Written records are the basic materials of historians. Unfortunately, no records of charitable giving by Native American populations before European settlement have survived, and there is little information about the people who attempted to settle in Roanoke, North Carolina in the 1580s.
America’s earliest immigrants continued a long tradition of providing a bequest to charity. One of the earliest bequests was in the year 1621, when Reverend Thomas Bargrave bequeathed his library to a proposed college in Virginia. If we were celebrating Bargrave College as America’s first, his bequest might be famous today. But in 1622, the man sent from England to be superintendent of the college was killed by Powhatan Indians. Plans were put on hold until 1693, when a charter was granted to The College of William and Mary, colonial America’s second college. The fate of Bargrave’s library is unknown.
Four Mayflower Pilgrims made gifts to their churches through their written wills in the 1600s. For example, Mary Chilton Winslow, one of the first of the Pilgrims to step ashore at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, left a bequest to her church through her will.
The first college in the American colonies, and one of our earliest nonprofit organizations, is Harvard College, founded in 1636. John Harvard, an Englishman educated at Cambridge, emigrated with his wife Ann to Massachusetts in 1637 at age 29 and died the next year. In addition to his library of 400 volumes, John Harvard bequeathed about 800 pounds to the college – very large gifts for the time. Grateful trustees renamed the college in honor of his bequest. His bequest was highlighted in the pamphlet New England’s First Fruits (1643).
As America’s only college for 57 years, Harvard documented early examples of many planned gifts. Harvard was a beneficiary in the will of Robert Keayne, a Boston merchant, whose Apologia, written in 1653, occupies 158 pages in the probate records.
Harvard College encouraged bequests from the time of its founding. Between 1636-1712, bequests provided about three times as much money for Harvard as did gifts from living individuals.
All early American colleges depended on bequests. Princeton University’s charter in 1746 included the power “to receive legacies and bequests of any kind whatsoever.” When the founders drafted the charter, they knew that a sizeable bequest for a new college to be located in New Jersey had been pledged in 1745 in the will of James Alexander, a leading New Jersey power broker and attorney.
Alexander’s public commitment to a bequest was very important to the founding of Princeton (originally known as The College of New Jersey). It provided the founders with confidence in their project; it gave credibility to the proposed college; and it helped to attract other donors.
The first bequest received by Princeton was recorded in the Trustee minutes on September 27, 1749: five pounds from the estate of Evan Revis. A very large bequest to Princeton in the amount of 700 pounds from William Kings of Delaware was reported in the Boston Gazette on April 24, 1750.
A bequest to Princeton from Jonathan Belcher, the Provincial Governor of New Jersey and President of the college’s Board of Trustees, may be well-known, but not many people are aware of the complex arrangements for his gift.
Belcher pledged his book collection, a number of paintings, and his “terrestrial globes” to the college. His gifts were arranged through a formal legal contract, recorded in the Trustee’s minutes of May 8, 1755. Governor Belcher received consideration of ten shillings from the College for his pledge, “reserving for myself nevertheless the Possession & Use of all the aforegoing Premises during my natural life.” Princeton received his bequest in 1757.
This legally-binding pledge of a bequest is a good example of the sophistication of gift arrangements available to donors in America’s colonial era.
Rev. Samuel Blair, Jr. graduated with the Princeton Class of 1761, then was hired as a tutor. Blair wrote a fund raising pamphlet entitled An Account of the College of New-Jersey which was published in 1764.
In it he mentioned a bequest in the works from the estate of Colonel Alford of Massachusetts that could be as much as 500 pounds. At the time, the annual cost for a Princeton student’s tuition, fees, room, board, and other expenses was just over 25 pounds.
Blair included this sample language for a bequest to Princeton:
I do hereby give and bequeath the Sum of ______ unto the Trustees of the College of New-Jersey, commonly called Nassau Hall.
Throughout U.S. history, bequests have provided more financial support for nonprofit charitable organizations than all other gifts through trusts, annuities, and complex assets combined. Bequests made possible the Smithsonian Museum, the Pulitzer Prize, hospitals, homeless shelters, wildlife refuges, schools, colleges, churches, synagogues, and other nonprofits. According to Giving USA, charitable bequests provided $39.7 billion in 2018. Charitable remainder trusts, gift annuities, lead trusts, and gifts of complex assets provided $8-10 billion that year.