- The Troublesome History of Foundations: Correcting a Contentious History
In 1957, University of Wisconsin historian Merle Curti chose the pages of the American Historical Review to issue a call to his fellow professionals to pay attention to what he called “The History of American Philanthropy as a Field of Research.” The article was not a voicing of a personal insight for which he claimed sole credit, but the result of a systematic search for a community of professional thought he wanted to generate. Curti’s article was a summary and extension of the Report of the Princeton Conference on the History of Philanthropy, conducted the previous year with the support of the Russell Sage Foundation. F. Emerson Andrews, the Foundation’s internal historian, had been part of a trio of Russell Sage staffers who, a decade earlier, had produced the two-volume history of the foundation’s first forty years. The archive of substantiating documents they left consisted of two four-drawer file cabinets which became all that remained of that foundation’s initial history—cleaned out not necessarily or even intentionally to protect the foundation, but to save expensive Manhattan floor space. Andrews’s own, much more extensive notes, drafts, and comments from readers, as well as similar drafts of his other writings, were moved eventually to the Foundation Center’s warehouse and are now being transferred to the philanthropy archive at the Indianapolis Center on Philanthropy, where scholars will be able to peruse them. Andrews’s love for the history of philanthropy led him to claim the status of professional for himself, hence his support of Curti and his Princeton conference. It did involve his assertion of the foundation as a valid policy instrument in American society, an attitude that helped generate a more critical history from popular writers and critics like Waldemar Nielsen in subsequent decades.
If one can determine a beginning point for the professional historian’s concern with foundations and philanthropy, as distinguished from insider memoirs and other justificatory accounts, Curti’s article was it; but one must [End Page 612] look to at least two more decades before Hamlet-like historians picked up the unbaited foil and resumed what has become the duel. The battle was not drawn until the 1970s. The reasons for the pause are many, certainly, and each of us whose work with the subject may be said to have taken off from Curti’s clarion call might give a somewhat different answer: the unwillingness of foundations and philanthropists to surrender their papers for research; the suspicion that the subject was not really as central to historical study as Curti thought it was; a fashion in historical writing that had become enamored of other topics—social history, quantification, and approaches to intellectual history that looked more to literature and artifacts, ideas even less mundane and more abstract than those pursued by the available cash on the philanthropic barrel-head. Foundations are institutions that seem to fit into no available institutional classification without some Procrustean reshaping. That reshaping has led to disagreements among writers about foundations that sometimes get a tad acerbic.
The fact that what started as a very civil professional encounter became a duel has other, related sources, chiefly that Andrews’s work represented a very supportive view of foundations and philanthropy that scholarly historians found wanting. Since then there have also been more specific ideological disputes that take place in a Gramscian Marxist mode. The literature has been polarized almost from the beginning, and Curti was hoping to find a center position that might provide stability and light rather than rancor.
One could certainly justify Judith Sealander’s lack of recognition of the Curti conference and report on the grounds not only that Curti’s noble attempt at professional manners failed, but also that she is dealing with a period of history that begins with the Progressive Era and ends with the Hoover administration (not really...