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State Boards of Charity: Early History

History of State Boards (1863 – 1891)


Report of Committee at the Twentieth Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1893

Committee Members: Oscar Craig, New York; W. F. Slocum, Jr., Colorado; Herbert A. Forrest, Michigan; Samuel G. Smith, Minnesota; M. D. Follett, Ohio.

Ed. Note: This entry was condensed from the original text of the Committee’s Presentation at the National Conference of Charities and Correction Twentieth Annual Session Held In Chicago, Illinois, June 8-11, 1893.

Ed. Note (2): The typical state board of charities consisted of a number of citizens appointed by the governor and serving without salary.  The board members had the responsibility to choose a secretary or executive and determine policies.  This structure indicates the importance of the board’s choice of a secretary.  Usually, the members of the board served for three, five or seven years, in overlapping terms, whereas the secretary was appointed for an indefinite tenure.  This arrangement was set up to divorce the administration and oversight of public institutions from the influence of partisan politics.

The history of the central boards of charities representing nineteen States presents a field which, if described within the limits of this paper, must compress mere details and comprise only general lines. The State Boards which had their beginnings before the first session of the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1874 are stated in order of time of inauguration, with subsequent changes, if any, of an organic or radical character as follows, to wit:

Massachusetts, created in 1863, merged in a general department of health, lunacy, and charity in 1879, again changed by setting off health jurisdiction to a separate body in 1886, and since continued as a board of lunacy and charity;

Ohio, established in 1867, abolished in 1871, but re-established in 1876, and reorganized in 1880;

New York, inaugurated in 1867, and continued without cessation or change of constitution;

North Carolina, beginning in 1869, becoming dormant through failures of legislative appointments after 1873, but revised and reorganized with provision for gubernatorial appointments of members in 1889;

Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, ushered into being also in 1869, though the last named is a board of trust and control, and out of the common order, and Pennsylvania by act of 1883 constructed within its general department an executive committee in lunacy;

Wisconsin and Michigan, introduced in 1871, though the former, as the Board of Charities and Reform, was after its first decade in coexistence with a central body of trust and government, entitled the State Board of Supervision, both of which bodies were consolidated and converted into the “State Board of Control” in 1891;

Connecticut and Kansas, established in 1873, the former being reconstructed in 1884, and the latter being constituted on the model of Rhode Island, which before was unique in its exclusively executive duties of trust and control.

The era of the National Conference, opening with central departments of charities in the respective States just mentioned, eleven in number, has continued with eight accessions in the following States respectively, to wit:

New Jersey, introduced by in-grafting charity jurisdiction on the former stock of a State board of health, in 1882;

Minnesota, inaugurated in 1883;

Indiana, initiated in 1889;

South Dakota and Wyoming, originated in 1890, the South Dakota Board being, like those of Rhode Island and Kansas, a board of trustees for the State institutions;

Oregon and Colorado, created in 1891;

Montana, just born by legislative act within this quarter of the present year, though as yet hardly organized.

In Congress, last winter, there was pending a bill that passed one house, but failed to become a law, the intent of which was to substitute a board for the Superintendent of Charities in the District of Columbia.

One body unique in organization and in operation is worthy of mention and of imitation. The State Charities Aid Association of New York is a private corporation, among whose members are prominent citizens of New York City, with auxiliary committees in the various counties of the State. It is empowered to appoint visitors to all the charitable institutions of the State, subject to the supervision of the State Board of Charities, except private institutions; and such visitors, under an order of a justice of the Supreme Court, have powers similar to those of visitors appointed by the board. The association makes an annual report to the State Board. The voluntary methods of the corporate and private body are contrasted with those of the official body in various respects. The freedom of the association in appealing to the public press, which the State Board cannot so well or properly invoke, gives it great advantages in promptly correcting abuses by bringing to bear the force of public opinion. Many of the most beneficent reforms have been promoted by this society of ladies and gentlemen. The State Care law respecting the insane was introduced by them under the guidance of Miss Louisa Lee Schuyler, who has been recognized as the leader. This valuable aid to the State Board of New York may well become a precedent in other and especially the larger States.

It will be observed that, of the thirteen original States, six preceded and one followed the commencement of the National Conference in beginning their respective boards, and that, of the whole number of States, forty-four, not more than nineteen have inaugurated such departments, of which but eight belong to the two decades of the Conference; while during its first decade only two States initiated, and during its first period of nine years no State introduced, such a central board or department of charities.

It is evident that the National Conference is the effect, and not the cause, or the consequence, and not the source, of State Boards.

But the reason for the interval of nine years is not so obvious. An hypothesis naturally suggested is that after the settlement of the political and moral issues growing out of the Civil War, and during the recovery from the financial revulsion of 1873, the nervous and mental energy of the people was diverted into materialistic and selfish rather than spiritualistic or ethical channels. But this supposition can be but tentative, for in the States which had created their respective central boards there was continual progress in enlightened views and altruistic aims during the whole of the first as well as of the second decade of the Conference. A better theory for the particular facts which have put us on inquiry is the general law of rhythmic motion, making all movements of events in nature and of affairs in society proceed not with uniformity, but with variations. Moreover, the States leading in material and moral advancement, representing the majority of the population and political power of the country, having preceded the National Conference, left almost hopelessly in the rear the residue of the older ones less provident and progressive, none of which, except New Jersey and Indiana, have yet joined the front of the forward movement; while three-quarters of the meager re-enforcements of the two decades of the Conference have been recruited from the younger and growing commonwealths of the West.

The various titles of the respective boards do not uniformly or accurately, though approximately they may, indicate corresponding variances in their functions. Among such comparative appellations are the following examples; namely, the “State Board of Lunacy and Charity” of Massachusetts, the “Board of State Charities” of Ohio, the ” Board of Public Charities ” of Pennsylvania, the “Board of State Commissioners of Public Charities” of Illinois, and the ‘State Board of Corrections and Charities” of Michigan. The most concise and comprehensive of all the official names is the title adopted in New York; namely, the “State Board of Charities.” The qualifying word “State” properly designates the jurisdiction, but untruly defines the institutions subject to it, which may be county as well as State, or even private as well as public. The term ‘ charities” in its liberal and reasonable sense, and in accordance with modern and approved ideas, justifies an interpretation large enough to include “reform” and “correction,” which express the medical and surgical aspects of the benevolent care and treatment of the delinquent and the degenerate, in prisons and hospitals, for the protection of society.

That this consideration has become prevalent among thinking persons, if not always prevailing in practical politics, is due largely to the influence exerted through these State Departments of Charities, which have done most beneficent work in improving the environment and administration of State prisons and reformatories and of county jails and penitentiaries.

The Illinois Board in its first report justifies the idea of prison reform, which has since been realized in the introduction of the Elmira system at Pontiac. The Ohio organization, which has for its ex-officio president the governor of the State, and for its active chairman the president of the National Prison Association, has secured jail classification, and in prisons the reformatory methods of parole and indeterminate sentences, and the first system of cumulative sentences for misdemeanants as well as felons, which has been further advanced and perfected by legislation of this year. The Massachusetts department obtained the reformatory for women in 1877, and subsequently the reformatory for men, with indeterminate sentences. The New York statute declares that the three State prisons “shall continue to be maintained for the security and reformation of convicts in this State.” This principle was applied in the investigation of Clinton Prison in 1891, by a commission composed of the president of the State Board of Charities, the secretary and executive officer of the State Board of Health, and the secretary of the Prison Association of the State, and is applicable to each of the three State prisons as well as to the six State reformatories, juvenile and adult, among which the one at Elmira for men is conceded to be the best model in the world.…

Prison reform has been promoted by these State Departments of Charities, through expressions of opinions in their respective reports, and in the Proceedings of the National Conference, and by indirect influence as well as active endeavors, even where their jurisdiction has not extended to correctional or reformatory institutions.

The work of child-saving has been advanced and guided by these central organizations. Their series of reports in the older States show that this work, while shaped in various forms of relief, as in the boarding out method in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and in the contrasting system of orphan asylums in New York, in the Michigan State Public School, in the similar system in Minnesota, and in the county children’s homes of Ohio and Indiana has, through legal enactments and institutions, resulted in releasing hundreds of thousands of infant members of society from the pauperizing influences of the poorhouse as well as the demoralizing influences of degenerate parents…. The treatment of the insane has been determined or largely influenced by these State Departments of Charities. In the great States of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, State care of the chronic classes, as well as the acute cases of the insane, has been thus secured with improvements in construction and administration of hospitals and asylums. To Illinois is awarded the credit of establishing in the Kankakee Hospital the first system of detached wards. Though a few State Boards have favored or tolerated compromises retaining certain features of the pauper or county management with poorhouse associations, all of them, it is believed, without exception, have effected great improvements and reforms in matters of insanity.

Charity organizations in cities are due in large measure to the State Organizations of Charities; for, though the former are voluntary and private, and have comparatively narrow and special fields, they are perhaps the most important of all local bodies in the scientific study and practical application of principles for the prevention of pauperism, and are entitled to governmental as well as corporate and individual aid. The New York Board, with its report to the legislature for the year 1878, transmitted a paper prepared on this subject by Rev. S. Humphreys Gurteen, the founder of the Buffalo organization one year before, the first in America, and within ten years after the successful operation of such societies in the leading cities of England. Subsequently the celebrated Charity Organization Society of New York City was inaugurated under the auspices of the New York State Board, though the offspring has long since grown far beyond the need of tutelage. These relations indicate similar connections and influences in other cities and States.

But the reverse order occurred recently in Indiana, where the Charity Organization Society of Indianapolis was made an efficient cause contributing to the evolution of the State Board under the creating and guiding spirit of Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, deceased, a patron saint of philanthropy, of blessed memory.

Federal legislation for the regulation of immigration has been secured largely by the direct representations of the State Boards of New York and Massachusetts against the invasions of foreign criminals, lunatics, and paupers assisted to American shores by families….

The economy effected and the humanity fostered and furthered by these State organizations of charity in eleemosynary and correctional institutions, public and private, and the remedial and reformatory legislation and administration introduced and promoted by them fill hundreds of books of annual reports, and form large parts of as many volumes of session laws.

To go further into the interesting particulars of the work of these State departments would be to transcend the limits of this article, as well as to trespass upon the topics assigned to other committees of this Conference….

The jurisdiction of the respective State Boards respecting reformatory and correctional institutions, with changes, if any, during the last twenty years, may be set forth briefly as follows: The Massachusetts Board was authorized to make prison inspection from I863 to I879, when it was reconstituted, but since that period has had no authority over correctional or reformatory institutions, save State schools, which, unlike institutions in some of the Western States, similarly entitled, are juvenile reformatories for delinquents. In New York the Prison Association of the State has jurisdiction of State prisons, county penitentiaries, jails, and reformatories; yet the State Board of Charities has authority to visit all these correctional and reformatory institutions except the three State prisons which the superintendent of prisons governs, but, in deference to the Prison Association, has exercised its power only in relation to the various State reformatories, adult and juvenile, and private protectorates. The Ohio laws confer upon its board supervision of prisons, jails, and reformatories, and make special mention of its duty to visit them.  The Illinois Board has never had any jurisdiction over its penitentiaries, but is authorized to visit and report on jails, only however, as places where the insane may be confined; and its power of supervision respecting the Reform School at Pontiac, given in 1875, was withdrawn in 1891. Pennsylvania and the other States having boards not already specified, except Connecticut, give to them respectively powers of some sort concerning prisons or reformatories or both. I But the statement in a former report of committee, “That prison inspection is the duty of all the other State Boards” than Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, is erroneous.

Institutions for the insane of a public nature are generally, with private asylums to a less extent, under the supervision of the respective State Boards. In Illinois the commissioners have power to define hospital districts and to order transfers of patients. Notable changes during the last two decades have occurred in three large States as follows: In Massachusetts lunacy jurisdiction was obtained by the new board in 1879, sixteen years after the establishment of the first board. In Pennsylvania an executive committee on the insane has been organized within the board in pursuance of law enacted in 1883. In New York, by act of 1889 and amendatory acts of 1890, the Commission in Lunacy with powers of control has been created, but without affecting the prior authority of the State Board of Charities to inspect, investigate under oath, and supervise the State hospitals and private asylums.

But while most of the State departments of charity have supervision of prisons, reformatories, and public hospitals, as well as State, county, and municipal institutions of general eleemosynary character, few of them have general duties or powers respecting charitable corporations….

Turning now our attention from the classes of institutions under the respective State departments of charities to the powers over such institutions which are within the jurisdiction of such departments, we observe that one common principle of supervision, with or without administrative authority, is the general characteristic. This principle has been preserved in its simplicity in some States, while in others it has been combined with executive functions in particular matters, and in several States has been converted into powers of trust and exclusive control. Such entire departure from the standard of advisory authority has been taken in Rhode Island, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, in none of which is there any remnant or vestige of power of supervision left, unless an officer can oversee himself. The boards of these four States are in direct control, as trustees of the institutions within their respective jurisdictions, and can inspect and advise only as they can inspect and advise themselves.

It is interesting to note, by the way, that three of these four exceptional bodies have been organized within the third and last decade of the establishment of State Boards of Charities, and within the second and last decade of the National Conference of Charities and Correction.

All the States, excluding the first three of the four mentioned, have first organized their respective departments of charity with simply supervisory and advisory functions, and have restricted other powers, if any, subsequently superimposed, to duties administrative rather than executive, or relative to special matters or particular institutions, or negative in their nature, resembling the interdiction of a veto rather than the direction or initiative of control. The New York Board, having been created in 1867, among other things to visit charitable and reformatory institutions, in its discretion to examine their trustees, officers, and employees under oath, and to report the results of their inspections and investigations, with their opinion on all applications for State aid, for any purposes other than usual expenses, has since its establishment received three successive grants of distinct species of special powers, two of which are still retained, as follows: in 1871, authority to exempt counties from the operation of the Willard Asylum Act, or to direct them to send their indigent chronic insane to the said State asylum, which authority, provisional in its character, and originally intended to meet a temporary need, has been abrogated by the exclusive State Care Act; in 1873, commission to provide for the support and care of State paupers, and the removal of any of them to the State or county where they may have a legal settlement or friends willing to maintain them, with supplemental authority in 1880 to return alien paupers to foreign countries whence they have been assisted to emigrate; and, in 1883, as already stated, veto power to prevent the incorporation’ of institutions for the charge or disposal of children. Pennsylvania inserted in her system, three years after its first development, administrative functions concerning county jails and poorhouses, plans for the construction of which county commissioners are accordingly required to submit to her State Board for criticism; and eleven years subsequently in-grafted on its committee in lunacy executive duties already alluded to respecting the insane. The Massachusetts bureau system, years after its inception, undertook executive duties prescribed by law, among other things removals and discharges from, as well as transfers among, State hospitals for the insane. The Ohio organization at the beginning provided that plans for county jails and infirmaries should be submitted to criticism, but prescribed no veto power or executive duties in the central body; and neither at its re-establishment in 1876 nor its revision in 1880 were the additional powers granted more than supervisory and advisory….

The agreement between the average type of these State departments of charity, as found in their reports and the statutes governing them already cited, and their prototype or antitype or informing idea, as expressed by their respective representatives in the Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, is remarkable; while between particular organizations and certain conceptions pertaining to their respective States there is even more complete correspondence.

In the eighth session of the National Conference, being the third of its existence independent of the American Social Science Association, General Brinkerhoff, of Ohio, summed up an instructive article as follows –

“The outcome of our inquiries, therefore, in regard to Boards of State Charities, would seem to indicate that, in the main, what is wanted in their establishment is to secure for our public institutions thorough inspection and intelligent criticism, by competent persons, outside of their management. Human nature is so constituted that no one can give an unbiased judgment upon his own conduct…. It would seem, therefore, that a Board of State Charities should occupy a position purely advisory.”….

The conclusion of the whole matter, from both reason and authority verified by experience, is that the unifying principle of State Boards of Charities requires them to exercise the duty of supervision, which is inconsistent with executive functions of trust and control respecting the institutions and interests to be inspected; that the administrative authority, if any, committed to them, should consist of veto or negative rather than controlling or initiative powers, and include such as relate to the audit of accounts, the certificate on applications with estimates requesting State aid for objects other than ordinary expenses, which, of course, the legislature and governor would sustain or overrule in their sovereign discretion, and as condition precedent approval of the incorporation of private charities under general laws; but that executive powers affirmative and absolute in their nature should be delegated to them never for the exclusive government of institutions, and only, if ever, for duties in special fields such as pertain to the transfers or removals and discharges of insane patients from public hospitals, and the return of State and alien paupers; and that in the larger States the evolution of separate departments or commissions for the governmental control of State institutions, with or without the abrogation of the local managers, as well as the multiplication of charitable corporations, requires the continued existence of one general State Board of Supervision, divorced from duties of executive character, the jurisdiction of which should be as to area and number coextensive with eleemosynary and correctional institutions, both public and private.

Every State Board has intimate and organic relations respectively with the three branches of government. Upon the judiciary it may depend for the issue or enforcement of orders; and in each State where its Supreme Court has equity as well as other original jurisdiction the unwritten authority of the court and the statutory authority of the board are in many respects co-ordinate, and oftener should be contributory. But the chief magistrate has it in his power to promote or defeat the enterprises of the board in many ways, including the approval or veto of bills, the commendation or disparagement of measures in his messages and official communications, and often the appointment of members on whose character and competency depend its standing, influence, and usefulness. The legislature, however, with the chief executive, is the supreme and absolute master of the situation, holding the key not only to the remedial legislation and necessary appropriation, but also to the continued existence of the board….

The practical application of principles governing and reconciling humanity and economy, proper paternalism and prudence, in the care of dependent, defective, degenerate, and delinquent members of society, requires the scientific study of these first principles in the light of experience. To this end two means are most conducive, namely: first, the collection and collation of data by the specialists of the State Boards, respectively, and their reports on a uniform basis of statistics, inclusive of all particular fields of administration, whether or not represented by special commissions; and, second, the creation of libraries of treatises on these underlying principles. These objects are set forth in the Proceedings of the National Conference and in the reports of the State Boards….

Autonomy in the government of public and private institutions of charity, with freedom of development on individual lines, and of differentiation which is one of the laws of evolution, is a desideratum which has been prominent in the foregoing discussions of principles and powers. Similar variations are found among the State Boards of Charities, the annals of which indicate such differentiations in developments on separate lines in correspondence with different environments, but generally upon the one underlying principle of advisory authority without executive powers, which unifies without producing uniformity. The history of the State Boards of Charities during the two decades of the National Conference has been one of thoughts as well as of things, showing that conceptions expressed in the reports of the boards and Proceedings of the Conference have become realized in institutions and established interests, and promising that the ideas approved to-day shall be translated into the facts actually proved tomorrow.

Signed by members of Committee.

Oscar Craig, New York.

W. F. Slocum, Jr., Colorado.

Herbert A. Forrest, Michigan.

Samuel G. Smith, Minnesota.

M. D. Follett, Ohio.

Source: Official proceedings of the annual meeting: 1893, National Conference on Social Welfare, pp. 33-54.