Today we still applaud the wealthy who contribute to good causes, but somewhere along the line the idea that success in any way obligated one to do so was severed from the express “values” of American capitalism. Husband-and-wife team Claire Gaudiani and David Burnett’s worthy and eye-opening “Daughters of the Declaration” reminds us that it was not always so.
In fact, they argue, our Revolutionary founders believed—along with the religions in which they invested themselves and the Scottish philosophers who then inspired them—that virtue was the highest aim in life, which the new republic should help foster. And from those who benefited the most financially from the new political organization, much was expected: a democratic “noblesse oblige” to help lift others.
The authors acknowledge that in the beginning only a small proportion of Americans—men, and property holders at that—enjoyed the full benefits of citizenship, but insist that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution looked toward a broader enfranchisement.
Even though, for example, women could not vote and had restricted property rights, they were seen as critical in educating children, especially in the virtuous character of the good citizen. From the beginning—and to an astonishing degree, by the authors’ account—ambitious, public-spirited women saw a larger role for themselves, forming critical nonprofit organizations to do good.
Moreover, these leaders did not restrict themselves to forming, financing and sustaining “charities”—organizations providing immediate assistance to the poor or sick, for example—but also established groups seeking to increase the social value that enlarged the “American pie” for everyone.
Such women were “social entrepreneurs” who engaged in “win-win” rather than “zero-sum” thinking, creating “social profit—a measurable, tangible improvement in opportunities for fellow citizens—through building many of the systems that organize life in a democracy. Their work provided all Americans with a more generous serving of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ without having to reduce anyone else’s portion.”
In efforts largely unheralded, they broadened educational opportunities. Laywoman Elizabeth Seton, for example, founded the Sisters of Charity, and Caribbean-born Mary Elizabeth Lange established the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first black religious order in the world. In providing opportunities for women suddenly in dire financial straits to sell handmade goods through the cooperative Philadelphia Ladies’ Depository, Elizabeth Stott demonstrated incredible resourcefulness and marketing savvy. It was the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that today animates the successful mini-loan programs for women artisans in third-world countries. Women were likewise leaders in the Northern abolitionist movement—take Chicago’s Mary Livermore, who with her husband published the Universalist “New Covenant.”
The authors know how to tell a story. Consider their account of the colorful Miriam Leslie, who had a talent for pairing with successful men who aided in her endeavors, “(engaging) in journalism, politics, theater, social policy, the arts, high society, and business. She offered the nation a particular mixture of self-promotion, scandal, business acumen, extravagant beauty, and social conscience.” She was “one of a kind, a nineteenth-century version of Madonna, Arianna Huffington and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy all rolled into one.”
She showed business acumen in quickly using her deceased husband Frank Leslie’s national newspaper to earn profits, but according to the authors her greatest contribution to “social profit” may have been bequeathing $2 million to the women’s suffrage movement.
The authors also revisit the contribution of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (long led by Evanston’s Frances Willard), often derided as busybodies and misguided in their support of the ill-conceived 1920-1933 U.S. Prohibition. But Prohibition, the authors write, “was a victory orchestrated by the largest and broadest coalition of women up to that point in American history—women intent upon increasing the security of their homes and of the nation.” The temperance movement “is also inextricably linked throughout its history to the drive for women’s enfranchisement.”
“Daughters of the Declaration” is a real American saga, and while readers may question some of its heroes’ politics as misguided, it is difficult to resist this fresh clarion call to a sense of social responsibility that builds “social profit.” “Virtue,” “citizenship” and “character” have been absent too long from our public vocabulary. (Martin Northway)
“Daughters of the Declaration: How Women Social Entrepreneurs Built the American Dream”
By Claire Gaudiani and David Graham Burnett
PublicAffairs, 352 pages, $27