- Private Wealth and Public Life: Foundation Philanthropy and the Reshaping of American Social Policy from the Progressive Era to the New Deal
Judith Sealander introduces her study of early-twentieth-century American philanthropic foundations with a set of downbeat comments on the state of the literature in the field, which she describes as having been burdened until quite recently by debilitating restrictions on access to archives, and only now coming into its own as a subject for research by “independent scholars” (p. 6). The problem, as she sees it, is that even the latter remain mired in the debates about wealth and power that surrounded the creation of the philanthropies whose histories they purport to be writing— which is to say, they have yet to set their work in the right “chronological and comparative context” (p. 6), they continue [End Page 807] to exaggerate the influence of private foundations, and they are guilty of paying “too much attention to stated goals—too little to results” (p. 31).
The last two points are well taken. There is also much useful information to be had from the six substantive chapters that they introduce, which deal with various of the programs in education, social welfare, and public health that were run to good, bad, and mainly indifferent effect by the foundations that most interest Sealander: the Commonwealth Fund, the Rosenwald Fund, the Russell Sage Foundation, and several of the Rockefeller philanthropies (the General Education Board, the International Health Board, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, and the Bureau of Social Hygiene).
As might be expected from the tone of Sealander’s introduction, the programs she reviews come off as long on goals but short on immediate results. They also figure as cases in point of her organizing thesis: namely, that while the foundations in question were never in any danger of achieving their proximate objectives, and so cannot be blamed for exacerbating the problems they addressed, their efforts contributed to the rise of a new American state with “a significantly expanded social-policy-making role” (p. 31) that was in turn dependent on the image—which the foundations helped to establish—of “the neutral expert as the ideal government official” (p. 243).
That is a large claim with large difficulties. It suffers from being based on a black-box notion—“social-policy-making”—that Sealander leaves wholly undefined, and that a skeptic might regard as a figment of the latter-day social scientific imagination. It also has the look and feel of an argument based on too much exposure to the voluminous early-twentieth-century philanthropic archival record, and too little familiarity with the harsher but not so conveniently documented realities of modern American politics. Rather more in the way of chronological and comparative context would have helped in that respect: a 200+ page book about changes in social policy between 1903 and 1932 ought to have more than five references to World War I, for example, and ought to treat it as more than an offstage presence, interesting mainly because of its incidental “impact” (pp. 200, 210, 234) on this, that, or the other foundation project.
Private Wealth and Public Life is, of course, not the first—nor will it be the last—book to confuse the amply documented with the genuinely consequential. But it does reconfirm the wisdom of one of the better wisecracks about the study of American history in general: there is nothing wrong here that a few good archive fires would not have cured.