With the passing of Richard Gilder (1932–2020), conservatism, New York City, and American history, in order of ascending importance, lose a great benefactor.
Dick was a leader in the Club for Growth, which identified and supported conservative candidates, particularly those of a free-market bent, though they were open to casting a wider net. In the 1992 cycle I dropped in on one of their candidate auditions for, of all people, Bill Clinton (this was at the height of conservative disaffection from elder Bush, for having broken his no-new-taxes pledge). After Clinton left, I asked one of the Growthers what impression he had made. Came the answer: “a friendly socialist.”
Adding to the national political conversation was important, but dozens of other groups do that. Dick made a unique contribution to the politics and life of New York City. He was the guiding light of the Manhattan Institute, the think tank that proposed to give conservative answers to urban problems rather than, as Barry Goldwater notoriously said of New York, sawing it off and letting it float out to sea. Its publicizing of practical solutions to educational and social misspending, and especially to rampant crime, seeded the mayoralties of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, which, whatever the many flaws of those men, saved New York from dysfunction. At the same time Dick was more than a local political force: He helped found the Central Park Conservancy and gave generously to the Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society. Public spaces and great institutions benefited from his touch.
But perhaps the most vital of his efforts was his founding and patronage, along with his friend Lewis Lehrman, of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (Dick majored in history at Yale, class of ’54). It began as a collection of historic documents, amounting eventually to tens of thousands of items. But Dick and Lew early on decided to make these available to teachers and students. This outreach became a program of courses for teachers (specializing in the Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War), classroom materials, and specialized history programs at thousands of middle and high schools nationwide.
The effect has been huge. Coming at a time when the titans of American history at the college level — Bernard Bailyn, Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, Joseph Ellis — have died or retired, it has refreshed the discipline from the bottom up. Instead of wringing their hands about noxious fads and fashions, they offered an alternative. Dick and Lew believed that good stories beat bad ones; the good stories only had to be told. They were recognized officially by receiving the National Medal for the Humanities in 2005; they have been recognized, personally and fervently, by the many thousands of teachers and students they have helped, instructed, and inspired.
Dick was a fifth-generation New Yorker. He made his money on Wall Street. He was given to long, late bursts of work, snacking on pizza. He had a lovely, shy smile.
In their old-age correspondence, Thomas Jefferson told John Adams he hoped that when they died they would rejoin their colleagues of the Continental Congress to be told, well done, good and faithful servants. May Dick be there to hear from them (and explain to them) what they were all up to. R.I.P.