Why Early American Fears about Civil Society Still Matter

Editors’ Note: Kevin Butterfield continues HistPhil’s forum on “uncivil civil society.”

Historians and social scientists studying the civil society of the early United States have rediscovered fears and anxieties within the much-celebrated notion of Americans as a “nation of joiners.” The emerging world of mutual aid organizations, reform societies, political clubs, and voluntary associations of all shapes, sizes, and purposes that would be lauded by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, and that Americans have proudly looked to as a source of the nation’s greatness and freedom, on closer inspection now reveals a more ambivalent legacy. A consensus among historians points to a paradox—to the ways in which fear and uncertainty about the dangers of nearly all kinds of private clubs and societies remained widespread even as more and more Americans formed and joined such organizations. Elisabeth Clemens, for example, in her 2020 book drew on this recent scholarship to describe how, in the post-Revolutionary moment, just about all “the organizing links between citizens and polity” were widely “seen as threats to individual liberty and the foundational values of the republic.”

Why did anxiety accompany the rise of associationalism? And were those anxieties well-founded? The powerful language that George Washington used in his 1796 Farewell Address, when he declared that “combinations or associations” may turn out to be “potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people,” is memorable, historically interesting, and often quoted. But the conceptual underpinnings of why that idea held purchase in the early American republic are less widely appreciated and are worth exploring today, for they point us to a still-vibrant tension between individual autonomy and collective action that can be all too easily missed in the celebration of diverse, grassroots political organization as the very cornerstone of a functioning political order.

A few distinct critiques arose in the face of the growing numbers of voluntary associations in the early American republic. For some, such groups were destructive of that most precious of things: the unity of the people in pursuit of the common good. Even in American republican states riddled with exclusions based on race and gender, it was a widely held notion among the political leadership that a singular public good could be known and pursued by the citizenry. Private organizations advocating for a particular definition of the public good were therefore eyed with suspicion.

Others saw specific organizations—the Society of the Cincinnati in the 1780s, or the Freemasons a generation later—as elitist threats in the midst of an uncertain transition from a hierarchical world to a more flattened, democratic one. There were concerns, too, about how privately organized groups could possibly claim to speak for “the people” when there were now popularly elected, representative bodies doing so. Federalist opposition to the Democratic-Republican Societies of the 1790s, for example, centered on that concern. And objections to those political societies were not simply, or even primarily, about their particular politics. Men like Washington applied the same objections to conservative as well as radical associations. “They are a kind of emperium emperio,” Washington advised his nephew Bushrod when he naively pitched his uncle a club for discussing political issues, “and as often clog, as facilitate public measures.” The irony, of course, is that the city named for Washington now has literally thousands of such organizations, all seeking to help shape public policy.

The fate of those fears is itself a fascinating story, as they were often eclipsed by the celebration of American voluntarism found in the works of observers like Tocqueville. Scholars working during and immediately following the Cold War, for instance, often explicitly citing Tocqueville for inspiration, downplayed or ignored some of the anxieties found in the historical record, portraying such fears as misguided or, at the least, antiquated and uninformed. A vibrant civil society is one with lots of associations, such scholars opined, and they should even compete with one another in pursuit of their own visions and ideas of the public good.

One particular post-Revolutionary concern about associations has become especially shrouded in time but it is profoundly relevant today: the idea that, as David Osgood declared in 1794, “the moment a man is attached to a club, his mind is not free.” Though they had the example of the French Jacobin clubs in mind, Osgood and many others worried that such societies were more than just an organized threat to the polity. They were a danger to their own members. Joiners lost the ability to function independently, autonomously, as citizens. The ranks they joined served to limit their freedom of thought.

This was a genuine, widely held, and long-lived concern, one renewed throughout the period and a focus of my own work. I discovered that these fears about threats to personal autonomy emerged especially powerfully in the 1830s. That was when temperance and antislavery societies were each asking for pledged commitments to the cause, ones that some people—overwhelmingly, people who themselves did not drink excessively and were opposed to slavery—saw as dangerous in the same terms that Osgood had laid out. A Baptist minister named Baron Stow in 1837 saw those associations as requiring “the unconditional surrender of the conscience.” By joining clubs that demanded sworn allegiance, “Personal independence is crippled, and the inward man is subjected to a species of control not far removed from despotism.”[1] The much more famous William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian minister and public intellectual, had similarly declared in 1829 that “there is cause to fear and to withstand great associations, as far as they interfere with, or restrain, individual action, personal independence, private judgment, free, self-originated effort.”

What appears again and again in post-Revolutionary critiques of voluntary association is an emphasis on the ideal of the autonomous, persuadable citizen. These are powerful ideas still today, across the political spectrum. An anti-elitism found on the right often centers upon an ethos of libertarianism and, more recently, on calls for individuals to “do their own research” rather than defer to expertise. Fears on the left are more similar than different: there, we see anxieties about Americans on the right having walled themselves off from reality, within their own associational bubbles of (mis)information, unable or unwilling to confront truths they find uncomfortable.

In the early American fears of civil society we discover, at their core, an anxiety that still resonates: the concern that private organizations might undermine individual, civic autonomy. It is easy to dismiss as ridiculous the nondrinkers in Russia, New York, who in 1830 voted down the idea of forming a temperance society because they preferred that people give up alcohol “from the judicious reflection and independent resolutions of individuals,” “uninfluenced by the coercion” of a formalized association.[2] But when you understand that concern as a grassroots manifestation of this larger Revolutionary project to prioritize “private judgment,” in Channing’s phrase, it makes more sense.

In the early American republic, being white and male increasingly came to be seen as necessary attributes of a politically empowered citizen. But those characteristics were by no means sufficient—at least not if that citizenry was expected to govern itself well. Citizens must also be informed, and—just as important—they must nurture and protect their own ability to be persuaded by argument. They must be able to take in new information and to react to it in accordance with their own conscience and common sense. Such concerns accompanied other preoccupations in the early republic, ones deeply entangled with enslavement and racial hierarchy, such as Jefferson’s insistence that landowning, yeoman farmers were essential to the future of the republic, precisely because they were independent. But what I’m describing here was a distinct motif in early American political thought. The fear, essentially, was that citizens should never put at risk their ability to think and to act independently.

The anxiety with which many Americans in the early decades of the republic witnessed the rise of the voluntary association brings that particular concern to the fore. The specifics of those concerns can seem misguided or even a little strange: twenty-first-century Americans, to be sure, seem to display little fear that pledges or oaths taken in private organizations will forever constrain the conscience and independence of their fellow citizens. The rantings of Anti-Masons in the 1820s and 1830s about the blood-curdling oaths taken by some of their fellow citizens would certainly not be enough to form a successful political party today, as it did back then.

And yet we can detect similar anxieties in our own moment. Many Americans see little reason for optimism that their fellow citizens who stormed the Capitol to halt Congress on January 6, 2021, are persuadable and open to reasoned arguments. It may seem that such people are bound together in ways that outdo anything contained in the constitutions, bylaws, and even the oaths of allegiance that so worried many post-Revolutionary and antebellum Americans. They live in their own reality. As more and more Americans are “caught up in fabulations immune to reasoned refutation,” in the words of Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum in their recent study of conspiracy theory, there are strong indicators that shared grounds of understanding in the American political sphere are being lost. For their part, Americans on the right see a similar closed loop between media communication and progressive political thought, with the assumption that those on the left will never see what those on the right consider to be reasoned analysis.

The extent to which political identities are being increasingly hardened by an “us versus them” mentality—and the dangers that such dynamics pose to one’s ability to participate with reasoned judgment and with open ears and an open mind in a dialogue with fellow citizens—is an undeniably important aspect of our politics today. The rediscovery of early American concerns about voluntary associations can help us better understand why, exactly, this matters so much. Citizens were to be active, participating, and engaged. They must be open to persuasion, free from impediments that might keep them from exercising their own judgment. The post-Revolutionary concerns that historians have recently rediscovered remind us to take seriously the idea that privately formed, politically active associations could do real damage to a self-governing people, not through the fire and blood of a coup d’état but, much more subversively, by striking at the fundamental unit of democracy, the individual’s ability to think and act freely. The early American fear that groups within the republic might inadvertently sap or even deliberately usurp the private and autonomous will of individual citizens is, I think, more than a historical curiosity. It was part of a larger republican project to protect civic life.

-Kevin Butterfield

Kevin Butterfield is Executive Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. He is the author of The Making of Tocqueville’s America: Law and Association in the Early United States (Chicago, 2015).

[1] Baron Stow, Voluntary Associations—Their Use and Abuse: Discourse Delivered in the Meeting House of the Second Baptist Society, in Baldwin Place, Thanksgiving-Day, November 30, 1837 (Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1837), 19-20.

[2] Oneida Observer, Feb. 23, 1830.

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