George W. Brackenridge: Pioneering Scientific Philanthropy in Texas

George W. Brackenridge

Robert Epstein, Jiajun Liu, Li Ye, Zhaonan Zhu

October 15, 2019

George Brackenridge helped to usher Texas into the age of philanthropy. His approach to scientific philanthropy was influenced by his Texas context. Brackenridge gained his wealth in Texas during the civil war and post-civil war reconstruction era and did most of his giving during the progressive era.  His approach to philanthropy was influenced by the scofflaw Texas tycoon Charles Stillman’s individualism and New York Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s approach to scientific philanthropy. Brackenridge’s Texas style scientific philanthropy was based in individuals reshaped institutions without regard to popular opinion or the preference of governments. 

Civil War Profiteering and Texas Individualism

Brackenridge gained much of wealth and his philosophy of wealth from Charles Stillman. Stillman taught Brackenridge to take advantage of national trends in an unpopular but deeply successful way. When Brackenridge was a poor young man the civil war was nationalizing the United States. Texas had joined the confederacy and most Texas businessmen were willing to take confederate dollars and to trade within the confederacy (Sibley, 2013).  Brackenridge and his mentor Charles Stillman were not like most Texans. Under Stillman’s tutelage Brackenridge went from having zero assets in 1860 to more than $100,000 in 1861(Sibley, 1973). Stillman smuggled cotton through Mexico to trade with the Union. Officially all Southern ports were under a blockade. Mexico was a neutral nation and not part of this blockade. Stillman used Mexico’s neutral status to make shipments of cotton to the north. The north was blockading the south to hurt its economy. The south was hoping that a northern blockade would result in an international cotton shortage that would pull countries that needed cotton into the civil war. Stillman understood that the north wanted cotton and the south wanted the wealth that came with cotton even if it hurt their cause internationally. He used this confusion to become a millionaire and recruited Brackenridge to help him with these operations. Brackenridge was a unionist, trading cotton agreed with him politically and enriched him personally. He chose to trade in union dollars which was a source of resentment among the Texans he traded with (Sibley, 2013). His choice of currency also meant that unlike his peers he amassed a fortune that would not disappear when the confederacy lost. Stillman taught Brackenridge to pursue profit by not following popular opinions including the opinion of governments.

After the Civil War Brackenridge demonstrated the value of active management even when it broke the law. In 1865 Brackenridge launched the San Antonio National Bank (Sibley, 2013). Launching a federally chartered bank in Texas was highly unpopular. Until the end of the civil war only one federally chartered bank existed in Texas. Most banks refused to be regulated by the federal government. Without federal regulation they could not accept government funds and did not receive protections that would prevent them from failing during recessions. Brackenridge found a creative way to be federally chartered without the loss of control that other Texans feared. At the time San Antonio was hard for national regulators to travel to. The nearest regulator was stationed in Memphis Tennessee (San Antonio National Bank, 1876 as cited by Sibley 2013). When told he would have to regulate a bank in San Antonio the federal regulator wrote to his supervisor:

 I learned that I shall have to do 200 miles of staging to reach the place- that the country is very unsettled and far from safe. While I am determined to do everything, my duty requires and wish to shirk nothing, I shall feel it a great kindness if I can be instructed to use my own discretion going there (San Antonio National Bank as cited by Sibley 2013, p 95). 

The regulator politely requested that his time spent in San Antonio be kept to a minimum. Brackenridge used his remoteness from regulators to his advantage. He heavily invested in the new booming post war cattle trade (Sibley, 2013). He gave large loans to cattlemen, loans which he watched closely in part because the loans often did not adhere to national banking regulations. Regulators would launch investigations of his loans, but by the time they were able to reach him, the cattlemen had paid the bank back. This tactic was high risk. Brackenridge was breaking the law, but with his active management of the cattlemen, he was able to reap large profits. This approach may have informed his later philanthropy. In the cattle business he did not depend on government regulations he instead used his own management style to maximize profit.

Progressive Era and the Emergent of Scientific Philanthropy

Brackenridge’s focus on active management was part of wider change in attitudes after the civil war. At the end of the nineteenth century, the growing complexity of economic and social affairs resulted in a widespread belief that it was necessary to create a new social and political order in the US. During that period, which was broadly known as “Progressive Era”, “social efficiency movement” and “scientific management” became accepted nationally (Ealey & Ealy, 2006). Traditional charity was criticized as an ineffective, unsystematic, superficial ointment that failed to address the root causes of social problems. Response to these critiques, the charity reformers and civic leaders were actively seeking a new way of doing philanthropy – this was ethos coined as “scientific philanthropy” (Bremner, 1956, p. 168, 1988, p. 86). The United States had changed its attitude about the management of businesses and those changes were spreading to philanthropy.

Andrew Carnegie used his position as one of the most successful businessmen in the United States to spread his belief in “scientific philanthropy”. Carnegie’s notion of philanthropy broke decisively with the accepted norms in the 19th century and was roundly criticized by his contemporaries (Sealander, 2003, p. 224). However, “the Gospel of Wealth” became the bible of progressive philanthropists, like Brackenridge. Carnegie’s influence on Brackenridge can be seen in the Texan’s views of philosophy of scientific philanthropy, the areas of philanthropic focus, and emphasis on creating an organized philanthropic movement.

 Carnegie’s scientific philanthropy drew heavily on ideas of social Darwinism and civic stewardship ideas which Brackenridge shared. Brackenridge was an avid reader who viewed himself as “primarily a man of thought” (Sibley, 2013, p.11). He supported Carnegie’s philosophical views. (Kelley & Scheer, 2004, p.82). On one the hand, they believed that the inequality between rich and poor was inevitable within a capitalist society. They endorsed Nietzsche’s nihilistic notion of the ubermensch(superman). Nihilists believe that a powerful and intellectual man had a right to accumulate large fortunes in unrestrained competition. The ubermensch(superman) gaining more wealth than others was only a social version of the “survival of the fittest”. On the other hand, scientific philanthropists broke from Nietzsche when they also claimed that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced”(Carnegie, 1889, p.664). They believed that a man who held great wealth held also the responsibility of using it for the betterment of humanity (Carnegie, 1889). Based on these philosophical ideas, Brackenridge carefully considered how to return his surplus wealth to the masses in a proper way that do them lasting good (Kelley & Scheer, 2004, p.15). In his view, his superiority entitled him to excess wealth which he was obliged to managed with his superior intellect when he gave the funds others.

Scientific philanthropy emphasized enlightened giving, the ethos was especially concerned about how to avoid destroying beneficiary’s individuality and self-reliant. Brackenridge expressed this fear to a friend in 1894:

By far the most difficult task undertaken by humanity is that of the proper distribution of Charity. The pleasure of giving is usually marred by the fear of …probable injury to the subjects relieved, by destroying their individuality and making them less self-reliant, to say little of the injury done the community by converting good citizens into mendicants (Terrell Papers, 1984). “

Brackenridge explained to his why he thought institutional benefactions, such as free libraries, public parks, and black schools were good choices for the whole society, echoing Carnegie’s recommendation to focus on enriching public goods (Terrell Papers, 1919, as cited by Sibley, 2013, p.165) ). As Sibley(2013, p.165)cites Brackenridge’s opinion when interviewed by the San Antonio express (1989): “the most important duty that a citizen has to perform is to protect the best interests of the rising generation by qualifying them to appreciate the true value of free institutions and give them the ability to maintain these institutions”. Carnegie (1889) believed creating public institutions maintained by the public kept the community engaged with the institutions. Both Carnegie and Brackenridge believed that allowing the public to maintain institutions was in the publics best interest. 

Scientific philanthropists preferred organized philanthropic movements to temporary and scattered alms giving. Foundations became a new philanthropic vehicle, to distribute accumulated great wealth people like Carnegie gained from laissez-faire economic conditions (Kelley & Scheer, 2004, p.15). Not long after Carnegie established his foundation, Brackenridge that a foundation was a more organized and rational distribution of his wealth than sporadic giving and could help achieve lasting public good. Five years after his death the Brackenridge Foundation was established in 1925, the first scientific philanthropic foundation in Texas (Sibley, 2013).

Introduction of Scientific Management to the University of Texas

Brackenridge demonstrated his commitment to the gospel of wealth through his managerial approach to donations to the University of Texas (UT). Although he did not attend UT he strongly believed in its mission and believed he knew the best management practices to achieve it (Neal, 1939). When Brackenridge first became a donor to the University, he used his experience as a banker to formalize the accounting of the university.  On 19 June 1889, he was appointed a member of the finance committee for the first time (Neal, 1939). By June 21, 1892 (Minutes of the Board, 1892). He created an itemized list of all transactions the university engaged in since its founding. This list became the basis for future accounting practices at the university. He continued his management of the university for the next 25 years (Franklin, 1921 as cited by Neal 1939). Objective financial management was part of scientific philanthropy and Brackenridge’s active approach to giving. 

Brackenridge used a gift of a large amount of land fundamentally alert how UT’s land use policies. He rarely gave money to the university without also asking for a shift in policies (Neal, 1939). His donated of four hundred acres of land to UT on the condition was no different. He gave the land on the condition that they manage all UT owned land in a way that would generate the most profit for them. Before his donation the university owned large tracks of land around the state but had very little understanding of the value of their holdings. Often fertile land with access to water was being rented for the cost of arid land that was unfit for agriculture. Brackenridge wanted UT to manage the land and not the state government (Sibley, 2013).  The university would have more interest in generating profit than the state. He wanted UT’s land management to be more motivated by nihilistic self-interest. He wanted to let UT compete for profit more directly by controlling its own land rather than have a disinterested state official manage it. Initially the state refused his request. In 1895 the Texas government begrudgingly accepted Brackenridge’s offer and agreed to Brackenridge’s reshaping of UT’s land management policies.

By the time Brackenridge died in 1920 government attitudes towards scientific philanthropy had shifted. The fight over George Brackenridge’s will demonstrated a growing acceptance of scientific philanthropy by the Texas legislature. Instead of treating Brackenridge’s money with suspicion the government of Texas and their public university were enthusiastic about receiving money and guidance from his will. When Brackenridge died his sister contested the will particularly the large sums given to UT (“Vincent Gives Testimony”, 1921). The university wished to accept the gift and fought to have the will executed. Court documents reveal the personal relationship between Brackenridge and the president of the University of Texas (Brackenridge v. Roberts and McIntyre, Tex. 1925). The president reported multiple stays of three days or more at Brackenridge’s home. During those stays Brackenridge would read him portions of the will and describe his views of UT practices and education. President Vincent reported that the philanthropist made clear he could alter his will at any time. His gift to the university was conditional lending additional weight to his requests for policy changes. This conditional gift appeared well received by the University. The president gave the funeral oration at Brackenridge’s death (“Vincent Gives Testimony”, 1921). The University of Texas enthusiastically supported receiving money and guidance from Brackenridge.  Brackenridge was able to use his influence to enact unpopular but progressive policies at The University of Texas. In his will one quarter of the sum he wished to donate for tuition was to go to African Americans and three quarters to Anglo Saxons Texans (Brackenridge v. Roberts and McIntyre, Tex. 1925). Given the unusual nature of this stipulation at this time, President Vincent asked Brackenridge to clarify what he meant by Anglo Saxon, he clarified saying he meant it “exactly what I said” (“Vincent Gives Testimony”, 1921). He wanted both groups to receive tuition support. He was responsible for a post reconstruction southern state subsidizing African American education. One can assume that this most southerners would not approve of a college fund African Americans. He made a similar push for women to be educated at the university (Neal, 1939). Educating women was deeply unpopular at the time. In 1891 Brackenridge was told that very few women attend the university because there were no living quarters. (Sibley, 2013). In response Brackenridge gave his largest cash gift to the university, $41,000 to build a women’s dorm. Although the construction of a women’s dorm did not dramatically increase the number of female students it did demonstrate a commitment to progressive ideals. Brackenridge was able to encourage racial and gender inclusion in an era where neither were popular in Texas.

Brackenridge’s Impact on Texas

Through his effective implementation of scientific philanthropy, Brackenridge helped Texas to become a place where philanthropic impact out lived the life of a philanthropist. His pioneering philanthropic activities and the promotion of scientific philanthropy in Texas created an exemplar for other affluent Texans to follow. His creation of the Brackenridge Foundation and donation to UT Austin were imitated by many affluent Texans. According to Kelley (2004, p23), “in the three decades following the creation of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation in 1920, donors established approximately 180 private, philanthropic institutions”. These charitable-minded organizations funded medical research, established educational scholarships, and supported community projects. Large statewide foundations and philanthropists followed Brackenridge’s example including George B. Dealey and the Dallas Foundation, Jesse Jones and the Houston Endowment, Miss Ima Hogg and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, and Amon G. Carter and the Amon G. Carter Foundation. Brackenridge created an early example of a foundation many Texas foundations choose to follow.

Brackenridge learned from Charles Stillman to act on the best ideas even when they are unpopular. Brackenridge acted on Andrew Carnegie’s ideas and made them popular enough to be impactful. His work at the University of Texas shifted attitudes towards scientific philanthropy. He showed that a single philanthropist could change policies at a major institution and have the legislature support him. Even after he died, he was able to impact the state by creating a foundation that provided an example for others to follow. Brackenridge ushered Texas into the age of scientific philanthropy.


Brackenridge v. Roberts and McIntyre, 270 S.W. 1001 (Tex. 1925)Bremner, R. H. (1956) “‘Scientific Philanthropy’ 1873-93”. Social Service Review, 30(2),: 168–173.

Bremner, R. H. (1988). American philanthropy (2nd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Carnegie, A. (1889). The Best Fields for Philanthropy. The North American Review, 149(397), 682-698. Retrieved from

Carnegie, A. (June, 1889). Wealth, North American Review, 148 653-664.

Franklin, Thomas H., “George W. Brackenridge”. Alcalde, VIII, March, 1921. 416. 

George Brackenridge to Alexander W. Terrell, 29 October 1894, Box 2H12, Alexander W. Terrell Papers, Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin.

George Brackenridge to Alexander W. Terrell, Oct.1,1919, Box 2H12, Alexander W. Terrell .Papers, Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin. Actually, we cannot find this letter in Box 2H12, but Sibley (2013, p.165) cited it.

Kelley, M. L., & Scheer, M. L. (2004). The Foundations of Texan Philanthropy. Texas A&M University Press.

Neal, B. S. (1939) George W. Brackenridge: Citizen and Philanthropist (Master’s Thesis)

No Author, The University Record, December, 1898. I, 36. University of Texas, Austin Texas.

San Antonio Express, 29 April, 1899 (as cited by Neal) 

San Antonio Express, 14 January 1912, p.12A. (as cited by Neal)

San Antonio Light (December 16, 1921) Vinson Gives Testimony to Support Will. San AntonioLight. Retrieved from:

San Antonio National Bank (1867), John Hopley to comptroller of Currency, NA, RG 101.

Sealander, J. “Curing Evils at Their Source: The Arrival of Scientific Giving”, In L. J. Friedman & M. D. McGarvie (Eds.), Charity, philanthropy, and civility in American history, Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 217–239.

Sibley, M. (1973). Charles Stillman: A Case Study of Entrepreneurship on the Rio Grande, 1861 – 1865. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 77(2), 227-240. Retrieved from

Sibley, M. M. (2013). George W. Brackenridge: Maverick Philanthropist. University of Texas Press. p.11; p.15-16; p.165.

Secretary of the Board of Regents. (1895) Minutes of the Regents, March 26. University of Texas, Austin Texas.

Secretary of the Board of Regents. (January 15, 1895) Minutes of the Regents, ,vlo. B,17. University of Texas, Austin Texas.

Secretary of the Board of Regents. Minutes of the Board, June 21, 1892, 317. University of Texas, Austin Texas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.