A NATION OF ORGANIZERS AND JOINERS
USW 31, October 15, 2012Theda Skocpol
Conventional wisdom: Before the modern age, American life was
characterized by both its self-containment and its cohesiveness.
Individuals were closely bound to one another by strong families,
tightly knit neighborhoods, and active voluntary and fraternal
groups. Through these small, local, human-scale associations,
Americans not only achieved a sense of belonging and connectedness
but also tackled the full range of social and human problems that
today have largely become the province of government.-- Michael
Joyce and William Schambra, A New Civic Life, 1996
But the conventional wisdom is wrong. Popular voluntary
associations developed as translocal networks, not just local,
Voluntary membership federations were typically launched as
By the late 19th century, and during the first two thirds of the
20th century, most locally present clubs, lodges, union locals, and
veterans posts were parts of federated organizations.
FOUNDINGS AND CUMULATIVE INCIDENCE OF VERY LARGE U.S. MEMBERSHIP
U.S. voluntary associations developed in close relationship to
representative government.The U.S. state and Constitution were
themselves voluntary creations -- and encouraged bursts of
association-building in the new nation.
Early U.S. Postal Service fostered and subsidized communication
and transportation, into even the most remote areas. Made it easy
for political parties and social movements to organize.
The Bill of Rights guaranteed citizens freedom to organize, and
separated churches from the state. Religious movements had to
compete to attract and hold followers.
Americans could build membership associations organized
representatively, like government, and inspired by moral values
borrowed from religion -- but without fear of dominance by either a
state bureaucracy or an official church.
Associations often took the form of local-state-national
federations, just like the U.S. government.
Voluntary associations adopted the local-state-national U.S.
constitutional form of organization for two reasons:
Federated associations could influence individuals and local
communities, and also press the case for new legislation at the
state and national level.
Even associations that stayed out of politics -- like the Odd
Fellows and many other social or ritual groups -- discovered that
imitating the arrangements of U.S. Constitutional government was a
very good way to organize a far-flung association in a
fast-expanding nation, with people always on the move.
Scholars have debated the impact of economic modernization on
the growth of U.S. associations. Throughout U.S. history, however,
big wars have had as much or more impact -- especially the Civil
War, World War I, and World War II.In each great war, national
authorities needed partnerships with voluntary organizations to
mobilize people and material resources to fight the war.
Right after the Civil War, pre-existing associations expanded
their memberships. And many new eventually large associations were
White Northerners and African Americans launched most of the
newly created groups, and memberships in such voluntary federations
swelled in the post-Civil War era.
FOUNDINGS AND CUMULATIVE INCIDENCE OF VERY LARGE U.S. MEMBERSHIP
World War I drew most voluntary associations into partnerships
with the federal government to support the military draft, provide
assistance to the troops, conserve food, sell Liberty Bonds, and
encourage economic production.
Groups closely tied to World War I efforts flourished.
The federations that worked on the national war effort were the
most likely to ride out the Great Depression and survive to join as
partners in the next great national mobilization for World War
WHAT DIFFERENCE DID MEMBERSHIP IN FEDERATIONS MAKE FOR ORDINARY
AMERICANS? Opportunities for fun and recreation -- not just regular
gatherings with neighbors and friends near home, but travel to
district get-togethers, and state and national conventions. Local
chapters often covered travel expenses -- by the mile or the day --
to send their representatives to state and national meetings.
District, state, and national meetings were eagerly anticipated in
advance -- and discussed back home long after the fact.
Participation in federations brought a sense of pride and
identification with a broad community. Millions of members of
lodges, unions, and other groups wore colorful badges to celebrate
their participation in classic voluntary federations. Badges had
the symbols and slogans of the national group, and indicated the
name and number of the local affiliate along with the city and
state where it met.
Here is a KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS badge for Freedom Lodge Number 24
of Freedom, Maine.
Most badges had two sides. A front for festive occasions, and a
black and silver side on the reverse to be worn for funerals.
This is the funeral side of the badge for the Freedom, Maine
KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS, the back of the badge we just saw on the front
Union members had ribbon badges with symbols of their trades.
Here are two nice examples: -- from the William Penn Lodge of the
BROTHERHOOD OF RAILROAD TRAINMEN in Reading, PA; -- and from the
HOD CARRIERS Local Union in Allentown, PA.
This ribbon badge belonged to a woman, a member of the ROYAL
NEIGHBORS OR AMERICA, Myrel Camp Number 1644 if Terril, Iowa. This
was a chapter of an entirely female-led fraternal group, operating
in partnership with the Modern Woodmen of America.
This ribbon badge is from Division Number 9 of the ANCIENT ORDER
OF HIBERNIANS of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Like many ethnic
badges, it displays the U.S. flag crossed with the flag of the
country from which the immigrants came -- in this case,
People proudly proclaimed their associational memberships in
death as well as life.
Because federations were translocal as well as local, members
had a ready-made community wherever they went -- as this sign
welcoming sojourning Odd Fellows to Muncie, Indiana shows.
Federated associations institutionalized mutual aid within and
across communities and states. A few of the largest fraternal
groups, and many smaller ones -- like the Knights and Ladies of
Security -- featured social insurance programs to help breadwinners
care for their families if they died or became disabled.
Ritualism was certainly part of the appeal of many classic
groups. As in the Knights of the Maccabees, members might dress in
costumes and perform ceremonies.
Federations offered local groups stability and connections to
wider identities, values, and ideas.In the 1890s, a womens club
leader in the state of Nebraska explained to Jennie June Croly,
author of The History of the Womens Club Movement in America (1898)
why participation in state and national federated bodies meant a
lot to local groups in her state: There are now seventy clubs in
the Nebraska State Federation, and applications for membership
constantly arriving. To fully understand what State federation has
done, it is well to consider that more than two-thirds of the clubs
now auxiliary to it were coexistent with it, and would never have
been formed at all but for the permanence of organization and wider
range of thought which union with it and the General Federation [at
the national level] promised. In one town of about fifteen hundred
inhabitants there had been no literary organization of any kind for
ten years previous to the movement. The same is true of many other
towns on these prairies, each with its quotient of intelligent,
well-educated people, transplanted from the cultured atmosphere of
the older States, who had become discouraged by the difficulties of
their environment, but who are now developing State pride, and are
enthusiastically alive to all the privileges of federated
The topics covered by the women of the Progressive Study Club in
just four months of a typical year ranged from the frivolous to the
world-historical, from the concerns of homemakers to issues of
state, national, and international public import.
VOLUNTARY FEDERATIONS ALSO CONTRIBUTED TO THE VITALITY OF
AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AND GOVERNANCE:More than half of very large U.S.
membership associations were directly involved in war mobilizations
or politics. Federations were especially likely to try to shape
public opinion and lobby for legislation.
Even membership federations that were not politically engaged
championed values of good citizenship, patriotism, brotherhood and
sisterhood, and community.
VIRTUES CELEBRATED BY AMERICAN FRATERNAL ORDERS
Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Friendship, Love, Truth
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows
Friendship, Love, Truth
Improved Order of Red Men
Freedom, Friendship, Charity
Ancient Order of Hibernians
Friendship, Unity, True Christian Charity
German Order of Harugari
Friendship, Love, Humanity
Independent Order of Good Templars
Faith, Hope, Charity
Knights of Pythias
Friendship, Charity, Benevolence
Knights of Pythias of North America,
Friendship, Charity, Benevolence
South America, Europe, Asia,
and Africa (African American)
Benevolent and Protective Order
Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love, Fidelity
Order of Elks
Knights of Columbus
Unity, Charity, Brotherly Love
Fraternal Order of Eagles
Liberty, Truth, Justice, Equality
Local, state, and national units of voluntary federations
required new complements of officers every year. Individuals moved
through a succession of officers, but new ones got on the ladder
In every local club or lodge, there were about 6 to 12 elected
officers and appointed committee leaders. Each year, millions of
Americans every learned skills and took leadership
For example, 17,000 Odd Fellows lodges around 1910 required more
than 200,000 officers.
More than 3% of U.S. adults were officers in just the very
largest U.S. membership groups c. 1955.
Because they established two-way streets between local groups
and higher-level leaders, federations could draw members into
politics, and give their members clout in state and national
Voluntary Associations and U.S. Social PoliciesGrand Army of the
WCTU; General Federation of Womens Clubs; National Congress of
Grange, Farm Bureau, and other farmers associations
Townsend movement; Eagles
American Legion; VFWCivil War pensions; soldiers homes
Mothers pensions; Sheppard-Towner Act
National and state programs for farmers
Labor laws; social insurance
GI Bill of 1944 and other veterans benefits
From the 1910s on, the FRATERNAL ORDER OF EAGLES championed
public social provision -- mothers pensions, workmens compensation,
old-age pensions and, finally, Social Security. They mobilized
members to press legislators to enact these programs, and then
supported and helped to explain them to many citizens.
The American Legion -- hardly a liberal association -- led the
way in drafting and lobbying for one of the most generous pieces of
social legislation in U.S. history: the GI Bill of 1944, which
offered education benefits, family allowances, and home, business,
and farm loans to some 16 million veterans of World War II.
In sum:American voluntary membership associations of the kind
that impressed Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord James Bryce, and many
modern observers, were NEVER primarily local, non-political, or
separate from government. They grew and flourished in close
relationship to representative, federally organized government in
the United States -- and often cooperated with government in times
of war and peace.
Popularly rooted voluntary federations were not the only U.S.
associations. Business and professional groups also proliferated,
especially during the twentieth century.But popular voluntary
federations, large and small, shaped civic life for ordinary people
from the early 19th century through the 1950s and 1960s. They also
enshrined a style of leadership that emphasized organizing large
numbers of fellow citizens and doing things WITH them.Federated
organization and mass-mobilizing leadership were typical of both
classic U.S. political parties and voluntary groups. But mass
parties weakened over the course of the 20th century, while
old-line popular federations continued to flourish.
Next time: Decline of membership based voluntary associations
after the 1960s, and rise of professionally managed advocacy
associations and nonprofit institutions instead. What happened, why
did it happen -- and what difference does it make for U.S. civil
society and democracy?