‘Private Virtues, Public Vices’ Review: Doubting the Donors

Is charitable giving really just a form of paternalism? Does philanthropy, however well intended, threaten democracy?

An empty frame at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Photo: David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

香蕉视频苹果下载In a letter to James Madison in 1789, more than a decade after the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson proposed another “self-evident” truth—that restrictions placed on property by the current generation should not constrain later ones. The earth, he said, belongs “to the living,” and “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” Jefferson was referring in part to property set aside, well into the future, for religious or charitable purposes. The state where he was living, Virginia, was debating such matters at the time.

Three decades later, in a case involving Dartmouth College, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a different conclusion. It held that an implicit contract bound the college to previous generations of trustees and donors, including their pledges and commitments. The Constitution’s “contracts clause,” the court said, prevented the government of New Hampshire from overriding Dartmouth’s implicit obligations by (as the state hoped to do) installing its own set of trustees.

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