How a Founding Father Helped Create Modern American Philanthropy
Michael Meyer on the Sources of Benjamin Franklin’s Altruism
The word project is one of the nouns Franklin used most in his memoir, appearing thirty times. Ingenious and ingenuity crop up seventeen times, usually to describe his father, uncles, and other craftsmen Franklin admired. While his contributions to electrical and political science are well-documented, Franklin’s role as a catalyst of modern American philanthropy is often overlooked. As we will see, he inspired at least one Gilded Age tycoon to create the template of contemporary giving.
But who inspired Benjamin Franklin’s charity? Despite—or because of—his lack of schooling, Franklin found his first role models on the shelf. “All the little Money that came into my Hands,” he wrote of his Boston childhood, “was ever laid out in Books.” His favorite title then was The Pilgrim’s Progress, followed by Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
“There was also a Book of Defoe’s,” Franklin remembered in his memoir, “called An Essay on Projects, and another of Dr. Mather’s, call’d Essays to do Good which perhaps gave me a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future Events of my Life.” That modest “perhaps” understated the fact that Franklin lifted from their pages the kernels of his earliest philanthropic ideas.
A bankrupt Daniel Defoe wrote An Essay upon Projects while hiding in Bristol from a London creditor empowered to imprison him. Published in 1697, two decades before Robinson Crusoe brought him fame, Projects laid out Defoe’s ideas for social improvement. These included the education of women, the creation of unemployment benefits, a lottery to benefit charity, fire insurance, proportional taxation based on income, mortgage interest capped at 4 percent, and a public assistance scheme called the Friendly Society for Widows. As Silence Dogood, a sixteen-year-old Franklin transcribed thirteen hundred words of Defoe’s text—without crediting him in an essay proposing an “Office of Ensurance for Widows” for Boston.
Defoe had also suggested the formation of “friendly societies,” or “people entering into a mutual compact to help one another in case any disaster or distress fall upon them.” The Reverend Cotton Mather had made a similar suggestion in his Essays to Do Good and formed twenty neighborhood mutual benefit societies (one for every church) across Boston. Franklin’s father, Josiah, had joined one. Meetings began with a set of questions put to the group, asking which community problems needed solving and whether anyone had been observed behaving scandalously. The twenty-two-year-old Franklin would borrow this idea to create, in Philadelphia, his Junto, which discussed less ecumenical matters. Its bylaws also required pauses between questions long enough to drink a glass of wine.
“When I was a Boy,” a seventy-eight-year-old Franklin wrote to Cotton Mather’s son, “Essays to do Good gave me such a Turn of Thinking as to have [an] Influence on my Conduct thro’ Life; for I have always set a greater Value on the Character of a Doer of Good, than on any other kind of Reputation; and if I have been, as you seem to think, a useful Citizen, the Publick owes the Advantage of it to that Book.”In the current era of virtue signaling and philanthropic grandstanding, Franklin’s advice to silently do good seems quaint.
In Philadelphia, a young Franklin had quickly learned a lesson that remains applicable to philanthropy today. At the time, giving was more commonly called charity (the word Franklin used), and donations were usually collected by a church. In 1730, as the twenty-six-year-old attempted to raise money to build the colonies’ first library, Franklin realized that people were reluctant to donate to a cause that would elevate his reputation above their own.
“I therefore put my self as much as I could out of sight,” he related in his autobiography, “and stated it as a Scheme of a Number of Friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought Lovers of Reading. In this way my Affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis’d it on such Occasions; and from my frequent Successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little Sacrifice of your Vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.”
In the current era of virtue signaling and philanthropic grandstanding, Franklin’s advice to silently do good seems quaint. It is true that, as he later admitted, the library did benefit himself, perhaps more than any other Philadelphian. Like many autodidacts, Franklin’s lack of formal schooling remained a phantom limb that he constantly scratched. “This Library,” he wrote, “afforded me the means of Improvement by constant Study, for which I set apart an Hour or two each Day; and thus repair’d in some Degree the Loss of the Learned Education my Father once intended for me.”Yet, Franklin realized, much could be accomplished when the public pitched in pence upon shillings, and pistoles upon pounds.
When raising funds to build the Philadelphia Academy, Franklin told potential donors that the college was “not as an Act of mine, but some publick-spirited Gentlemen; avoiding as much as I could, according to my usual Rule, the presenting of myself as the Author of any Scheme for Benefit.”
From the itinerant preacher George Whitefield, who compelled his audience of commoners to contribute the coins in their pockets to fund the construction of an orphanage, Franklin learned the cumulative power of small donations. The Penns and colonial gentry were not given to large contributions; the term noblesse oblige would not enter the lexicon until 1837. Yet, Franklin realized, much could be accomplished when the public pitched in pence upon shillings, and pistoles upon pounds.
As much as he downplayed his own philanthropy, Franklin came to realize that sometimes the best way to get people to donate to your cause was to publish the names of those who had already contributed. Friends would not want to appear miserly, and foes would not want to look outspent. He noted, too, a trend that remains unchanged in America today: those with the least money usually give the most readily, just as a young Franklin had done. “Perhaps,” he reflected, “thro’ fear of being thought to have but little.”He noted, too, a trend that remains unchanged in America today: those with the least money usually give the most readily.
When raising money to build the Pennsylvania Hospital, the project’s progenitor, Dr. Thomas Bond, had urged Franklin to make public his own donation. “The subscriptions afterwards were more free and generous,” Franklin recalled. By convincing the state assembly to match any amount raised up to £2,000, Franklin secured “an additional motive to give, since every man’s donation would be doubled… The subscriptions accordingly soon exceeded the requisite sum.”
The colony’s assembly, Franklin gleefully recorded, “conceiv’d they might have the credit of being charitable without the expense.” But he had outfoxed them. “I do not remember any of my political maneuvers, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure.” He had invented the matching grant.
This burst of philanthropic ingenuity arrived in the aftermath of his retirement from printing, at the age of forty-two. Just as he had not named his projects after himself, Franklin did not boast about his giving. He was not above some self-effacing moralizing, however. In a letter to his sister Jane, he reprinted a poem that portrayed Faith, Hope, and Charity (the rungs of Jacob’s ladder, which led to heaven) as the floors of a house. “Don’t delight so much to dwell in these lower Rooms,” Franklin told her, “but get as fast as you can into the Garret; for in truth the best Room in the House is Charity. For my part, I wish the House was turn’d upside down; ’tis so difficult (when one is fat) to get up Stairs; and not only so, but I imagine Hope and Faith may be more firmly built on Charity, than Charity upon Faith and Hope.”
The plumper middle-aged Franklin told his mother that in his retirement, “I read a great deal, ride a little, do a little Business for my self, more for others.” This 1750 letter includes prescient updates on William, then nineteen, who had “acquir’d a Habit of Idleness, but begins of late to apply himself, and I hope will become an industrious Man.” The seven-year-old Sally was his opposite, an avid reader and dancer who “grows a fine girl. Perhaps I flatter my self too much; but I have hopes that she will prove an ingenious sensible notable and worthy woman.”
The forty-four-year-old Franklin concluded, “So the Years roll round, and the last will come; when I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than, He died rich.” The new steward of Franklin’s parting gift to his birthplace held the opposing view.
Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet: The Favorite Founder’s Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity by Michael Meyer. Copyright © 2022. Available from Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.