THE PUBLIC GOOD: Philanthropy and Welfare in the Civil War Era by Robert H. Bremner

THE PUBLIC GOOD: Philanthropy and Welfare in the Civil War Era

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As part of the Knopf series on the impact of the Civil War, historian Bremner (Ohio State) examines public philanthropy before, during, and after that conflict. During hard times in the 1850s, Americans contributed to Bible-tract societies, poor relief, and female benevolent societies, prompted not only by generosity but by the ""national penchant for spending."" During the war, the United States Sanitary Commission, under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park), came to the relief of soldiers with programs from hospital attendance to ""refreshment saloons,"" while mavericks like Clara Barton and Walt Whitman gave more personal aid. After the war, boom times in the North imposed an obligation to bind up the wounds of war by aiding freedmen, refugees, and the destitute people in the South. Even General Sherman, according to Bremner, dispensed largesse on his march to the sea, while the Freedmen's Bureau and benevolent societies urged ex-slaves to help themselves. Prisons, asylums, libraries, schools for the handicapped, and similar institutions of ""charity"" proliferated under the guidance of Dorothea Dix, Samuel Gridley Howe, Andrew Carnegie, and others. But the chief impact of successful organized (""scientific"") wartime philanthropy, Bremner argues, was to confirm the impression that voluntary, informal relief was an adequate remedy for social ills; and by the 1880s philanthropy came to be regarded ""mainly as a way of using surplus wealth,"" while those who could not ""help themselves"" were written off as a cause well lost. The public good shapes up, finally, as an ideological and institutional football for influential philanthropists with their own best interests in mind. Bremner's lucid account of this doing-good game documents what has been perceived but not pinned down before, and makes interesting reading.

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf