A little-known trust the city administers is a reminder of the importance of philanthropy for promoting the common good. It’s especially timely this time of year, when many Philadelphians face great needs. And it offers a reminder of what it takes for our nation to rebuild its frayed culture.
The provision is called the Boudinot Fund, and it’s named after a Philadelphia native and Founding Father, Elias Boudinot, whose life demonstrated public service in action. Boudinot served the Army as a commissary of prisoners — caring for American prisoners of war, whose British captors often kept them in wretched conditions. He later became president of the Continental Congress, and he was the official who received the news that the Peace Treaty with Great Britain had been signed in Paris. After the Constitution was ratified, he served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, then followed David Rittenhouse as director of the U.S. Mint.
Besides his political service, Boudinot was a savvy businessman who turned his income from law into smart investments in land in western Pennsylvania. That allowed him to be generous to the public — both during his life and in his will.
In his retirement, Boudinot supported many causes, from schools in Connecticut to hospitals in Philadelphia to gifts that helped Princeton College improve its natural history holdings and create fellowships for students. In 1816, he also helped launch the American Bible Society — the same organization that recently relocated to Fifth and Market Streets on Independence Mall — serving as the first president of that nonprofit publisher of the Scriptures.
As he wrote his will in 1821, Boudinot drew on land he owned along the Susquehanna River and willed its entire income to the poor inhabitants of Philadelphia who needed fuel in the winter at a subsidized price. This bequest formed the nucleus of the Boudinot Fund. Today, it has become a $2 million investment that helps city residents defray heating expenses.
But in his will, Boudinot also called on others to join him in philanthropy. In his donation to Philadelphia, Boudinot hoped that “persons of generous and tender feelings for the distresses of their fellow creatures may be found” to continue caring for the needy. Such voluntary contributions would demonstrate “heavenly employment.”
Boudinot’s motivation — as he stressed in his will and in the several books he published during his lifetime — was a heartfelt faith rooted in his Christian identity. This prompted him to demonstrate Golden Rule care for his neighbors.
To accomplish these goals, Boudinot used several strategies. He gave directly, and he encouraged his family to give directly to others. In an act to empower generosity, he designated $200 (approximately $4,200 today) for his daughter to give to 10 needy widows of her choice.
He also set up institutional mechanisms to continue donations — much like foundations today. In donating to the city of Philadelphia, he illustrated a public-private partnership that is still benefiting the city. (And, such models of cooperation are still going on. Recently the city celebrated the opening of a new facility for the homeless in Suburban Station. In a public-private collaboration, Project HOME joined with SEPTA to find a permanent space to many services, resulting in a beautiful 11,000-square-foot Hub of Hope.)
In his generosity, Boudinot demonstrated an important principle. He realized that political liberty was not sufficient for the new nation; for the young republic to succeed, the citizens needed to demonstrate practical care for others — especially the weakest and neediest. He argued those who were blessed with wealth had a special responsibility to demonstrate care for others. For Boudinot, liberty was much more robust than a lack of governmental interference. It entailed civic responsibility.
This call echoes today. How can each of us demonstrate generosity in our own communities? Which institutions we know best serve those in need? How can we get involved, offering both time and resources? As we answer those questions, we will be responding to Boudinot’s call of what it takes for our city and our nation to thrive.
Dr. Jonathan Den Hartog is a scholar adviser for the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, opening in Philadelphia in 2020, and an associate professor of history at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minn. He is the author of Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.