The Miser and the Lady Philanthropist
By some accounts, Russell Sage, the Gilded Age multi-millionaire, was so despised by his neighbors in his hometown of Troy, New York that he was forced to move to New York City where he lived the rest of his life in his rather shabbily furnished grand mansion on 5th Avenue. The reason for the enmity was his purported greed, miserliness, and deceptive, morally reprehensible business practices. As my grandfather might have said, he is thought to have squeezed a nickle ’til the buffalo screamed. After his first wife died in 1867, he married a poor school teacher, Margaret Olivia Slocum.
Born in 1828, Olivia, as she was known, came from a socially distinguished but near-poverty stricken family. Her father, Joseph Slocum, had done quite well during the New York boom period created by the Erie Canal’s completion then lost most of his fortune in the Panic of 1837. Until her father’s financial troubles, the family lived a life of relative luxury, but with ruin came the need for economy. After scraping together tuition to continue Olivia’s secondary education at private schools, money was borrowed from a wealthy uncle and she enrolled at Troy Female Seminary headed by its founder, Emma Willard. Willard’s influence on her pupils was to prove life-long for many of them, including Olivia. Graduates of the school went on to champion charitable and women’s causes far beyond anything Willard might have envisioned.
Olivia graduated in 1848, but with little money at home and the situation continuing to deteriorate, she was forced to spend the next 21 years working first as a school teacher then as a governess. Having early on expressed her admiration for those who used their wealth in “deeds of charity” and knowing that Russell Sage had at one time swindled her father, one wonders what persuaded Olivia to accept Sage’s proposal of marriage in 1869. Perhaps at age of 41, she felt this would be the best, maybe only, offer she might ever get. Her family’s financial woes and the struggle to make ends meet must have also been factors. Sage was by that time one of America’s wealthiest men. It might have seemed that her life would overnight go from one of penury to great luxury. While she would no longer have to labor and would live in a mansion, she would still not have control of lavish amounts of money until her husband’s death.
Russell’s personality and habits were set long before he and Olivia married and he apparently saw little need for change simply because he had acquired a new wife. Whether he was truly a miser or simply a man who cared little for public opinion, Russell had developed a reputation among those who mattered as a stingy, odd, devious businessman who chose as a business partner the infamous, hated Jay Gould. Being in business with Gould did nothing to improve Sage’s public image. Examples of his miserliness have been cited as letting “his grass grow into a hay field for his horses” rather than paying for lawn service, refusing his wife an allowance for her personal use, spending summers on Long Island rather than with their financial peers in the tonier New Port , etc. Philanthropy Round Table lists as proof of his miserliness the fact that during their 37 year marriage, he and Olivia made only three significant donations: to the Troy Female Seminary, the Women’s Hospital, and the American Seamen’s Friend Society, totaling approximately $220,000. Another source defends Russell by citing his good works such as allowing Olivia to pay office rent for the New York City Women’s Suffrage organization and building the Russell Residence Hall at Troy Seminary. He also served in public capacities on the Troy Common Council, as Rensselaer County treasurer, and as a two term US Congressman. As an avowed abolitionist, he gave an anti-slavery speech that covers twenty pages in the Congressional Record. However one views him, it is clear that he was much more frugal than his peers and disliked by many of his contemporaries.
During her marriage, Olivia’s philanthropic journey included donating her time in far, far greater amounts than any of her husband’s money. She worked tirelessly for the New-York Woman’s Hospital, the first hospital specializing in the diseases of women. In 1891, she founded the Emma Willard Association, an alumnae organization for the graduates of her alma mater, Troy Female Seminary. While she could have chosen to relax and become a lady of leisure once she married a multi-millionaire, she chose good works instead.
Auburn University Digital Library puts it this way:
“Voluntary activity by women, many historians believe, helped to propel the suffrage and feminist campaigns, for it involved fund-raising, studying public issues, holding meetings, and planning the “investment” of benevolent resources (money and time). Moreover, these voluntary associations provided middle- and upper-class women with opportunities to work and possess a public voice at a time when such activities, outside of benevolent work, were viewed as unladylike. Since she had recently experienced poverty and struggle, Sage used her public voice to call for women’s economic emancipation and for female suffrage. She rejected the identity of the “lady of leisure,” and embraced the idea of work and moral earnestness. Indeed, she found a voice as an advocate of moral reform and advancement for women, causes she considered identical. Her first full-scale interview with a reporter, published as “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of Leisured Women,” provides a summary of her views about how women’s influence would reform society and clean up politics. “Now the woman of to-day has demonstrated the quality of her talent, courage, and endurance,” she said in 1905, “there is no excuse for her not working.”
Russell Sage died in 1906 leaving a fortune of $75 million to his widow. With the inheritance, Olivia began charitable donations in earnest. Over the next twelve years until her death in 1918, Olivia gave away approximately $45 million. Although her donations were not always used as she had designated due to unscrupulous and deceptive practices on the parts of recipients, she gave lavishly to institutions of higher education Syracuse University, Princeton, Cornell, and founding the Russell Sage College, a liberal arts women’s college offering degrees in a variety of professions. She also supported religious and women’s causes. Many of her donations were made in small amounts that did not have the effect she might have desired.
She is best remembered today for founding the Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment which she endowed with $10 million in 1907. Her directions were rather loose for the disbursement such a large sum. Some of it went directly to the poor, but the bulk went toward engaging experts in the emerging field of social sciences to investigate societal problems and seek “root cause” solutions. The Russell Sage Foundation’s focus on the social sciences greatly influenced their coming of age in the nation’s foundations and in the country. The Sage foundation promoted new investigative tools, research, and analysis of social problems and occasionally invested in social science projects.
Olivia died in 1918, leaving 19 educational institutions approximately $800,000 each. In addition, organizations like the Women’s Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, the Emma Willard School, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all received bequests in excess of $1 million each. The Russell Sage Foundation was left $5 million.
In a 1905 North American Review article, she summarized the philosophy that would guide her for the rest of her life: “[A] woman is responsible in proportion to the wealth and time at her command. While one woman is working for bread and butter, the other must devote her time to the amelioration of the condition of her laboring sister. This is the moral law.”
She lived her whole life in accordance with her beliefs as shown by her great generosity and desire for the betterment of the human condition. A newspaper clipping from the Lawrence Democrat sums up her life’s work thusly:
While The Pursuit of Lucy Banning does not feature Olivia Sage, the main character holds the same ideals regarding charity and the desire for independence.
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