Voluntary and Civic Associations

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Voluntary associations are groups of people who organize themselves into bodies of a quasiparliamentary character in which the members elect the leaders and vote democratically to adopt resolutions and take actions. They were rare in the colonial era although tolerated in the case of dissenting churches and encouraged when they provided charitable services and mutual aid. Still, many lacked official sanction and their legality was seriously questioned during the Revolutionary period. Despite the notoriety of political clubs in the 1790s, voluntary associations would gain legitimacy, particularly after 1800. By 1829 thousands of voluntary associations were performing a variety of benevolent, missionary, and reform services in all the states.

colonial and revolutionary america

The most common voluntary associations were churches, although most colonies supported an established church with taxes. Boston had a neighborhood association to fight fires, which became the model for similar clubs in other cities. A small number of mutual aid societies, the most predominant being the Freemasonry lodges, began forming in the 1730s and 1740s and were largely composed of local elites. Mutual aid societies kept common treasuries to which members paid a yearly subscription and from which they could draw during emergencies; these also performed a certain amount of charity work.

Benjamin Franklin became an active organizer of various kinds of voluntary societies in Philadelphia. He established a self-improvement society called the Junto in 1726; the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731; the Academy of Philadelphia, which opened on 7 January 1750; a hospital in 1751; and America's first fire insurance company, which he called the Philadelphia Contributorship, in 1752. His most ambitious undertaking was to organize in 1747 a voluntary militia for Pennsylvania's defense during the War of the Austrian Succession, or King George's War (1744–1748), when the Quaker leaders of the colony refused to do so.

After passage of the Stamp Act (1765), radical colonists organized voluntary associations to protest royal policy. In Boston they called themselves the Loyal Nine, and the New York City organization adopted the name Sons of Liberty. These societies worked to direct popular action, and many communicated with each other in order to coordinate resistance. Beginning in 1772, towns in the Massachusetts interior held regular conventions of the people and formed militia units and committees of correspondence to keep in touch with events across the colonies. These societies were all extralegal in the sense that no British authority—neither the colonial governor, privy council, nor Parliament—had given these groups sanction. Loyalists denounced them as dangerous usurpations of legitimate authority.

political clubs in the 1790s

With the close of the Revolutionary War, leaders were ambivalent about the existence of voluntary associations in a republican government. Many of the leaders were Freemasons, and they supported the spread of organized Freemasonry as a movement designed to inculcate virtue in its members and to benefit the community. Freemasons pledged themselves to mutual aid and kept a common treasury out of which members could draw in times of crisis. They kept their proceedings and practices secret, and this would raise suspicion by the 1830s that the lodges were undemocratic. General Henry Knox (1750–1806) first suggested that the officers of the Continental Army form the Order of the Cincinnati in 1783. The society established a fund for the support of widows and the indigent, but the fact that membership was restricted to Revolutionary War officers and their male heirs raised charges of aristocratic pretension.

Mutual aid societies became more numerous in the 1790s. The Society of the Sons of St. George was formed in 1788 specifically to help English immigrants adjust to life in America and provide monetary relief when necessary. The Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland founded in 1793 expressed a greater social mission by providing legal and medical services in addition to a common treasury.

While mutual aid societies were generally applauded, others saw a danger in what they regarded as an organized substrata of government unauthorized by legislatures. This was particularly acute when people voluntarily associated for political purposes. After the outbreak of war between France and Britain in 1793, pro-French partisans and British refugees formed at least forty political clubs, variously calling themselves "democratic" or "republican" and modeled primarily after the Revolutionary committees of correspondence and the Jacobin clubs of France. They publicly denounced the Washington administration's policy of neutrality and criticized other aspects of the government. In his address to both houses of Congress on 19 November 1794, George Washington blamed the Whiskey Rebellion of the summer of 1794 in part on "certain self-created societies" that had condemned the excise on whiskey.

Washington's anger did little to curb the people's enthusiasm for voluntary association. During the presidential election of 1800, independent political clubs published newspapers and pamphlets advocating either the Democratic Republican or Federalist candidates, although neither side's efforts were centrally managed. Many of these clubs organized preelection and postelection celebrations and processions that served, as David Waldstreicher has argued in his In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (1997), to create sympathetic and ideological connections across partisan communities.

other early republic associations

The Democratic Republicans not only achieved the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, but also returned majorities in both houses of Congress. In office, they both expanded the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase of 30 April 1803 and limited the growth of the national government by repealing direct taxes, retiring much of the debt, and reversing the Federalist expansion of the U.S. judiciary. As Americans rapidly settled the western territories, they formed voluntary associations to create churches, schools, libraries, and lyceums and to fulfill other needs left unattended by the absence of an energetic central government.

Voluntary associations did not appear only on the frontier; they expanded across the oldest settled regions of the United States as well. Independent of any central mandate, the number of voluntary associations in New England to provide mutual aid, promote religion, and support benevolent causes jumped from under one hundred in 1772 to nearly fifteen hundred by 1817. Over one thousand of these were established after 1808. These societies often wrote and published their constitutions and also passed resolutions advertising their public services in the community newspapers. In Inheriting the Revolution (2000), Joyce Appleby has argued that the generation born after the Revolutionary War used the form of the voluntary association both to provide for self-government and as an ideological tool to unite communities, and by extension, a diverse nation.

Excluded from the mutual aid societies and political clubs that marked the voluntary associations of the 1790s, women became prime organizers and members of benevolent and missionary societies after 1800, including the first organizations that provided charity on a routine rather than a piecemeal basis. Among others, they founded orphan asylums, societies for the care of elderly widows, and other homes for chronic care.

Both women and men were active in founding missionary and reform associations, and hundreds were formed after 1800. These societies sought variously to introduce Christianity to Native Americans, revive interest in religion, campaign for the revival of laws enforcing observance of the Sabbath. Antislavery societies sprung up in both the North and the South, petitioning Congress for an end to the slave trade and publishing pamphlets in support of the abolition of slavery. The first national organization advocating the gradual abolition of slavery was the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816. It operated on both a national and branch level and advocated compensated emancipation of slaves and the transporting of all blacks to Africa.

One of the largest reform efforts in the early Republic targeted alcohol use. Churches in the early Republic despaired about increased use of alcohol and many demanded of their members that they abstain from drinking altogether. In 1826 a group of men founded the American Temperance Society, whose goal was the complete abstention of its members from alcohol. The Society used aggressive evangelical tactics, sending its members out on the lecture circuit to distribute temperance tracts and convince social drinkers to "pledge" to give up booze forever. It spawned thousands of local chapters and by 1834 boasted over a million and a quarter members, both men and women, across America.

See alsoAbolition Societies; Benevolent Associations; Fires and Firefighting; Freemasons; Missionary and Bible Tract Societies; Patriotic Societies; Reform, Social; Society of the Cincinnati; Temperance and Temperance Movement; Women: Female Reform Society and Reformers; Women: Women's Voluntary Associations .


Appleby, Joyce. Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000.

Ginzberg, Lori D. Women in Antebellum Reform. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2000.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Wright, Conrad Edick. The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

H. Robert Baker