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Philanthropy's War on Community

William A. Schambra

Editor’s note: William Schambra delivered this speech on September 15, 2012 at the Small Enough to Succeed conference at Hope College in Holland, Mich. The event was organized by the Front Porch Republic.

A response to this speech by the Council of Foundations was published in The Nonprofit Quarterly on October 15, 2012.

Writing in 1952, Raymond Fosdick, long-time president of the Rockefeller Foundation, provided this description of its first board meeting in 1913:

The question which faced the trustees as they sat down to their first meeting was how the broad objective of their charter was to be implemented. What constitutes the “well-being of mankind throughout the world?“ A large number of applications had already been received, and it is significant that they were all declined, including one from the YMCA for the rehabilitation of buildings located in Dayton, Hamilton, and Marietta, which had been damaged in the recent floods along the Ohio River Valley.

Mr. Gates phrased the objection: “The Rockefeller Foundation should in general confine itself to projects of an important character, too large to be undertaken, or otherwise unlikely to be undertaken, by other agencies.“ This was in line with the emphasis which Mr. Rockefeller himself, six years earlier, had placed on what he called “finalities.“  “The best philanthropy,” he had said, “involves a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

Here, at the inaugural gathering of what was at the time the world’s largest foundation, was enunciated the doctrine that has governed mainstream American philanthropy for much of its existence.

Local communities might approach foundations with requests for projects like helping to repair damage done to beloved and vital village institutions. But the wise, far-sighted patricians running the foundations knew that these would be just stop-gap efforts to address the most superficial effects of society’s problems.

Such niggling, small-bore projects, however, were all one could expect from benighted local yokels, entrapped as they were by moral and religious world-views that barely extended beyond the village boundaries.

Look at these towns in Ohio—they honestly thought that Christianity had something to teach young men!

Happily for the villagers, though, the cosmopolitan patricians now had available to them an instrument that could reach all the way down to the “finalities” so important to John D. Rockefeller.

The newly emerging natural and social sciences of the early 20th century enabled us to probe beneath the superficial manifestations of problems, and penetrate to their very core, their root cause.

So the first modern American foundations—Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage—devoted themselves to developing these new sciences through support for research universities like Johns Hopkins and Chicago, think tanks like Brookings, and coordinating agencies like the Social Science Research Council.

The professional elites trained in these world-class institutions would have the expertise necessary to guide, shape, and mold the American people.

Psychology and sociology would find the uniform rules of human behavior beneath all of its confusing and superficial diversity so lamentably reflected in America’s small communities.

Political science would teach us how to reorganize public life according to those rules, moving us away from divisive state and local allegiances, toward an inspiring and ennobling great national community, quietly and rationally administered by cosmopolitan elites according to the unassailably objective principles of scientific management.

Among the most valuable of the sciences supported by the first foundations was the emerging study of human biology known as eugenics.

Thanks to the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of biological inheritance at the beginning of the 20th century, we now knew what the root cause of human pathology truly was, namely bad genes.

Nearly every form of human misbehavior or misfortune—from promiscuity to shiftlessness to dipsomania to the all-encompassing “feeble-mindedness”— could be traced back to defective “protoplasm.”

And so America’s major philanthropies eagerly poured their resources into the promising science of eugenics. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mrs. E. H. Harriman (as she always described herself)—widow of the railroad magnate—provided the funds for Harvard biologist Charles Davenport to establish the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York in 1911.

The ERO would be the international center for eugenics research and public policy advocacy until it was finally closed in 1939—when even its philanthropic sponsors could not fail to heed the ominous signals emanating from Germany about the implications of a vigorous eugenic program.

If philanthropy in general was hostile to local community, eugenics was doubly so. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Charles Davenport’s magnum opus, entitled Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, published in 1911 and dedicated to Mrs. E. H. Harriman.

Davenport and the ERO may be remembered today chiefly for their concern about the promiscuous importation of defective protoplasm from the villages and shtetls of Eastern Europe, which led to the severely restrictive immigration law of 1924.

In fact, however, a larger concern for Davenport was the dangerous accumulation of defective and decaying protoplasm within America’s all-too-prevalent jerkwater local communities.

As he put it, “negative traits multiply most in long established and stable communities where much inbreeding occurs, while positive traits are increased by emigration, as a fire is spread by the wind that scatters firebrands.“ 

Inbreeding (or consanguineous marriage) and the concentration of defectiveness is more likely where people stay put, while “a restless people will show a small percentage of negative traits.”

The problem is that when the laudably restless and ambitious move on, as they always had since colonial times, “the weaker minds were left behind to breed in the old homestead.”

Too many such “old homesteads,” in Davenport’s view, had been established and maintained in America by groups that tended to cling—perhaps even bitterly cling—to distinctive and exclusive ethnic, moral, and religious ways of life, each of which became a breeding ground for genetic defect.

Even the very geography of America seemed to promote concentrations of defectiveness. 

Davenport includes in his book a map of the Eastern seaboard, with this caption: “Coast of eastern North America, showing the broken coast line, with islands and peninsulas, each of which is, more or less, a center of consanguineous marriages. Such centers can be picked out by looking at the map.”

Wherever there’s some relatively inaccessible but nonetheless inhabited geographical nook or cranny—some rocky islet, some marshy point, some remote valley, some treacherous mountain range—there, genetic defects tend to become trapped and multiply, like so many diverticular pathogens.

Davenport singled out our northernmost coastline for particular opprobrium, noting that “the islands off the coast of Maine show much consanguineous marriage.“Ma

Smarting from such shameful depictions in both scholarly and popular literature, the state of Maine decided to take action against one such consanguineous island cesspool the year after the publication of Davenport’s book.

This year we mark the centenary of Governor Frederick Plaisted’s bold effort to solve once and for all the eugenic problem of Malaga Island.

Malaga is today a 42-acre nature preserve in the New Meadows River. But until 1912 it housed a thriving community of some 40 residents—whites, blacks, and biracial—most of whose families had lived and intermarried there since the 1840s.

Those of you who may have come across a Newbery Prize-winning book from 2005 entitled Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy will recognize this story.

The islanders eked out a proudly independent way of life through subsistence farming, fishing, lobstering, and odd jobs on the mainland.

But to savvy mainlanders armed with the science of root causes, the flimsy shanties, peculiar ways, and especially the mixed blood of the Malaga Islanders all suggested ominous subterranean genetic faults.

And so in the spring of 1912, the state of Maine abruptly evicted all the residents of Malaga Island. As befitted a eugenic solution, one-fifth of the islanders were sent to the newly opened Maine School for the Feeble-Minded in West Pownal, where most of them lived out their lives as involuntary residents.

No buildings were left standing on Malaga, and—lest former inhabitants entertain notions of having any remaining roots there—even the graveyard was unceremoniously dug up, with the remains thrown into five large caskets and reburied on the grounds of the school for the feeble-minded, where they rest today. 

The Malaga Island clearance has justly been described as the most shameful episode in Maine history.

Malaga is, of course, just one episode in the long and tragic story of eugenics in America. It seemed to justify the mandatory institutionalization of hundreds of thousands of so-called defectives, and the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 American citizens.

And that’s to say nothing of the inspiration it provided for similar such genetic purification programs around the world. 

Today, the governors of the states most enthusiastic about sterilization have apologized for their eugenics programs. North Carolina is moving toward compensation for surviving sterilization victims, and Maine recently deplored its role in the events of 1912. The Maine State Museum’s current exhibit “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives,” captures the state’s regret.

Nonetheless, the foundations that provided the financial support for eugenics have never issued formal apologies.

Indeed, if you look under “e” in the index of any of the leading histories of American philanthropy you will find not one word about eugenics.

In an ironic footnote to the Malaga episode, however, the former grounds of the Maine School for the Feeble-minded, which was known as the Pineland Center when it closed in 1996, have been purchased and redeveloped by Maine’s largest private philanthropy, the Libra Foundation.

Libra presents a vivid contrast to the giving philosophy of the early Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations.

Although Libra’s endowment comes from Elizabeth Noyce and her portion of the globe-bestriding Intel fortune, it has happily focused its giving entirely within the state of Maine.

In its hands, Pinelands today features a working farm, producing its own cheese, natural meats, organic eggs, maple syrup, strawberry jam and seasonal fresh produce. It also has an equestrian center, a much-admired public garden, and building space for lease to small, local businesses and nonprofits.

As Pineland’s guide puts it, “Tenants enjoy amenities on the campus such as a conference center, cafeteria and” in a delicious counterpoint to the first Rockefeller board meeting—a YMCA.

In short, rather than waging war on local community in the name of tracking down root causes, Libra is trying to shore up the cultural and economic underpinnings of local community—and on the very site of one of the “root cause” approach’s most despicable crimes.

To be sure, not all of Libra’s initiatives have been successful or popular. Its real estate ventures and its effort to build a self-sustaining Public Market in Portland have come under considerable criticism from Mainers.

An effort by Libra in 2000 to open a new center at Pinelands for individuals with disabilities was turned back with particular vigor.

But that’s the point—Mainers know precisely where to take their complaints, because Libra is devoted not to the “well-being of mankind throughout the world,” but rather to the well-being of this one small, struggling state whose residents live and work beside those who run the foundation.

One additional irony of the eugenics movement is worth noting. We are urged today to regard progressivism as the tribune of America’s low-income, ethnic communities. And yet no one was more enthusiastically eugenicist than progressivism’s founders like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Herbert Croly. 

They shared Davenport’s deep concern about the idiocy of local community life, along with its ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry.

They yearned for an expansive, unified, homogeneous national community, within which all ethnic, religious and moral distinctions would disappear, along with their pathological genetic concentrations.

Yet in the face of that homogenizing, nationalizing impulse, it was the precisely the tiny island community of Malaga that stood for a degree of racial harmony and intermixture almost unheard of at the turn of the 20th century.

And so it has often been, throughout American history: the small communities so offensive to sophisticated American writers and intellectuals in fact end up providing the surest refuge for racial minorities, religious dissenters, and cultural renegades.

At any rate, I wish someone from Maine would approach the Libra Foundation with the following proposition. Those lonely graves from Malaga at the back of the Pinelands site: they should be unearthed once more, and transported with dignity and ceremony back to a suitably restored cemetery among the red spruce trees of the Malaga Island nature preserve.

But the cost shouldn’t be borne entirely by Libra. It should be shared by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, as modest down payments against the day they embrace their own shameful past in the war against American community, and begin to reorient their giving accordingly.

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