How One of the Great Charity Rainmakers of All Time Raised Money

tags: donations, Edward Everett, charity

Robert E. Wright, the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana University and the Treasurer of Historians Against Slavery, is currently seeking a publisher for his eighteenth book, "The Poverty of Slavery: How Enslavers Victimize Us All." His books include One Nation Under Debt: Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe. The views expressed herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the above mentioned institutions.

‘Tis the season to be jolly … and to give to your favorite charity, like History News Network or Historians Against Slavery. If you give before the end of the year, you can reap your reward with the IRS in April 2017. If you procrastinate, you won’t be able to write off your contribution until April 2018. Besides, it somehow feels better to give during the holidays, the pit of what Alaskans call dark winter, than in the New Year.

Holiday charity and cheer have gone hand in hand for a long time at church but modern, secular giving in the United States can be traced to the first half of the nineteenth century and two major social movements, temperance and antislavery. Out of that milieu, the Benevolent Empire as it was sometimes termed, emerged one of America’s first great charity rainmakers, Massachusetts politician Edward Everett.

As Matthew Mason showed in Apostle of Union, his recent political biography of Everett, Everett’s soul was complex but politically, above all else, Everett was a staunch supporter of the American Republic as constituted by the Founding Fathers, especially George Washington. It was in support of Washington’s legacy, which Everett hoped was strong enough to cement the Union together even as it was being torn apart by the slavery question, that Everett learned how to raise money, great gobs of it by the standards of his day.

In the mid-1850s, Everett pledged himself to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union (MVLAU), a group dedicated to buying and restoring Washington’s once great plantation on the banks of the Potomac. Everett, one of the greatest orators in the age of great orators, raised considerable funds by touring the country delivering a two-hour speech called “The Character of Washington.” Despite the speech’s length, audiences found the presentation engaging and memorable. According to at least one listener, a young lady from Virginia, “the two hours that he spoke, appeared scarcely so many minutes.” Like a fan of the musical “Hamilton,” she confided that “This is my second hearing, & I would not object to a third.”

Filling venues large and small from Richmond to New England, Everett in just a few months raised over $15,000 for MVLAU’s cause. He invested the money in bonds and kept going, as far west as St. Louis, in an attempt to save both the plantation and the Union by creating a sort of cult of Washington that turned veneration for the “Father of the Country” into a secular religion that favored nationalism over sectionalism.

Today, many fundraisers continue to tie their appeals to the memory of heroic individuals like William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Everett, they strive to create memorable, engaging content. And also like Everett, who accepted donations of music and poetry, they accept volunteer work ranging from licking stamps to directing entire organizations. In addition, many fundraisers today continue to look for the broadest media outlets possible for their message, much as Everett did in 1859, when he penned an essay series, “The Mount Vernon Papers,” for the New York Ledger, a high circulation rag with an uneven reputation for quality. In return, the paper donated $10,000 to the cause but the series brought in more than that, almost $14,000, from readers impressed by Everett’s appeals. While individual contributions ranged as high as $323, the vast bulk of donations were for $1 or less, proof positive that the masses enjoyed tremendous collective power that fundraisers could no longer ignore. Everett and the MVLAU also pioneered the practice of providing donors with thank you gifts apportioned to the size of their respective donations, a practice later perfected by PBS, and the outright sale of memorabilia, like an illuminated edition of Washington’s Farewell Address inscribed by Everett.

Total receipts from speeches, essays, donations, and sales proved sufficient to purchase Mount Vernon but not to save the Union, which disintegrated into Civil War in early 1861. The conflict, however, only helped to swell Everett’s fundraising prowess. In 1864, he spent the bulk of his days counting the cash that roared in after he appealed to the “Ladies of the Loyal States” for money to help the Unionists who had been pummeled by Confederates in east Tennessee. Up to $40,000, a small fortune at the time, arrived each day from individuals as well as state and citywide associations. To keep the money flowing, Everett widely disseminated lists of donors in order to encourage others to keep up with their social peers, a practice widely emulated by NGOs today.

As thank you notes from aid recipients in Tennessee flooded in, Everett recorded in his diary that he “never did any thing with greater satisfaction.” In January 1865, after just starting a similar campaign to aid the Unionists of Savannah, Georgia, Everett died. The techniques he developed, however, live on in the hearts of tens of thousands of fundraisers for churches, charities, colleges, and sundry NGOs across the nation and globe. So you can blame Everett for the deluge of requests for donations piling into your in-boxes and mailboxes or you can honor his contributions to the modern world by giving this holiday season to HNN or HAS or some other charity of your choice.

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