The United States and the other nations born of the Enlightenment laid claim to the notion that nations could be based on ideals as well as interests. Religious beliefs also contributed to American conceptions of their role in the world. In addition to developing a vision of a city on a hill, a model community as exemplar to the world, the Puritans and other Christian groups emphasized the importance of doing good, which was interpreted in light of the biblical injunction to love thy neighbor. In the nineteenth century, millennial hopes of hastening the Kingdom of God also inspired some Americans to work for an ideal society that elevated or protected human rights. To many Americans the expansion of liberty through the spread of American-style institutions promised to free humanity everywhere from political oppression, and in the twentieth century, to free them from poverty.
A commitment to public good in the colonial and early national eras resulted in providing relief for the poor or those injured by disasters, which was usually conducted by those closest to the victims, members of one's religious organization, or local communities, but at times by colonial or state governments. There was some stigma attached to poor relief, but victims of fires or floods received greater public sympathy. Emergency relief escaped the stigma associated with poor relief, because victims of disasters were viewed as suffering only temporary misfortune. Such victims escaped questions as to whether they were morally unfit or somehow deserved their fate. Indeed, in times of emergency Americans quickly proved adept at organizing; they created private agencies to alleviate human suffering, since generally that was not seen as the responsibility of the state. Most assistance went to local communities. Early in the Republic's history, however, there were both public and private efforts to help victims of disaster abroad.
In 1812 a Venezuelan earthquake resulted in as many as ten thousand deaths. Concern about the extent of devastation, sympathy with the republican cause in Latin America, and hopes for commercial ties should Venezuela win its independence from Spain resulted in an appropriation of $50,000 from Congress for the purchase of food to avert famine. This type of federal appropriation was rare in early American history. Fires in Canada in 1816 and 1825 spurred private donations in Boston and New York, primarily raised by merchants and churches. Certainly, much human suffering occurred during this period, and when reports from merchants or consuls or other Americans stirred sympathy, Americans sent aid to, for example, survivors of French floods or to victims of famine and disease in the Cape Verde Islands.
Americans often responded to international crises because of cultural and political affinity. The prospects for republican government in Latin America and in Europe sometimes led to calls for intervention, but Congress resisted the impulse to do so. George Washington's pleas to remain neutral and avoid entangling alliances deeply impacted American views of their role in the world, particularly after the War of 1812. In 1821 Greeks rose against Turkey. Some Americans saw themselves as heirs to the freedom represented by ancient Greece. The portrayal of Muslim Turks as barbarous and the Christian Greeks as noble and civilized fed American prejudices. Support for the Greek cause provoked interest by groups as diverse as women's organizations and university students in a spate of fund-raising, and even in talk of government support. In 1824 Congress debated a resolution in support of Greek independence. It failed, however, and the government refused to allocate funds for either the Greek cause or Greek relief. Some Americans volunteered to fight, but they were few in number. Money already raised was used to purchase limited amounts of arms. In 1827 and 1828, however, the most significant support was in the form of relief assistance to the victims of violence. Individuals, churches, and other organizations like the Ladies Greek Committee of New York raised funds, purchased clothes, foodstuffs, and other supplies, and shipped them to Greece. Around $100,000 worth of goods was sent during the spring of 1827 and another $59,000 the next year. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Boston doctor and later an ardent reformer, helped coordinate the delivery of the relief aid. Americans, largely missionaries and diplomats, supervised the distribution of clothes and food, which were designated for civilians. As would future deliverers of relief aid, Howe soon engaged in efforts to provide more lasting assistance. Granted government lands for the purpose, he organized an agricultural colony that eventually included fifty families.
The next instance of large-scale relief led to an ardent debate in Congress over the constitutionality of congressional appropriations for foreign assistance. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed that the United States provide $500,000 for famine relief for Scotland and Ireland in 1847. Some proponents of relief argued that doing nothing was unconscionable, even if providing help violated the constitution. Some suggested pointedly that the United States was willing to coerce Mexico to "sell" land but was unwilling to alleviate human suffering in Ireland. Opponents argued that the measure was unconstitutional, and their argument won. On the other hand, naval vessels helped in delivering assistance raised through voluntary donations. Relief assistance came largely as a result of humanitarian and religious appeals whose effectiveness was increased by anti-English sentiment. The hope that feeding starving Irish would keep them in Ireland and away from American shores motivated some contributions. According to Merle Curti in American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (1963), some Americans contributed as a way to relieve personal and national guilt for participation in the Mexican-American War. Americans sent aid, but they did not distribute it. This was left to British government officials, the Catholic Church, and the Central Relief Committee of the Dublin Society of Friends (Quakers).
In the nineteenth century, opposition to relief led on occasion to criticism of the political and economic systems that created the conditions leading to famine, as in the case of Ireland and later Russia. Relief assistance, however, did not come with expectations or requirements for change. Except for isolated instances of technical missions, and more often in the case of missionary efforts, there was little attempt to reorder other societies in the nineteenth century.
Instances of relief efforts grew along with the nation, almost all of it on a voluntary basis. Famine was the most common disaster that brought forth American resources, although concern for victims of war or political violence also stimulated American relief efforts. Missionaries and diplomats often brought word of the need for assistance in places like Crete, Persia, China, and Turkey. Areas like Africa that had been colonized by other nations were hardly ever at the forefront of American concern. While the U.S. government rarely appropriated funds for the relief of disasters in other countries, there were occasional episodes in which American military forces provided limited assistance. For example, if a U.S. naval vessel was nearby, crew members sometimes assisted local populations in disaster, as in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, in 1825; Nicaragua in 1852; Peru in 1873; and Chios, Greece, in 1881.