The Roots Of American Generosity

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - March 03, 2010
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No sooner had the water receded from the devastating tsunami in South Central Asia, and no sooner had the dust settled on the earthquake wreckage of Haiti did aid from America begin to arrive in the form of money, equipment, supplies and volunteers. Because of the enormous reach of America’s military, its mobility and preparedness, its presence was usually one of the first to be felt. But timeliness wasn’t the only thing to distinguish American aid. Ultimately, it was the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount.

America has a long history of “coming to the rescue” through charitable giving; why this is and how it came about is the subject of a recent speech by Adam Meyerson, president of The Philanthropy Roundtable at Hillsdale College’s Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C. His speech was transcribed in IMPRIMUS, Hillsdale College’s monthly newsletter.


Meyerson cites the 1853 6,000-mile horseback ride of professor and preacher Ransom Dunn through the rural countryside of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, going farm-to-farm, door-to-door raising funds for a young upstart college in Michigan named Hillsdale. After two years he raised today’s equivalent of half a million dollars in small donations, none over $200. Dunn attributed his success to the appreciation of those frontier families for this brand new college’s charter, which proclaimed “gratitude to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land, and believing that sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings.”

Preacher Dunn’s success was one of the earliest indicators that, in America, charitable giving has never been the exclusive province of the wealthy. And even today, the most generous Americans - as a proportion of their income - are the working poor. It is private philanthropy - at the rate of $30 billion a year - that has enabled colleges across America to grow and flourish.

Meyerson points out that education is far from the only beneficiary of American generosity. He cites “museums, orchestras, hospitals, clinics, churches and synagogues, refuges for animals, habitat preservation, youth programs, and grass-roots protectors of the needy and homeless. Private charity sustains all of these and affords them the freedom to make their own decisions and set their own policies.”

Of course, natural disasters are the greatest reminders of private charity. After Hurricane Katrina we toted up the incredible outpouring of generosity to the tune of $6 billion. Meyerson says “what gets less attention is that Americans routinely give that much every week. Last year charities racked up $300 billion; three times more than on gambling and 10 times more than on professional sports.”

And what is the basis for our generosity. Meyerson cites three reasons: First, “We are the most religious people of any leading modern economy. Religious faith is the single most important determinant of charitable giving. The freedom to support our religious institutions is inextricably linked to our freedom of religion. Churchgoers also give more to secular charities than do those who never or rarely attend church.

“Second, Americans are so charitable because we respect the freedom and ability of individuals and organizations to make a difference. We don’t wait for government or the local nobleman to solve our problems.

“Third, philanthropy is such an important part of our business culture. Wealth creation and philanthropy have always gone together in America. They are reflections of the can-do spirit of a free society, from Ben Franklin founding the first volunteer fire department in America to Andrew Carnegie’s founding of libraries all across America.”

Meyerson concluded his remarks with a warning that our philanthropic freedom should not be taken for granted. There are threats “from Capitol Hill, the IRS and state governments” through proposals to limit the diversity and independence of the charitable world. Specious and simplistic charges of too many foundations and tax-exempt organizations to “control” are attracting the attention of tax-hungry government. For example, in 2008 the California Legislature passed a bill “requiring large foundations to disclose the racial, ethnic and gender composition of their staffs, boards, vendors and grantees.” Where does regulation end and harassment begin? Of course, tax deductions for charitable giving are an obvious target for elimination.

In closing, Meyerson emphasized that “America is the most charitable country in the world. There is no other country that comes close.” And that fact is inextricably linked to the preservation of our most basic freedoms.

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