Philanthropy in the modern sense of the word was a product of the industrial fortunes of the late 19th century. By then, however, Alexander Brown had established a family tradition of participation in—not just support of—the prominent civic, voluntary, and religious institutions of their day.
Alexander was remembered by one eulogist not just for his business accomplishments but also for “sustaining works of public utility” and for “encouraging all charitable and philanthropic associations.”
Alexander’s four sons followed in his footsteps.
William Brown was deeply engaged in the public life of his adopted Liverpool, where he founded the Free Library of Liverpool and helped to establish the Bank of Liverpool in 1831. He was later elected alderman and served as borough magistrate. His political aspirations went beyond Liverpool, and in 1846, he was elected to Parliament as the Anti-Corn Law League candidate for South Lancashire, and served until he retired in 1859.
George Brown remained deeply involved in the Baltimore community long after he withdrew from the firm in 1840. He was the co-founder and first president of the House of Refuge for juvenile offenders. He served as a trustee of the Female Orphan Asylum for 11 years, in which time he significantly increased the size of its endowment and oversaw its admission of boys. He also was one of the original trustees of the Peabody Institute, founded in 1857 by financier and fellow Baltimorean George Peabody as the first major intellectual and arts establishment in an American city.
John Brown, for his part, went on to support several Philadelphia institutions connected to his own Presbyterian faith, including the Calvary Presbyterian Church. A short time before his death in 1872, he donated $300,000 to Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Hospital, founded the year before by the Reverend Dr. Ephraim D. Saunders in memory of his son, who had been killed during the Civil War.
James Brown became a leading figure in the New York community. He was a founding trustee of Presbyterian Hospital and a co-founder of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which pioneered numerous public-private partnerships in education, health care, and social services in New York.
James Brown, in turn, inspired members of his extended family to make similar commitments.
In 1864, he and a cousin, James Muncaster Brown, established the Council on Hygiene and Public Health, whose report on poor sanitary conditions in New York City led to the first municipal board of health and tenement housing reform. The following year, James and his son-in-law, Howard Potter, helped E. L. Godkin found The Nation, America’s first weekly journal devoted to serious, nonpartisan discussion of political and social issues.
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