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A NATION OF ORGANIZERS AND JOINERS Theda Skocpol USW 31, October 15, 2012 Theda Skocpol

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Text of A NATION OF ORGANIZERS AND JOINERS Theda Skocpol USW 31, October 15, 2012 Theda Skocpol


    Theda Skocpol

    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, face-to-face groups.

    Voluntary membership federations were typically launched as national projects.

    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.


  • 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 launched.

    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.


  • 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 II.

  • 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 side.

  • 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, Ireland.

  • 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 clubs.

  • 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.


    Independent Order of Odd Fellows

    Friendship, Love, Truth

    Grand United Order of Odd Fellows

    Friendship, Love, Truth

    (African American)

    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 each year.

    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 responsibilities.

    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 affairs.

  • Voluntary Associations and U.S. Social PoliciesGrand Army of the Republic

    WCTU; General Federation of Womens Clubs; National Congress of Mothers (PTA)

    Grange, Farm Bureau, and other farmers associations

    Trade unions

    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

    Social Security

    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?