Building Community Top-Down or Bottom-Up? America's Voluntary Groups Thrive in a National Network

By Skocpol, Theda | Brookings Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Building Community Top-Down or Bottom-Up? America's Voluntary Groups Thrive in a National Network


Skocpol, Theda, Brookings Review


Many conservatives tend to blame the rise of big government over the course of the 20th century for the decline of American civil society. Convinced that once upon a time voluntary groups flourished within "self-contained" local communities, they often cite Alexis de Tocqueville in support of the notion that in the early days of the American republic local voluntary groups prospered apart from politics or government above the local level. In reality, however, the great Frenchman's Democracy in America repeatedly highlights the ways in which America's nascent electoral democracy promoted all sorts of voluntary associations. And recent research by historians underscores the enduring importance of the U.S. federal government in promoting a vibrant civil society.

VOLUNTARY GROUPS AND NATIONAL GOVERNMENT

Between the establishment of the Constitution and the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville made his famous visit to our country, the fledgling United States enfranchised most free men and established competitive elections for state and national offices. As Richard Brown has shown, the Revolutionary War and subsequent electoral politics stimulated the formation of new voluntary groups in small villages and towns that otherwise might not have developed such groups. Recently, the historian Richard John has documented that the early republic developed an extraordinarily extensive and administratively efficient national postal system, encompassing even the remotest frontier hamlets. Much bigger than the postal systems of the bureaucratic European monarchies of that time, the U.S. postal system created a network of communication and stagecoach transportation that facilitated commerce, subsidized the dissemination of countless newspapers, stimulated popular political participation, and encouraged the activities of thousands of local and extralocal voluntary associations. One early reform association, the General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath, took advantage of the mail system to organize a nationwide movement to demand the closing of post offices on Sunday! Temperance crusades and antislavery movements also spread their messages through the mail. In short, a strong and effective national state and a democratic civil society grew up together in early America.

Scholars have documented that the formation of voluntary groups in America came in major bursts. One took place before the Civil War, from the 1820s to the 1840s; others came after the Civil War, from the 1870s through the the turn of the 20th century, and during the 1930s. Waves of voluntary group formation got under way during periods of intense political party mobilization and highly competitive national elections. The waves also coincided with periods of national cultural and political debate - focused before the Civil War on issues of morality and slavery and afterward on responses to industrialization and economic crises.

As part of a Civic Engagement Project at Harvard, my colleagues and I are assembling data on the emergence and growth of large voluntary associations in America. So far we have identified 55 "extensive associations" - defined as those that have enrolled 1 percent or more of American adults at any point between 1790 and the present. These groups too were founded in waves that roughly coincided with the more general bursts of activity in voluntary group formation documented by other scholars.

Although the project has just begun developing a detailed "life history" of each of these 55 groups, already it is obvious that many groups launched during the 1800s survived and flourished into the 20th century. In fact, more than four-fifths of all extensive associations ever founded still exist today. As U.S. politics became more nationally focused around the Civil War, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War, the voluntary associations did not wither away. On the contrary, many established ones added new local and state units, recruited more individual members, and branched into new activities. …

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