A History of Civic Engagement of Older People

By Achenbaum, W. Andrew | Generations, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

A History of Civic Engagement of Older People


Achenbaum, W. Andrew, Generations


Roots in American tradition.

From the very beginrung our people have markedly combined practical capacity for affairs with power of devotion to an ideal," declared Theodore Roosevelt (1902, p.17). The lack of either quality would have rendered the possession of the other of small value." This president was a central figure in the Progressive movement, which sought to institutionalize public-private partnerships to remedy social problems caused by modernization. Roosevelt's pragmatic, idealist strategy has deep historical roots, grounded in at least three American traditions - (1) forming voluntary associations, (2) mobilizing political activism, and (3) advancing adult education. Let us examine the historical dynamics of each tradition in turn.

Voluntary Associations

Alexis de Tocqueville, arguably the most astute observer ever to gaze upon the American scene, declared in Democracy in America (1836) that people in this country surpassed those in all other nations in their proclivity for creating voluntary associations in order to accomplish pragmatic, idealistic, public goals:

Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and countries, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals . . . There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society. (Volume I, pp. 198-9)

Voluntary associations, de Tocqueville discovered, often collaborated with public institutions; together they built tollways, for instance. Sometimes private organizations acted boldly to transform the body politic- they created employment opportunities for blacks after Reconstruction, something officials in the public sector resisted. At other times Americans joined together in voluntary associations to accomplish short-term objectives; once done, they disbanded. Still other agencies, like the Salvation Army, became national institutions, stretching to serve more and more needy people.

Alexis de Tocqueville's critique of voluntary associations, written in the heyday of Jacksonian America, was not just a reflection ofthat era. Voluntary associations flourished throughout U.S. history Colonists in seaport cities financed homes for orphans and for widows; private charities supplemented county almshouses that sheltered local residents in permanent or temporary need (Trattner, 1994). An orator at groundbreaking ceremonies for a new canal in Ohio in 1825 stressed the intergenerational dimensions of certain ventures. Building a canal, however arduous, was essential to the region's economic development. Fortunately, the orator opined, the necessary resources were available: "all the vigor and firmness of youth, the strength and firmness of manhood, and the wisdom of age . . . your powers are equal to its completion" (quoted in Achenbaum, 1978, p.9).

After the Civil War, as the United States became more urban and industrial, voluntary associations empowered individuals to apply their talents through social service agencies. Religious congregations and secular institutions helped immigrants to learn English and skills essential for assimilation. Older people were instrumental in starting such voluntary associations. Consider Felix Adler, who headed the New York Society for Ethical Culture until his death at 82; Adler solicited the support of his adherents to sponsor visiting nurses (a program later added to the city's public health system) and a free kindergarten for the children of working parents.

Voluntary associations remain vital today. Their purposes are diverse. For more than seven decades Alcoholics Anonymous has used the stories and guidance of people over 50 to reach those who wish to remain sober and become more productive members of society. Some voluntary associations raise funds for science. To wit: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 established the March of Dimes as a "national health charity" to support the investigations of virologists and polio researchers; the organization presently underwrites neonatal intensive care and folic-acid education. …

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