The Bright History (and the Dark Side) of America's Super-Rich Philanthropists

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How do you place wealth and equality next to one another and say, "These are the good things about American life and society"?

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The presidential election and last month's debate over raising taxes on the rich exposed a deep ambivalence in the U.S. over wealth and equality. How do we balance the American dream's offer of equality with its offer of financial success? And in a country with a tradition of larger-than-life philanthropists, recently re-highlighted by Bill Gates's and Warren Buffett's Giving Pledge campaign, but where social mobility is weak, how should we feel about the super-rich?

Robert Dalzell, American historian and professor emeritus at Williams College, explores some of these themes in a new book called The Good Rich and What They Cost Us, published January 8. Dalzell looks at figures like George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, and Bill Gates, all of whom eventually became known for giving their wealth away, and several of whom were criticized early on for their ruthless approach to building their fortunes. What themes and lessons can we draw from examining America's favorite philanthropists? After reading the work over the holidays, I called Dalzell up to talk to him about his conclusions.

I was interested and startled to read that George Washington was in fact the richest man ever to serve as president of the United States.

Absolutely, though it looked like Mitt Romney might give him a run for his money for a while.

But why is that not a very well-known fact, given how many other aspects of George Washington's personality and life are played up in schools and elsewhere?

Well, because I think there are actually more important facts about him that many of us were once taught in school. It is true, however, that even though we aren't conscious of his wealth, his career without his wife's money would have been unimaginable in Virginia at that time making his way up through the ranks and beyond. That money was very important. It was a society that paid attention to money and paid a lot of attention to people who had it--and he did have it, but it was by virtue of marriage.

He was a young man on the make, clawing his way up. He was born into the Virginia elite but at a low level of it. He wanted to do better in life. His forbears had, too, though unfortunately most of them died too young. And it mattered to him. Money mattered to him, possessions mattered to him, far more than we think they did, but that was at the beginning of his life. I think later in his life he came to think less of those things.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 3.04.03 PM.pngAnd you think it was a genuine revolution in his thinking--rather than concern for his image, which was a concern for some of the other individuals you discuss? George Washington actually changed his mind about his wealth?

I think so. I think the Revolution was key. It was a fascinating process because you see the beginning during the Revolution and it's focused even then on the issue of slavery. But it's also a function of the fact that he looked at the people who were fighting the Revolution with him--the officers and the troops--and if you were trying to generalize about them you would have said that very few of them came from established positions in life, that they were in effect using the war as a way of bettering themselves. They saw it as an opportunity. They were also people on the make. And I think that the war worked for many of them in this way. And I think George Washington was impressed with the notion of American society as a place where that kind of thing could happen, and as a result of that he began to change his mind about a good many things.

This books starts with people who have turned to philanthropy to prove they're favored by God. But then there are those who do it for image rehabilitation, and, even today, as a strategy against taxation. Why does that change?

Well, the society changes. What constitutes wealth changes. People's attitudes towards it change. But there is this fundamental paradox which is present in all these cases, and that is that great wealth--the fact of great wealth--sits oddly with a democratic faith that celebrates the notion that people are essentially equal in American society. So there's this conflict, and it expresses itself in different periods in different ways, and it expresses itself in the lives of these individuals in different ways. But I think they're all similar at least to the extent that they are worried about this contradiction, and try to work it out. The way they try to work it out in the end is in giving away a lot of money, as a result of which we think of them as "the good rich."

Why do we think of them as "the good rich"? Why is there this constant theme in American culture where we believe in democracy but we also believe in wealth in a way that you don't see in other countries?

That is a paradox. How do you place those two things, great wealth and equality, next to one another, and say "these are the good things about American life and society"? The way "the good rich" handled it was to decide to be very generous with their wealth. And we as a society have, in effect, said: it doesn't matter so much how you make your money. What matters is what you do with it. And if you're generous with it we will say that you were a good person and it was a good thing that you made all that money.

How does this play into the oft-remarked fact that you don't really see a vibrant socialist movement in America?

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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