Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Social Legacies

The du Pont family stands out as having had a heritable social position. Dating back to France, Pierre Samuel du Pont Nemours (1739-1817), an economist and son of a watchmaker, was awarded a patent of nobility by Louis XVI and appointed France’s Inspector General of Commerce[1]. Notably, Pierre Samuel assisted in negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783) recognizing the United States’ independence from Great Britain, and fostered relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Pierre Samuel du Pont, not to be confused with his great-great-grandson and namesake, was the father of DuPont company founder Éleuthère Irénée.

Unlike most families, whose wealth can be attributed to a single founder and generation, three generations passed in the du Pont family before Pierre S du Pont and two cousins, great-grandsons of the founder, assembled levels of wealth of billionaire proportions. Providing an insider’s perspective to the du Pont family, J D Gates acknowledged “The du Ponts are frequently criticised for the lack of a major du Pont foundation to rival the ones of the Rockefellers, Fords, and Mellons.”[2] One of the cousins, Alfred Irénée (1865-1935), did, however, found the Nemours Foundation which ranks outside the Foundation Centre’s top 50 listed by total assets[3].

By contrast to Alfred I., his cousin’s philanthropy while living, are described as incalculable. “The son of a nephew once estimated that Pierre S du Pont [who passed away in 1954] gave away a billion dollars during his lifetime.” Moreover, Pierre S also gave over his time to civic institutions, most notably State education. This approach was the one advocated by Andrew Carnegie, whose Carnegie Corporation of New York, ranks alongside Bill and Melinda Gates, Foundation Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, J Paul Getty Trust, and the Walton Family Foundation.

The donation of infrastructure, as opposed to setting up a financial trust, is distinguished here as “community philanthropy” as distinct from “financial philanthropy. During his lifetime, Andrew Carnegie is credited as having provided both with the magnificence of funding the construction of more than 2,500 public libraries in his lifetime and donating an even greater number of organs to churches, despite abandoning his early Calvinist beliefs. Carnegie is also credited with designing a systems approach to unsolicited requests, that arrived by the bagful, for money.[4]

Sam Walton, whom like Carnegie would inherit the title of the world’s wealthiest person, made distinction between social and financial philanthropy. In his autobiography he stated that:

We feel very strongly that Wal-Mart is not, and should not, be in the charity business.  We don’t believe in taking a lot of money out of Wal-Mart’s cash registers and giving it to charity for the simple reason that any debit has to be passed onto somebody – either our shareholders or customers.[5]

During his lifetime, Henry Ford, who, to the surprise of many had environmental leanings, also expressed similar sentiments to Sam Walton. Ford, in his autobiography, wrote: “the purpose of a factory is to produce, and it ill serves the community in general unless it does produce to the utmost of its capacity.[6]  It was Henry Ford’s son Edsel who set up the Ford Foundation.

When Edsel Ford predeceased his father, the automobile pioneer used the Foundation to house the private ownership of the Ford Motor Company. Voting control, which continues to this day, was instilled in separate class of shares. Henry Ford II floated the company for public ownership and was the last family member to sit on the Foundation’s board until Henry Ford III’s election in 2019.[7] The divesture of the Ford Foundation’s shares in the Ford Motor Company came after Congress enacted legislation in 1969 to prevent charitable foundations being used as tax shelters.


[1] John D. Gates, The Du Pont Family: An Inside Look at One of America’s Most Fascinating and Private Dynasties (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc, 1979), 26-28.

[2] Gates John D, The du Pont Family (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1979), 352.

[3] Foundation Center. “Foundation Stats: Guide to the Foundation Center’s Research Database – Foundation Center,” (website), 2020, http://data.foundationcenter.org/#/foundations/all/nationwide/top:assets/list/2014.

[4] Burton J. Hendrick, The Life of Andrew Carnegie (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1933), 494.

[5] Sam Walton, and John Huey, Made in America: My Story (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 306.

[6] Henry Ford, My Life & Work (New York: Snowball Publishing, 2012), 75.

[7] “Ford Foundation Elects Henry Ford III to Board of Trustees,” (website), Ford Foundation, 2020, https://www.fordfoundation.org/the-latest/news/ford-foundation-elects-henry-ford-iii-to-board-of-trustees/.