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U.S. Volunteerism

Volunteerism In The Early Republic

Volunteerism, both public and private, played an important part in the American Revolution (Fischer, 1994; Bullock, 1996). Freemasonry, which embraced Enlightenment political and religious ideals, helped to consolidate the emergent revolutionary elite, while at the same time serving as a model for such radical organizations as the Sons of Liberty (Hammill, 1998). The voluntary religious activity that grew out of the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s helped to create political, social, and economic networks friendly to the cause of independence. Together these facilitated a loosening of ties between volunteerism and government. Early in the revolutionary struggle, many militias—military bodies nominally subject to the authority of civil government—were persuaded to volunteer their services to fight the British. After the battles at Lexington and Concord, local militias throughout New England defied local authorities and marched to Boston to join the revolutionary forces gathering in and around the city.

The centrality of volunteerism to the success of the American Revolution helped to kindle hostility toward it once independence was achieved. When veteran officers of the Continental Army organized the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783, its enemies viewed it as a covert effort to overthrow republican institutions and replace them with a hereditary aristocracy (Burke, 1784). In Federalist no.10, James Madison warned of the hazards that factions—by which he meant private political groups—posed to republican institutions. In the mid-1790s, when opponents of the new Federalist regime began organizing "democratic societies"—precursors of modern party organizations—President Washington warned against "self-created societies" intended to "subvert the Power of the People, and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust domination" (Washington, 1948).

The U.S. Constitution established conditions that made the growth of volunteerism inevitable. By mandating majoritarian decision-making while at the same time guaranteeing individual rights of expression, worship, and assembly, the Constitution posed an unresolvable tension between political equality and individual voice. Groups that did not prevail at the ballot box would be drawn to extragovernmental instruments—the press and voluntary associations—to advance their views and to work for victory in future elections.

Citizens of the early republic found themselves compelled to use voluntary associations, despite the uneasiness that they engendered. Because Americans feared government power, states and municipalities strictly limited the range of services they provided citizens. At the same time, the dismantling of religious establishments in the decades following the Revolution made volunteerism the central organizing principle of religious life throughout the nation. Like it or not, if Americans wanted to be educated, healed, entertained, politically represented, or provided with places of worship, they had to be willing to join with like-minded private citizens to pursue these ends.

The rise of voluntary action preceded the articulation of coherent ideas about the practice. The evangelical preacher Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), one of the first Americans to attempt to understand the role of volunteerism in institutional and political life, describes his plunge into promoting voluntary activity—in connection with early temperance efforts—as impulsive rather than deliberate. Only later, when he saw how powerful voluntary activity could be, did he begin to understand that the "voluntary system" could be used to organize all sorts of enterprises, from political reform movements, through schools, colleges, and religious crusades (Beecher, 1961). In the course of building his reputation as one of the nation's most influential evangelists, Beecher made the promotion of volunteerism one of the central themes of his efforts. For Beecher and his coreligionists, uncoerced voluntary action became an important source of moral and spiritual development for individuals and communities (Bacon, 1832; Mathews, 1969).

Beecher played a particularly important role in the development of American volunteerism. Concerned about growing numbers of unchurched and uneducated citizens, Beecher came to recognize that voluntary activity, literacy, and broadly shared public values were the precondition for religious conversion. Accordingly, he and his colleagues devoted their energies to secular reforms that could attract broad coalitions of citizens and citizen organizations such as temperance, antislavery, education, and the relief of poverty. Appealing to a broad rather than a sectarian public, Beecher not only helped teach countless numbers of Americans the skills of volunteerism, but also to overcome attitudes that had equated volunteerism with destructive factionalism.

By the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the late 1820s, private volunteerism was well on the way to becoming one of the most distinctive expressions of American democracy. Taking note of the temperance movement, he was quick to draw comparisons between European and American styles of civic action. "The first time I heard in the United States that a hundred thousand men had bound themselves publicly to abstain from spirituous liquors," he wrote,

it appeared to me more like a joke than a serious engagement, and I did not at once perceive why these temperate citizens did not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides. I at last understood that these hundred thousand Americans, alarmed by the progress of drunkenness around them, had made up their minds to patronize temperance. They acted in just the same way as a man of high rank who should dress very plainly in order to inspire the humbler orders with a contempt of luxury. It is probable that if these hundred thousand men had lived in France, each of them would singly have memorialized the government to watch the public houses all over the kingdom. (vol. 1, pp. 109–110)

Although he observed the importance of voluntary association as a counterpoise to the potential for majoritarian tyranny in democracies and to the hazards of overly powerful government, Tocqueville undoubtedly exaggerated the ubiquity of private volunteerism in the United States. Many states adopted laws that discouraged private philanthropy (in Mississippi, for example, it was illegal to establish charitable trusts until well into the twentieth century) and kept voluntary organizations under strict regulatory scrutiny (i.e., New York's Regents of the University of the State of New York, which oversaw the activities of all educational, charitable, cultural, and professional organizations) (Zollmann, 1924). Only in New England and the upper Midwest was private volunteerism allowed to flourish relatively unimpeded—and even there, prominent leaders like Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing and Baptist political economist Francis Wayland wrote widely circulated critiques of voluntary associations as posing dangers to republican government (Channing, 1900; Wayland, 1838).

In the antebellum era, voluntary associations began to play crucial roles in empowering Americans who, because of gender, race, or ethnicity, were disenfranchised. By the late eighteenth century, as whites began excluding free blacks from their congregations, black religious leaders organized their own churches. Women, generally barred from full economic and political participation, carved out a "separate sphere" of civic activism, using voluntary associations to expand their traditional domestic helping and caring roles to the dependent, disabled, unchurched, and uneducated (Scott, 1991). Immigrant associations helped those newly arrived from Europe to find economic opportunities, show their political muscle, and meet their needs in times of distress.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismU.S. Volunteerism - Volunteerism In Colonial America, Volunteerism In The Early Republic, Volunteerism During And After The Civil War