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

Essential reading for anyone who participates in American philanthropy, by Heather Horn (@heathershorn) for The Atlantic.

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.

 

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GMN