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National crises such as September 11th and Hurricane Katrina resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of charitable generosity by Americans, which was encouraged by the government through tax incentives. This paper examines an earlier period of crisis, Tudor England (1485-1603), where the state encouraged philanthropy as a tool of social and political policy. Certain charitable activities were favored and others disadvantaged to spur private sector resources to resolve public problems.

The article discusses the evolution of the laws regulating the poor, which culminated in the Poor Law Legislation of 1601, a process that developed attitudes toward the poor and concepts of need and relief that remain with us today. The article focuses on the Statute of Charitable Uses, which was a part of the poor law legislative package that attempted to solve the problem of poverty. The Statute’s primary purpose was to provide a mechanism to make trustees accountable for the appropriate administration of charitable assets. The Statute’s subsequently far more famous Preamble, which created parameters for the definition of charitable, reflects the law of unintended consequences. A number of questions concerning the Statute are explored: why were some things included and others equally charitable, such as hospitals, not? Why does the wording of the Preamble paraphrase a part of the fourteenth century epic poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman? How did the Statute fit within the broader state effort to control the poor? What was the impact of the Statute on improving charitable accountability? Did the Statute encourage increased giving? Finally, is there anything we can glean from the Tudor experience of dealing with an economic and social crisis to apply to disaster relief assistance and philanthropic giving today?