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The Charleston Orphan House: Children?s Lives in the First Public Orphan House in America

Author(s):Murray, John E.
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred B.

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
John E. Murray, The Charleston Orphan House: Children?s Lives in the First Public Orphan House in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.? xx + 268 pp. (hardcover), $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-226-92409-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Winifred B. Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts University.

The first public orphanage in America was founded not in Boston, citadel of civic virtue, but in Charleston, South Carolina. Because it was the first, it is not unreasonable to assume that it became the blueprint after which all other municipal orphanages were modeled ? which is to say, it set the dimensions of the ?great confinement? within which forsaken children would live for generations to come. Sufficient reason, then, for the Charleston Orphan House to have attracted the attention of John E. Murray, whose previous publications on orphans, paupers, child labor, charity, literacy, epidemic disease, a Shaker community, and the history of health insurance in America testify to a tender and enduring concern for ?the least of these.? Scholars less tender-hearted than Murray may wonder why a book on one southern orphanage should be of interest to economic historians, to which Murray can reply that charity ? or, more accurately, altruism ? has engaged the likes of Arrow, Debreu, Sen, Kahneman, and innumerable others in arcane conversations around rational expectations, decision theory, social welfare functions, intergenerational wealth transfers, the theory of the firm, and the specification of a Happiness GNP measure.

The narrative density of Murray?s book comes from his exhaustive research in the Orphan House archives. He has managed to link at least 500 children by name to their life-cycle events, allowing him to track at least a quarter of the 2,000 children who passed through the orphanage. Beyond that, it appears that he has found every donor, every Commissioners? report, every repair bill, contract, bill of sale, loan application, housekeeping account, public health inspection, doctor?s order, teacher?s diary, minister?s sermon, church attendance record, and the testimony of every impoverished and widowed parent on behalf of his child at risk. Murray calls this archive ?the single greatest collection of first-person reports on work and family lives of the [white, that?s important] poor anywhere in the United States? (p. 4).

First in the course of his ten chapters are the conditions in the House. They are Dickensian. Visitors found it ?miserable,? ?extremely comfortless,? ?appalling,? ?swathed in darkness,? ?beds drenched with water when it rained,? without light, without sheets, without beds or bedsteads, waste water leaking into the drinking wells, one toilet for 100 children, privies in the vegetable garden. ?Yet many children hoped to enter the institution? (p. 66). It improved over time, and Murray moves on to devote a chapter each to the financing, management, diet, discipline, education, training, and medical care offered to the children. In chapters 8 and 9 where Murray follows the young people into apprenticeships and beyond, he opens the orphanage up and out to the urban, industrial, and export-driven economy of the Charleston that will have to absorb them. The book ends with an Epilogue, and it is there, as I read him, that Murray relaxes the courtesies that have constrained him thus far, and ?tells it like it is.? It is there that he undertakes to answer the question: what really motivated the Commissioners to fund a public orphanage in Charleston? But more about that later.
For this reviewer, the gold standard for a project like Murray?s is Civic Charity in a Golden Age by Anne E.C. McCants (1997), a magisterial study of the Municipal Orphanage of Amsterdam from its founding in 1578 to its demise in 1815. I have adapted from that book and applied to Murray?s a list of six large questions which project these two institutions onto a wide and consequential canvas. I want to use these questions as a heuristic device upon which to hang the balance of this review.

1. What impulse motivated the founding of the public orphanage?
2. In what sense was the public orphanage ?public??
3. What role did state, county, and city government play?
4. Why did the charitable impulse take institutional form? In the case of abandoned children, was there no other solution?
5. Or was the choice of an institutional solution dictated in some way by the consilience (E.O.Wilson?s term: ?accordance of two or more lines of induction drawn from different sets of phenomena?) of capitalism, urbanization, secularism, and the nuclear family that emerged in America at the end of the eighteenth century?
6. Did the orphanage effect genuine redistribution, or was it rather ?an elaborate ploy? to perpetuate the inequality that had motivated it? This last will not be discussed in this review, which is already too long, but will remain as a question ? if only to tease the righteous.

McCants?s book does not appear in Murray?s bibliography, but these questions are the nuts and bolts, the What, When, Who, Where, and Why of his story no less than of hers. And while some are dealt with implicitly in his text, until the Epilogue none of them is discussed explicitly, and I wish they had been.

When the orphanage was founded in 1790, there were 8,089 white persons in Charleston, and 8,270 black persons, and of the blacks 7,684 were slaves, and 586 were freed blacks. Complicating things was the revolution in Haiti the following year. The uneasy equilibrium in Charleston was overwhelmed by a wave Haitian ?migr?s, of the white elite, yes, but mostly by a new population of slaves, free blacks, and mulatto refugees. Complicating things further was that as the number of freed blacks in the city increased, so did the share that were mulatto. White anxiety about mulattoes would reach such a level by 1848 that Charleston would require by law that all freed people wear a tag identifying them as black, and carry proof of manumission, at risk being re-enslaved.

In this climate it will come as no surprise to learn that the Charleston Orphan House and the Free School associated with it admitted only white children; not just white but who, while certifiably poor, were not very poor, in fact whose homes were decent enough to pass an inspection.? Thus defended, the orphanage played an important part in forging a race-based ?alliance of whites? against blacks that cut across, was orthogonal to and subversive of the class-based alliance that a new industrial working class was trying to build against capital. ?It is this link between civic society and racial unity that helps explain the puzzling question, why the first (and for many years the only) large-scale public orphanage in America should have been built in Charleston? (p. 199). ?Charleston was unique in the early republic in creating the charitable orphan house because in no other city did the elite need to make common cause with the white poor and working class against the potential common black enemy? (p. 201). ?Webs of white cooperation reached across class lines, as if the other half of Charleston?s population weren?t there at all? (p. 204).

Amsterdam?s public orphanage was also restricted: open only to citizens of Amsterdam, tax payers, members of the Dutch Reform (Calvinist) church, wealth-holders, of the ?middling classes.? If the Charleston orphanage was an oasis of white unity, and the Amsterdam orphanage was an oasis of middling unity, then in what sense were they ?public??

To answer that, begin with the meaning of “private”: how do we understand “private”? Sir William Blackstone, the great eighteenth century jurist, defined private property for the ages. It is, he wrote, ?that despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the things of this world in total exclusion of the rights of any other individual in the universe.?

If ?private? is the right to exclude, then is ?public? the obligation to include?? It doesn?t appear so. Public swimming pools, public housing, public schools, public water fountains, public transportation, public lands, public access to the Internet … all of these masquerade as forms of Commons but they have all, at one time or another, been ?restricted? against some portion of the public: against unmarried couples, single women, families with children, families with pets, against smokers, blacks, Asians, Jews, Latinos, and on and on ? that sorry history is too well known. We are no closer to discovering the meaning of ?public.?

The Oxford English Dictionary makes short shrift of a definition: “of or provided by the state rather than an independent, commercial company”; “ordinary people in general”; “done, perceived or existing in open view.” Of these the only relevant definition for our purposes is the first: “of or provided by the State.” The Charleston orphanage, even if not of the State, was provided by the State.? Then how can it assert a privacy right to exclude?

There were three sources of funds for the orphanage: donations, income from the institution?s own assets, support from all levels of government. Accounting for (in the sense of keeping account of) the donations will always be problematical to the extent that it is a non-market transaction. Gift-giving is driven not by reciprocity but ?by the pursuit of ?regard?: the approbation of others? (Avner Offer, ?Between the Gift and the Market,? Economic History Review, 1997).? To keep account of a gift is a small desecration of a private benevolence. But inevitably the charitable impulse would have waned as the increasing pace of commercial development both of the port and of the city would have lured private wealth into emerging capital markets and land speculation.

Market sources of income, however, were built into the endowment of the institution by design. The orphanage earned income on its holdings of B.U.S. bonds; and by law the value of all escheated estates in South Carolina (the estates of those who died intestate and without heirs) automatically reverted to the orphanage, along with ?small bits of wealth belonging to the children? (p. 24).

But eventually the institution needed to depend ?heavily? for its ongoing expenses on contributions from what we now call the public sector. To the extent that the ?public? orphanage was supported by the public, where did the city, county, or state get the money?? Were these pay-outs opportunistic, or were they funded? And if funded, was it supported from taxes or bond issues? If taxes, what kind: property taxes? A poor tax? Port duties? Excise taxes? If so, on what? I found this discussion to be the thinnest in the book, but on the answers to these sorts of questions depends the question we asked above, by what right does a public institution assert a privacy right to exclude?

What was left unsaid about the sources of government funding in the Charleston book is sharpened by the contrast with how much it is possible to say about it in the Amsterdam book. Unlike every level of government in the U.S., the city of Amsterdam appears to have faced no inhibitions on its power to tax income and spending directly. Every ?foreigner? applying for citizenship of the city was obliged to pay a fee in support of the orphanage. Additional support came from taxes levied on burials and marriages; real property was taxed; taxes were levied on all who worked for wages; and excise taxes were levied on all consumption. In addition, graduates of the orphanage were expected to ?give back? to support its upkeep; revenue was earned from the sale of the girls? needlework. Most significant were the assets bequeathed to the children and held in fiduciary trust for them until their maturity, which assets were prudently invested by the orphanage in real estate, commercial property, commercial paper, and annuities, such that by 1790, private donations accounted for only 8% of the income of the Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis.

Institutionalizing orphaned children is so bad an idea that one wonders if some other solution could not have been found. Why did institutional care prevail over alternatives like foster care, adoption, and government support to extended families?
a) Was institutionalization motivated by a rational calculation of its relative efficiency? Were there in fact economies of scale in warehousing children as there are in warehousing, say, Amazon?s inventory of CDs?
b) Or should we look to a moment in time, say 1780-1810 ? the consilience of the Four Modernizations: capitalism, urbanization, secularism, and the nuclear family ? to provide the clue? There are American historians (I among them) who see the decade of the 1780s as an ?Axial Moment? in American history ? ?the most critical moment in the entire history of America,? wrote Gordon Wood in The New York Review of Books (1994) ? in which, in the midst of ?Deep Change? in almost everything else, family responsibility for the intimate care of the aged, the young, the crippled, the alcoholic, the violent, the developmentally challenged, the homeless, the (oops!) pregnant, and the insane were professionalized and transferred to institutions.
c) Or was institutionalization motivated by the nature of institutions themselves which, in the language of the New Institutional Economics, ?provide incentives to agents to work through formal and informal rules and their enforcement? (John Nye, 2003). In the case of the Orphan House ? ?a white island in a sea of blacks? (p. 199) ? what Nye calls ?the institutions-rules nexus? must have provided a measure of security to the increasingly anxious people of Charleston in whom, says Murray, was lurking always the fear of a slave rebellion in the city at large. An ?institutions-rules nexus? to suppress any disorder in the orphan house would have been projected outward to repress any disorder in the society at large.

??The Orphan House was an integral part of the city?s collection of institutions that maintained the prevailing social order the foundation of which was white unity… [It] was at once an integral part of the most repressive social order in America and the most humane and progressive child-care institution in America, and it remained both for decades? (p. 12).
John Murray?s book has turned out to be provocative and utterly absorbing.

Winifred B. Rothenberg?s publications include From Market Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (University of Chicago Press, 1992).?
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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century