Over its course, American philanthropy has often reflected constitutional scruples about separation of powers. As secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson urged that, if government were to engage in philanthropy, it should be state governments—not the federal government—that should take up the cause. In 1793–1794 refugees from the black revolution in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) received assistance from a mixture of private, state, and federal funds. In 1812, Congress appropriated $50,000 for earthquake victims in Venezuela. Generally, however, reservations as to the constitutional propriety of federal government action prevailed, the work remained voluntary, and help from the United States was limited to the occasional loan of a public ship to transport and distribute relief supplies.
Outside the area of federal funding, however, the situation was less clear-cut and constitutional scruples have not been so engaged. Rather than charge the federal government, Jefferson paid out of his own pocket for the transport of different types of plants to further agriculture while he tried via personal correspondence and private groups such as the American Philosophical Society to advance knowledge to those who would benefit, domestic and international. President Andrew Jackson, "acting in his private capacity," recommended a naval constructor to the Turks, and the Turkish request for agricultural experts brought favorable response from the Department of State. In various far places, missionaries, as citizens residing abroad, by mid-century became the occasional beneficiaries of diplomatic interposition or show of naval force, while their local knowledge at times made them helpful in diplomacy, as in the missions of Caleb Cushing to China and of Matthew C. Perry to Japan.
As contact with non-European societies increased, Americans served as generals in the Afghan and Chinese armies and as diplomatic representatives of the Hawaiian kingdom and the Chinese empire. The early nineteenth century also saw the first efforts to encourage economic modernization: the attempts of William Maclure to improve Spanish agriculture (1819) and the condition of the Mexican Indians (1828) proved abortive, but the 1840s witnessed the railroad building of G. W. Whistler in Russia and the response of American agronomists to a Turkish request for assistance in the introduction of cotton culture.
In contrast to the sporadic work of individuals in the antebellum years was the organized and continuing effort of the foreign missionary movement. The Reverend Samuel Hopkins's ideas of "disinterested benevolence," the sense of urgency deriving from the felt imminence of the millennium, new knowledge of far places, and the example of Great Britain stimulated interest in overseas evangelism: the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810 was followed by that of denominational boards. From the small beginnings of the mission to India the work grew rapidly: by 1860 the American Board alone had deployed 844 men and women overseas, and the country's expenditures on foreign missions, concentrated on the Indian subcontinent and the Near East, exceeded $500,000 a year.
The effort to evangelize the world had significant secondary consequences. The emphasis on a Bible religion called for the translation of Scripture into the vernacular and stimulated the founding of schools. The imperative to do good and the need for access to closed societies encouraged the dispatch of medical missionaries: Peter Parker's dispensary at Canton in China, founded in the 1830s, was the first of many missionary-supported health care centers. The stress on the importance of the individual, whether in the conversion experience, in education, or in medical care, was emphasized, in a manner startling to the traditional societies, by the prominent role of women in mission work and by the early establishment of schools for girls; from this attitude also stemmed the attacks on caste, polygamy, suttee, prostitution, foot binding, opium, and rum.
But of all these by-products of the missionary enterprise, work in education proved the most important. The success of lower schools created a demand for more advanced instruction, a prospect so congenial to American preconceptions that the 1860s brought the founding of overseas colleges at Constantinople and Beirut. And whether in the area of conversion, medicine, education, or the status of women, the missionary enterprise emphasized not only the American view of the importance of the individual but also the idea of change, and of the possibility of breaking through layers of custom into a more open and modern world.
The emergence of a free black population in the United States following the Revolution had led an unstable coalition of antislavery advocates and slaveholders to found the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1817, which sought to establish a refuge for free black men and women on the African coast and to further the evangelization of Africa. Even many genuine evangelicals believed that blacks and whites could not live together peaceably on the basis of equality, so strong was the racism prevalent in the North and South. Expecting black immigrants to serve as missionaries to Africa, the ACS helped purchase the land for Liberia in 1821 and the settlement of Monrovia was established in 1822. By the eve of the Civil War, some 15,000 free black men and women lived in Liberia, about 12,000 of them having voluntarily immigrated with the assistance of the ACS. The ACS had joined with state and federal governments to form the freedman's colony on the African coast, modeling their plan on the British colony for free blacks at Sierra Leone.
The period before the Civil War also saw the development of a tradition of relief of disaster, whether natural or human-made. In 1816 and 1825 the citizens of Boston and New York assisted Canadian victims of great conflagrations. Support of the Greek War of Independence in the years after 1823 led not only to the departure of volunteers but also to contributions totaling perhaps $250,000 and to the relief work of Samuel Gridley Howe. In the 1830s and again two decades later, famine relief was sent to the Cape Verde Islands. Despite the distractions of the Mexican War, the years 1847–1848 saw the greatest effort thus far, as more than $1 million worth of supplies was sent to the victims of the great Irish famine in more than a score of ships, two of which were on loan from the U.S. Navy. In 1860, when civil war and massacres in Lebanon led to a major refugee problem, missionary influence brought about the creation of an Anglo-American relief committee and the dispatch of supplies by naval store ship. In 1862–1863, at the height of the American Civil War, further funds were raised in response to another failure of the Irish potato crop, while humanitarianism and policy combined to provide $250,000 to assist Lancashire mill operatives suffering from the cotton famine.
Like much else in post–Civil War America, the philanthropic effort grew larger, richer, and more highly organized, while the transfer of skills to countries striving to modernize themselves continued on an expanded scale. American military men served the governments of Egypt, China, Japan, and Korea; and Americans advised the Japanese Foreign Office, the king of Korea, the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese viceroy Li Hungchang. In economic development, mining engineers like Raphael Pumpelly and agronomists like Horace Capron provided their expertise. In Japan, American teachers contributed notably to the new educational structure; in China, W. A. P. Martin became the first president of the Imperial University in Peking; in Siam, S. G. McFarland served as head of the royal school in Bangkok and superintendent of public instruction.
Although many of the teachers were laymen, some of the most distinguished—Martin and McFarland, for example—were products of the foreign missionary movement, which in these years increasingly concentrated its efforts on East Asia. Assisted by their new allies from the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and the Young Men's Christian Association, and supported by large gifts from the new fortunes of William E. Dodge, John F. Goucher, H. J. Heinz, John D. Rockefeller, and Louis H. Severance, the missionaries continued to export, together with their sectarian versions of God's word, their American bias in favor of modernization, resource development, health care, and education.
By the end of the century the effort overseas had created a network of Christian colleges reaching from the Balkans to Japan and had opened wide, for those who wished to enter, the doors to Western knowledge and to informed participation in the activities of an increasingly westernized world. So valued, indeed, had the educational enterprise become, that governments came to embrace the cause, as in proposals within the administration of Abraham Lincoln for the establishment of a Sino-American college, in the Chinese employment of the remitted excess of the Boxer Rebellion indemnity, and much later (and most notably) in the Fulbright Act of 1946, which transmuted overseas war surplus into an extensive program of educational exchanges.
If the missionary movement and its associated enterprises provided the chief vehicle for late nineteenth-century philanthropy in Asia, the new wealth deriving from finance and industry also found outlets in the Old World. In this area in the 1860s the pioneer modern philanthropist George Peabody led with gifts, in part intended to diminish Civil War tensions, of $2.5 million for English working-class housing. A concern for the preservation of other countries' valued pasts was evidenced in the founding of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (1881) and the American Academy in Rome (1894). These years also saw the beginning of gifts by immigrants who had prospered in the United States to churches, libraries, orphanages, and the like in their countries of origin. With the new century the social concern evidenced in the Peabody gift reappeared in the contribution of Edward and Julia Tuck, retired in France, of a hospital, school, and park to the environs of Paris, and in the work of Joseph Fels, who, abandoning the manufacture of soap, spent largely to promote the single-tax doctrine abroad.
A similar solicitude for the social and cultural improvement of the advanced countries of western Europe informed the philanthropies of a most successful immigrant, Andrew Carnegie. Beginning in 1873 with a gift of baths to his Scottish birthplace, Carnegie subsequently gave Dunfermline a library, a park, and an endowment. His contribution of public libraries to American towns and colleges was repeated abroad; 660 in Great Britain and Ireland, 156 in Canada, and others in other dominions and colonies. In 1901 Carnegie gave $10 million to revive the Scottish universities, and in 1913 a like sum for the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for "the improvement of the well-being of the masses." His gifts to the British Empire totaled $62 million.
For many philanthropists, Carnegie's philosophy regarding philanthropy remains the essence of the philanthropic ideal, as spelled out in The Gospel of Wealth (1900):
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest unostentatious living, shunning display; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.
Carnegie spent his later years implementing this ideal and in the process gave new shape to American philanthropy. His grants to Marie Curie and Robert Koch inaugurated American support of foreign scientific research. Transcending all national boundaries and reflecting the aspirations of the Progressive Era, he supported the peace and arbitration movements, as evidenced in his 1907 gift of the Hague Peace Palace and (following Edwin Ginn's establishment in 1910 of the World Peace Foundation) in the $10 million Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for "the speedy abolition of international war between the so-called civilized nations."
In contrast with the evangelical effort in the non-European world and the projects of individual donors in Europe and Canada, the relief of disaster long depended on the efforts of individuals on the spot and ad hoc appeals to the public at large. Such traditional methods provided relief for victims of revolution in Crete (1866) and for France during the Franco-Prussian War. On various occasions in the 1870s and 1880s missionary groups worked to mitigate hunger in Persia, China, and Turkey. But by this time new agencies were assuming an important role. A vigorous campaign by the New York Herald spurred relief of the Irish famine of 1880. Some $1 million in goods and services contributed to help victims of the Russian famine of 1892 owed much to the support of Western flour interests, concerned both for humanity and for the agricultural price level, and to the energy of Louis Klopsch, editor of the Christian Herald, whose subsequent campaigns—for example, in the Indian famines of 1897 and 1900—raised in the course of fifteen years more than $3 million in gifts averaging less than $3. Under the leadership of Clara Barton and with presidential support, the American National Red Cross (1881) provided both funds and an increasing continuity of administration for the relief of disaster abroad as well as at home.
Generally speaking, American relief efforts in the years before 1914 were unaffected by political developments. Famines in Japan and China drew generous response, but sympathy for Russia was seriously diminished by end-of-the-century violence against Russian Jews. In 1895–1896 concern for Armenian victims of Turkish atrocities led to congressional agitation for American intervention; and in 1897–1898 the collection of funds for Cuban relief was encouraged by President William McKinley, among others, in the hope of dampening pressures to intervene.