Friday, August 21, 2009

Questionable associations

Creating a Nation of Joiners, Johann Neem reveals the nation's often overlooked love-hate relationship with voluntary organizations

The following review was posted yesterday in the book section at the History News Network.

From publication of the first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in 1835 to that of Robert Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone in 2000, Americans have
long been understood to be, in the memorable 1944 words of Arthur Schlesinger, “the world’s greatest example of joiners.” Tocqueville and Schlesinger celebrated this national trait; Putnam feared its disappearance. But these three observers and others took for granted it was a good thing.

Johann Neem doesn’t necessarily disagree. But in Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts, he shows that all these figures reflect a longstanding collective amnesia about U.S. history. Americans, he says, became a nation of joiners in fits and starts, with a good deal of anxiety on the p
art of players in the political system. And the fears they had stemmed from concerns that were, and are, by no means trivial.

Neem begins his story in the wake of the American Revolution. The Federalists who dominated both Massachusetts and national politics understood themselves as representatives of a new people who constituted themselves in protest against a corrupt British empire. Since the new government was the embodiment of the state, any group that sought to advance a parochial intere
st was, by definition, against the people, an idea that got strengthened in the wake of the Shays and Whiskey Rebellions of the 1780s and 90s.

The idea of government-as-people continued to be challenged in this period, albeit in less violent ways. Opposition to the Federalist regime in Massachusetts took the form of political clubs an
d other kinds of organizations, gathering momentum as Jeffersonian Republicans toward came to power nationally circa 1800. Once they did so in Massachusetts, Federalists effectively made a U-turn, opportunism most obvious in the attempt to relocate control of Harvard College, at the time a public institution, away from elected officials. In the decades that followed, Harvard, along with newer colleges like Williams and Bowdoin, became political footballs as politicians, alumni, and ministers jockeyed for power over them.

One might think that self-interest would have led the Republicans, and their Democratic successors, to embrace the chartering of government-sponsored organizations like banks, bridge companies, and other organizations. And to some degree, this was true. But suspicion of concentrated power was a core tenet of the Jeffersonian tradition, and not one that yielded easily to the often confusing exigencies of antebellum politics. Indeed, many Democrats viewed the new party of Andrew Jackson as the locus of public will; all else was in effect a special interest. This was true even as grassroots organizations sprang up in Massachusetts and elsewhere to promote causes that ranged from Antimasonry to sabbatarianism (and, later, temperance and abolition). Democratic partisans were not necessarily hostile to the goals of these movements, but were often skeptical, if not explicitly opposed, to their increasingly effective organizational acumen.

Which is not to say that Whigs were necessarily happy with such associations, either. To the extent that they made their peace with non-government organizations – which, ultimately, they did with more intellectual clarity and operational cohesion than Democrats – they were avowed elitists who explicitly tried to build in electoral circuit breakers in the form of civic boards, credentialing systems, and other methods of constraining majoritarian electoral tyranny. An excellent case study, limned by Neem, is the career of Horace Mann, who tried to overcome the localism and political intervention endemic to public education to fashion a proto-Progressive teaching profession marked by state-wide standards and insulation from political patronage.

The success of such efforts, in turn, prompted some Democrats to make the somewhat counter-intuitive position that U.S. society needed more, not less, chartered corporations and other bodies to create competition and check the growth of concentrated power represented by figures such as Mann. (Such logic, rightly attributed to the Anti-Federalist Elbridge Gerry, calls to mind that of James Madison in the Federalist #10, which, curiously, goes unmentioned here.)

By the end of the antebellum era, voluntary associations were here to stay, much as political operatives may have loathed them (which both parties certainly did in the case of Garrisonian abolitionists). But while a durable consensus took root about the legitimacy of activities that ranged from public-interest lobbying to commercial incorporation, the tensions first grappled with in the early national era remain with us still. Indeed, it has been remarkable to see how partisans of the left who mobilized in favor of Barack Obama last year have been wringing their hands over protests on the right over health care legislation this year. Clearly – or, more accurately, not-so-clearly – one man’s grassroots organizing is another woman’s astro-turfing.

Creating a Nation of Joiners
is an example of the publishing-industry beleaguered genre of the academic monograph at its best. (In a spirit of disclosure, I will mention that the book is dedicated in part to my father in law, Professor Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University, a fact that biases me in its favor, but which I did not realize when I embarked on the review.) Exhaustively researched and yet tightly focused, it is a notably resonant piece of scholarship.

I will say that I might have liked to see a bit more in the way of context. While Neem is nimble in navigating the complex ecclesiastical terrain of New England – particularly in his discussion on the strange bedfellows of evangelical-minded Democrats and Orthodox Congregationalists, who teamed up to disestablish religion in Massachusetts – I found myself wondering if or how the political fault lines he describes had their origins in the separating/non-separating tensions in seventeenth century Puritan churches. And while I understand his decision not to trace the well-known emergence of the Second Party System of the early nineteenth century, I wished I had a better sense of the degree to which Massachusetts politics reflected or diverged from the nation as a whole. (Were Democrats really as strong there as they were in New York or Tennessee, for example?) But these are minor reservations in what is an elegantly conceived and executed book.