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Response to Review of From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism

I am gratified by Eric Herschthal’s generous and thoughtful review of my book. As he notes, I focus primarily on elite white men born in the 1730s, 1740s and 1750s in the British Isles, Caribbean, and North America. I follow them as they grew up in the increasingly interconnected British Empire, faced a civil war in the American Revolution, and then reimagined their philanthropy in universal terms as they adjusted to their new relationship as foreigners. These men, Herschthal agrees, led many of the developments in 18th- century philanthropy, but he questions the limited attention I give to women and people of African descent. Would greater attention to them change my findings? Rather than universal, were the organizations led by well-off white men exclusionary?

First let me explain why I approach the study the way I did. Scholars often explore humanitarianism within the bounds of particular movements or particular nations. In my early research, however, I was struck that people involved in this or that movement were also involved in others. Moreover, people living in one or another place often corresponded with humanitarians in other communities. They pursued their philanthropy expansively and I wanted my study to capture that dynamic. I also wanted to explore how the rupture in the British community, which nurtured their expansive outlook and the networks that supported it, affected their pursuit of moral responsibility. I therefore started by identifying a number of leading philanthropists and followed their connections to add others.

These men set many of the era’s philanthropic agendas, and their personal and professional networks provided channels for transmitting ideas, information, and institutional models that made a universal humanitarianism a force for remaking transatlantic relationships after the Revolution. One exception, of paramount importance, was the antislavery movement. Enslaved and free people of African descent put that cause on the era’s humanitarian agenda by resisting, running away, rising up, and mounting legal challenges. My focus in this book was not on exploring that dynamic. My belief that the intended beneficiaries of humanitarian endeavors shape their pursuit and determine their success, however, has led me to study conversations among players in philanthropic developments, as opposed to studying particular movements or institutions. People in need have looked to a ‘mixed economy of welfare’, as Joanna Innes and others has taught us, in their survival strategies. Similarly, enslaved people followed a range of strategies in their pursuit of freedom and equality. The elites whose conversations are my focus pursued their objectives influenced by the expectations and actions of those they set out to aid.

Marginal members of society shaped philanthropic causes and contributed to the conversations, even if leading members of society did not acknowledge their role directly. Herschthal questions whether the organizations founded by my subject can be called universal since they, he writes, ‘they were exclusionary when it came to membership’. Of course that’s entirely true when it comes to the leadership of these organizations. Without overstating the case, however, it is not quite right to call the groups exclusionary in other ways. The membership of white male-led associated charitable organizations was predominantly white and male. Yet associated charitable organizations typically not restrict membership by any criteria other than financial. That limited the possibility of most people being members, but did not prohibit it constitutionally. You paid your dues and you had the rights of membership. Small numbers of women subscribed to (were members of) charitable organizations led by elite men. (In British organizations, women and aristocrats faced similar restrictions on voting, with both groups required to vote by proxy rather than in public.) Likewise, the African-American Bethel Church in Philadelphia subscribed to the city’s dispensary, a charity providing free outpatient medical care to the working poor. The church thus gained the right, like any other member, to have patients it named receive care. (Other corporate bodies on both sides of the Atlantic similarly served their own members in this way). Beyond the benefits it gained for its members, the church’s support for the Dispensary proclaimed that African Americans belonged to and contributed to the community, as its inclusion in the list of subscribers acknowledged. Likewise, when humane societies (groups that promoted the rescue and resuscitation of drowning victims) honored African Americans as rescuers, they encompassed African Americans within the benevolent community and thus recognized that they met a key test of civic fitness in a republic. In other words, it is not wholly accurate to say that these elite-led charities were exclusionary. In particular, it is misleading to use antislavery organizations to make that case. Far more controversial than other movements, antislavery organizations were more cautious and restrictive about membership. Ethnic, confessional, or occupational charities, for different reasons, were also particular in membership or in the provision of aid. Public subscription charities, by contrast, and again without overstating, did not prohibit membership by race, national origins, or other communal identities, and in some cases positively allowed foreigners to join.

What, then, of groups founded by African Americans and women? Herschthal’s point that African Americans ‘were grappling with the same questions’ about community as my subjects is well taken. All charities have to delimit the scope of their moral responsibility and therefore are making decisions about their community. In the years after the American Revolution, African Americans, white women, and white men alike reckoned with the reordering of polities and societies, with particular loyalties and universal impulses, as they defined the their organizations’ ambit and their own senses of their selves. The expansion of conceptions of community was not limited to white elites, as Herschthal rightly notes. Perhaps, though, it is meaningful to distinguish between how those impulses played out among groups new to organized philanthropy and those who were not. The men I study had typically been nurtured philanthropically and initiated into voluntary associations before the imperial rupture. With American independence, they lost the organizing principle that had given coherence to much charitable activity before the Revolution and found themselves reimagining the nature of cooperation with their old partners. The men who founded the Bethel Church, by contrast, were newly asserting communal relationships and their role in the larger society through formal organizations.

Or perhaps the distinction between old players and new is, as Herschthal suggests, not so great. He questions if a meaningful ‘universal humanitarianism’ developed, seeing instead efforts to create identities. I wonder if those projects are so different. The development of a universal approach to benevolence was a type of identity politics, as well-off, transatlantically-minded American and British felt out new relationships with their former compatriots. Their universalism could coexist with partial loyalties too. Men like Baltimore’s John Crawford, who was eulogized for embodying universal benevolence, also belonged to the city’s Hibernian Benevolent Society, a group for those with Irish roots. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush chose among a number of affiliations – cosmopolitan, American, Pennsylvanian, Presbyterian, professional – depending on his audience, and his varied charitable activity reflected his overlapping communal ties. Universal humanitarianism, then, as its critics at the time recognized, was not a more advanced manifestation of moral responsibility, but one way, among others, to make sense of one’s place in the reordered world. For a time in the late 18th century, many found the universal approach compelling, though they also always had other loyalties in play.

I am grateful to Herschthal for helping me think more about the relationship between particularistic and universal approaches in the post-Revolutionary era’s expanding organizational world.