- Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History
The problem with this volume of essayswhich attempts to provide a narrative history of philanthropy in the United Statesis that there is no agreement on what philanthropy is, so the book also uses the terms charity and civility. Charity, as almsgiving, can be distinguished from philanthropy, as systematic giving to improve the prospects for humankind; and the essays work out their historical interconnections. But civility, as used here, is rather a poor shorthand for civil society, as American scholars attempt to come to terms with the theory and practice of European postcommunist reform. These authors write on a variety of loosely connected topics, but the sum is perhaps less than the parts. For the larger problem is to know how to understand the socially progressive forces that emanate neither from the state nor from the market in a country that has a weak state tradition and a very strong private sector. But civil society as a concept has seldom been well used to understand the larger historical narrative in the United States, nor has America been examined comparatively in the context of modern Western history. Readers from other cultural traditions will find this book puzzling, for its organizing concepts are locally enculturated. Thus the book is somewhat helpful, but the big analytical and comparative questions remain to be addressed. And they need to be. We will shortly be told by Washington that civil society will follow democracy in Iraq, but it is not clear what or how healthy civil society is in the United States.
Stanley N. Katz is president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies and founding director of the Princeton University Center on Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. He has also served as president of the Organization of American Historians and of the American Society for Legal History. He is coauthor, most recently, of Mobilizing for Peace: Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine and editor-in-chief of the multivolume Oxford Encyclopedia of Legal History. He has written extensively on the history of American philanthropy.