthesis will become increasingly difficult as time passes.

November 2005

Original review

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