Defending the Kochs: A History of Big Money & Social Change

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There is a hue and cry from certain quarters today against private spending that aims to reform the politics, economics, or morals of our nation. But the truth is, such spending has been common right through American history. Indeed, big donors have fueled many of our proudest national transformations.

Nineteenth-century social reformer Gerrit Smith, for instance, spent the equivalent of a billion dollars in present funds to help turn fellow Americans against slavery. He used the full spectrum of tools employed by today’s donors—creating advocacy groups, subsidizing newspapers, donating money to political candidates and parties, funding legal challenges. 

Smith organized the Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Law Convention where he, Frederick Douglass, and others urged popular resistance to laws aiding the recapture of runaways. He eventually went even further and began to fund the activities of John Brown. Money from Smith and a few other wealthy donors allowed Brown to run abolitionist guns into Kansas, and finally to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

At this same time, the Tappan brothers were America’s most visible donor-activists. Arthur Tappan had made his fortune in importing and publishing. Lewis Tappan founded a business to identify companies operating with honest finances; it continues today as Dun & Bradstreet.

Motivated by their evangelical Christianity, the Tappan brothers gave away much of their wealth. They subsidized a bank to help the poor save. They paid for religious education in frontier towns across the Mississippi valley. They helped build Oberlin College. Lewis created and oversaw the American Missionary Association, which sent teachers and aid workers around the world and the U.S., and chartered eight colleges for freed slaves.

By the 1830s, the Tappans were immersed in philanthropy that aimed to modify public policies. They first became involved with advocacy via a push to end postal deliveries on Sunday. This was part of a movement known as Sabbatarianism, which aimed to clear a day for rest and spiritual reflection by workers and families.

Increasingly, the Tappans were swept into the cause of eliminating slavery. Arthur’s first major action was to pay the libel fine that had put William Lloyd Garrison behind bars for exposing the slave profiteering of a Massachusetts businessman. Arthur then launched Garrison into national prominence by subsidizing his weekly newspaper.

To change state policy on human chattel, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Gerrit Smith, and an army of religious female fundraisers launched the American Anti-Slavery Society. The group soon had 1,350 local chapters mobilizing grassroots activists. In membership as a percentage of U.S. population, its clout was bigger than the Tea Party or any of today’s reform movements.

Lewis’s public-policy philanthropy scored a great success in 1839. The Africans aboard the slave transport ship Amistad took up arms against their captors, and, after drifting into American waters, were imprisoned for piracy and murder. Lewis formed a public committee to aid the mutineers and turn their trial into a teachable moment for the American public.

He did more than just give money. He procured a translator of the obscure Mendi dialect spoken by the defendants. He paid Yale students to tutor them. Lewis hired top-flight legal counsel, and even recruited former President John Quincy Adams to represent the Africans before the Supreme Court—which ultimately ordered their release in 1841.

Much of the Tappans’ philanthropy to change slave policies was done in secret, partly for reasons of modesty, partly to reduce their exposure to howling opponents. Both brothers endured many threats and savage attacks from political enemies. When their homes and businesses were targeted in a New York City riot, Arthur escaped with his life only by barricading himself in one of the family stores well supplied with guns. Lewis’s home was gutted, with all of his family possessions pulled into the street and burned while some of the city’s leading citizens looked on passively.

Resolving that if they were going to be vilified they might as well get their money’s worth, the Tappan brothers decided to flood the U.S. with anti-slavery mailings during the year following. They put up special funds to hurry across the country many of the abolitionist publications they were subsidizing—particularly targeting ministers, local legislators, businessmen, and judges. The publications committee headed by Lewis mailed over a million pieces in the course of 10 months, harnessing new technologies like steam-powered presses plus thousands of volunteers.

Up to that point, notes historian Kathleen McCarthy, defenders of slavery had “kept the leavening potential of civil society in check ... watchfully curbing any trend which might contribute to the development of alternative, independent power bases.” This new civil-information campaign inflamed the enemies of liberty. President Andrew Jackson called for a national censorship law to shut down the mailings. He encouraged his postmaster general to suppress deliveries, or at least look the other way while local postmasters did so. The names of subscribers to abolitionist journals were stolen and aired for ridicule.

The Tappans and other philanthropists subsidizing abolition were excoriated by those who disagreed with them. Lewis was mailed a slave’s ear, a hangman’s rope, and many written threats. A Virginia grand jury indicted him. An offer of $50,000 was made for delivery of his head to New Orleans.

The Tappan brothers were not intimidated by name-calling or even physical attacks. They continued to combine their generous giving with a genius for organizing fellow citizens. Thuggish reactions against them actually accelerated public opposition to slavery.

In the end, it was a handful of major donors who refused to be silenced, backed by thousands of small givers and volunteers, who brought to fruition the most consequential public-policy reform in the history of the United States.

This essay is adapted from Karl Zinsmeister’s new book,Agenda Setting: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Influencing Public Policy,” co-authored with John J. Miller.

Karl Zinsmeister is vice president at The Philanthropy Roundtable.

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