Capitalism and Philanthropy in the (New) Gilded Age
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Capitalism and Philanthropy in the (New) Gilded Age
Mellon: An American Life. By David Cannadine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 779 pages. $35.00 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).
Andrew Carnegie. By David Nasaw. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. 878 pages. $35.00 (cloth). $20.00 (paper).
Paternalism Incorporated: Fables of American Fatherhood: 1865-1940. By David Leverenz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 254 pages. $49.95 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).
Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism. By Joan Roelofs. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. 269 pages. $29.95 (paper).
Philanthropy, Patronage, and Civil Society: Experiences from Germany, Great Britain, and North America. Edited by Thomas Adam. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 228 pages. $37.95 (cloth).

Philanthropy is big news these days. Media attention has focused on new trends—dot.com philanthropy, profit-oriented philanthropy, microlending—and on sensational individual gifts—Ruth Lilly's $200 million to Poetry magazine, Sanford I. Weill's $150 million to Carnegie Hall, and most famously, Bill and Melinda Gates' $30 billion foundation devoted to health and education, which was augmented last year by $31 billion from Warren Buffett. Academic interest in philanthropy has anticipated this recent mainstream attention, but since 1978, when Yale's Center for Non-Profit Studies was founded, this field of study has grown dramatically, with publications appearing regularly and new centers established across the country. Why such interest in the "third sector" right now in both the mainstream and the academy?1

At one level, the answer is obvious. Following the collapse of Soviet-style communism, we repeatedly hear, capitalism has unequivocally triumphed. [End Page 201] Even those offshoots of communism, socialism and the liberal welfare state, are supposedly in retreat. Philanthropy—voluntary, individualist, nongovernmental—steps into the breach left by the absence of an activist state. A question nevertheless immediately rises: Why is there a breach to fill if the invisible hand regulates market society so efficiently and well? The evident human and environmental failures of capitalism are placed in bold relief by voluntary philanthropic action. As billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett put it simply when making his contribution to the Gates Foundation, "A market system has not worked in terms of poor people."2 Philanthropy cannot help but reveal the tensions and contradictions in liberal capitalism. These tensions and contradictions date back to Adam Smith, who, as every primer on philanthropy notes, wrote not only The Wealth of Nations but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

There is, however, something specific about the current interest in philanthropy. Media coverage of Buffett's gift, and of philanthropy more generally, suggests there is a marked sense in the United States that triumphal liberal capitalism is currently experiencing a legitimation crisis. While such crises are neither new nor necessarily threatening, in this current version philanthropy serves as a flashpoint for debates about liberal capitalism.3 For scholars in American studies, philanthropy raises questions about two other interrelated issues: American "exceptionalism" and imperialism/transnationalism. Since Alexis de Tocqueville, the philanthropic mode has been associated, rightly or wrongly, with the United States. The relative weakness of the U.S. state has meant that philanthropy has been seen as central in funding not only social welfare, but also intellectual and aesthetic work. Equally important, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, but particularly in the wake of World War II, the philanthropic mode has been associated with the involvement of the United States in global politics or, others would say, with its economic and cultural imperialism. For scholars in American studies, therefore, philanthropy represents an important conceptual field with which we must engage.

Such a statement, however, begs the question of what philanthropy is. In his introduction to Philanthropy, Patronage, and Civil Society, Thomas Adam writes that "on both sides of the Atlantic, scholars have failed to develop a united theoretical concept of philanthropy. This has resulted in a confusion of terms and in many misunderstandings" (4). In an effort to reduce this misunderstanding, Robert A. Gross identifies a characteristic form of modern philanthropy that emerged in the seventeenth century and sought "to apply reason to the solution of social ills and needs" through "abstract...