U.S. Volunteerism

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The meaning of volunteerism is contingent on the nature of government, particularly the extent and ways in which it enables individuals to make uncompensated donations of money and labor to some form of collective activity or shared purpose.

Over the course of the five centuries since European colonists first occupied North America, the meaning and practice of volunteerism has changed as part of the broader evolution of legal and government structures.

Volunteerism first appeared within the framework of state action in the form of donations of land, money, and labor to public purposes. Some of these are outlined in the Statute of Charitable Uses, a 1601 act of Parliament intended to regulate charitable abuses. They include assisting the poor, sick, and injured, education, caring for orphans, tax relief, ransoming captives, helping young tradesmen, and constructing public works. To these ends charitable gifts were given to municipal corporations, the church, and other public bodies. Privately funded schools, hospitals, and other institutions required the sanction of the state, either through the granting of corporate charters or court approval.

Early voluntary giving in England was strictly regulated by the state, which not only limited the purposes for which funds could be donated (a donor could not, for example, support any other religion but the Church of England), but also placed the authority with the Lord Chancellor and the chancery courts.

Eamon Duffy's studies of English religious life before the Protestant Reformation depict a rich culture of what appears to be voluntary activity (1992, 2001). But like most early volunteerism, failure to serve was punishable by finessuggesting that it was viewed as a public obligation, much like paying taxes, rather than a genuinely voluntary act. Duffy suggests that the English Reformation ruthlessly eliminated broad-based lay participation in congregational life, centralizing sacramental and administrative functions in the hands of clergy and community leaders. Their service on vestries and other parochial boards may have been voluntary to the extent that such notables were not compelled to serve. But to the extent that it constituted one of the central functions of the aristocracy and gentry as governing classes, it could hardly be considered private in the modern sense.

Old World traditions of public volunteerism were carried to the colonies. Colonists were compelled to attend and support churches. Colonial government required all men of military age to serve in the militia. Townships levied on citizens' labor to maintain roads and other public works (McKinney, 1995).

Private volunteerism emerged from the complex politics of English Protestantism. Henry VIII's break with Rome was not intended to radically alter English religious life. But at a time when mechanical printing made the wide circulation of ideas possible, England could not be insulated from the religious ferment of the Protestant Reformation, then unfolding on the Continent. England became a battleground between religious factions, some favoring traditional Catholic conceptions of religious authority, others favoring Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist ideas that emphasized the spiritual sovereignty of believers (Dickens, 1964; Marsh, 1998).

For much of the period before 1689, the Church of England was a broad tent, permitting wide ranges of practices. This gave encouragement to a kind of spiritual volunteerism under which worshipers gravitated to preachers with whose views they sympathized, rather than being constrained by the geographical boundaries of the parishes to which the law assigned them. This practice of "gadding sermons" helped to produce the national subculture of religious individualism that gave rise first to efforts by the British state to enforce religious uniformity under the Stuarts and, ultimately, to the Puritan Revolution of 16401665. "Liberty of conscience" became a byword not only for religious toleration but for more encompassing conceptions of political freedom.

Volunteerism in Colonial America

The early migrations to New England exemplify the coexistence and common roots of public and private volunteerism. The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth in 1620 were adherents of a Protestantism that rejected the idea of a state church in favor of a church as a voluntary gathering of believers (Ahlstrom, 1972). Rejecting ecclesiastical hierarchy and the authority of the priesthood, these "separatists" established independent self-governing congregations in which members covenanted with one another to live under a common religious discipline and accept responsibility for maintaining the church and its ministry. Though an important step toward modern forms of private volunteerism, the separatists nonetheless rejected religious tolerationthe existence of competing congregationsand their congregations maintained many of the characteristics of state churches.

By contrast, the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, while embracing many of the theological positions and ecclesiastical practices of their Plymouth neighbors, saw themselves as operating within the Church of England and sustained the hope that their mode of worship would set an example for the reform of the church in the old country. Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony drew on a far broader range of the spectrum of Puritan belief and practice, the first decade of settlement was fraught with intense conflict between factions on a number of issues, including the civil role of the church. Though ultimately embracing a state church modelintolerant of religious diversity and depending on taxation for its supportthe Massachusetts Bay churches nonetheless regarded themselves as covenanted bodies of believers and, to this extent, embodied important characteristics of modern volunteerism.

Conflicts over theology and church polity in the 1630s resulted in the fracturing of Puritan unity. A number of Massachusetts groups, including most notably the antinomian followers of Roger Williams, were expelled from the colony. The new colony they established on Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island) permitted complete religious tolerance, requiring all churches to be supported by their members and rejecting state support. The Baptist and other congregations of Rhode Island offer the first examples of completely private volunteerism.

Ironically, the new colony's religious diversity stood in the way of any large-scale voluntarily supported enterprises. As the Massachusetts colonists moved to define and enforce religious orthodoxy, they were able to allocate public funds and to encourage private philanthropy to found Harvard College in 1636. Harvard was in no sense a private institution: most of its revenues came from government rather than from private donations; the members of its governing boards were ex officio ministers and magistrates. Nonetheless, to the extent that it solicited gifts and bequests from individuals, it did embody elements that would become basic elements of private institutions when they ultimately emerged. Colonies with religious establishmentsMassachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginiaall established colleges by the first decade of the eighteenth century. In contrast, the colleges that embraced religious toleranceRhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvaniawould not do so until decades later.

Even in Massachusetts, where the precursors of modern volunteerism would first take root, authorities were not entirely comfortable with the idea of voluntary activity outside the purview of the state. In 1638, when a group of Boston merchants petitioned the Massachusetts General Court requesting a charter for a private artillery company, worried legislators pondered "how dangerous it might be to erect a standing authority of military men, which might easily, in time, overthrow the civil power" (quoted in Bremer, p. 309). The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company was allowed to organize, but was denied corporate status.

In the later years of the seventeenth century, a variety of kinds of secular volunteerism began to flourish in England (Jordan, 1959, 1960, 1962). The most important of these were mutual benefit organizationsfraternal societies like the Freemasons, friendly societies, and social clubsmembership associations that enabled participants to assist one another in times of illness and death, to share resources like books, and to provide places of entertainment and relaxation. By the first decades of the eighteenth century, variants of these types of voluntary associations began to appear in North America. As early as 1710, Boston's preeminent religious leader, Reverend Cotton Mather (16631728), urged readers of his pamphlet Bonifacius to organize neighborhood "societies" to worship privately and to identify and care for residents in need. He also encouraged people to create associations to suppress disorders, to visit the sick and needy, and to enable young artisans to help one another.

Mather's writings had a profound influence on Benjamin Franklin, who, during his apprenticeship in London in the 1730s, had an opportunity to see firsthand the potent possibilities of voluntary association. On his return to America, he helped to introduce Freemasonry (which soon became one of the most important translocal organizations in the colonies) and, later, was instrumental in organizing young men's associations (the Junto), voluntary fire companies, an academy, and a hospital (Franklin, 1993).

Volunteerism in the Early Republic

Volunteerism, both public and private, played an important part in the American Revolution (Fischer, 1994; Bullock, 1996). Freemasonry, which embraced Enlightenment political and religious ideals, helped to consolidate the emergent revolutionary elite, while at the same time serving as a model for such radical organizations as the Sons of Liberty (Hammill, 1998). The voluntary religious activity that grew out of the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s helped to create political, social, and economic networks friendly to the cause of independence. Together these facilitated a loosening of ties between volunteerism and government. Early in the revolutionary struggle, many militiasmilitary bodies nominally subject to the authority of civil governmentwere persuaded to volunteer their services to fight the British. After the battles at Lexington and Concord, local militias throughout New England defied local authorities and marched to Boston to join the revolutionary forces gathering in and around the city.

The centrality of volunteerism to the success of the American Revolution helped to kindle hostility toward it once independence was achieved. When veteran officers of the Continental Army organized the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783, its enemies viewed it as a covert effort to overthrow republican institutions and replace them with a hereditary aristocracy (Burke, 1784). In Federalist no.10, James Madison warned of the hazards that factionsby which he meant private political groupsposed to republican institutions. In the mid-1790s, when opponents of the new Federalist regime began organizing "democratic societies"precursors of modern party organizationsPresident Washington warned against "self-created societies" intended to "subvert the Power of the People, and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust domination" (Washington, 1948).

The U.S. Constitution established conditions that made the growth of volunteerism inevitable. By mandating majoritarian decision-making while at the same time guaranteeing individual rights of expression, worship, and assembly, the Constitution posed an unresolvable tension between political equality and individual voice. Groups that did not prevail at the ballot box would be drawn to extragovernmental instrumentsthe press and voluntary associationsto advance their views and to work for victory in future elections.

Citizens of the early republic found themselves compelled to use voluntary associations, despite the uneasiness that they engendered. Because Americans feared government power, states and municipalities strictly limited the range of services they provided citizens. At the same time, the dismantling of religious establishments in the decades following the Revolution made volunteerism the central organizing principle of religious life throughout the nation. Like it or not, if Americans wanted to be educated, healed, entertained, politically represented, or provided with places of worship, they had to be willing to join with like-minded private citizens to pursue these ends.

The rise of voluntary action preceded the articulation of coherent ideas about the practice. The evangelical preacher Lyman Beecher (17751863), one of the first Americans to attempt to understand the role of volunteerism in institutional and political life, describes his plunge into promoting voluntary activityin connection with early temperance effortsas impulsive rather than deliberate. Only later, when he saw how powerful voluntary activity could be, did he begin to understand that the "voluntary system" could be used to organize all sorts of enterprises, from political reform movements, through schools, colleges, and religious crusades (Beecher, 1961). In the course of building his reputation as one of the nation's most influential evangelists, Beecher made the promotion of volunteerism one of the central themes of his efforts. For Beecher and his coreligionists, uncoerced voluntary action became an important source of moral and spiritual development for individuals and communities (Bacon, 1832; Mathews, 1969).

Beecher played a particularly important role in the development of American volunteerism. Concerned about growing numbers of unchurched and uneducated citizens, Beecher came to recognize that voluntary activity, literacy, and broadly shared public values were the precondition for religious conversion. Accordingly, he and his colleagues devoted their energies to secular reforms that could attract broad coalitions of citizens and citizen organizations such as temperance, antislavery, education, and the relief of poverty. Appealing to a broad rather than a sectarian public, Beecher not only helped teach countless numbers of Americans the skills of volunteerism, but also to overcome attitudes that had equated volunteerism with destructive factionalism.

By the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the late 1820s, private volunteerism was well on the way to becoming one of the most distinctive expressions of American democracy. Taking note of the temperance movement, he was quick to draw comparisons between European and American styles of civic action. "The first time I heard in the United States that a hundred thousand men had bound themselves publicly to abstain from spirituous liquors," he wrote,

it appeared to me more like a joke than a serious engagement, and I did not at once perceive why these temperate citizens did not content themselves with drinking water by their own firesides. I at last understood that these hundred thousand Americans, alarmed by the progress of drunkenness around them, had made up their minds to patronize temperance. They acted in just the same way as a man of high rank who should dress very plainly in order to inspire the humbler orders with a contempt of luxury. It is probable that if these hundred thousand men had lived in France, each of them would singly have memorialized the government to watch the public houses all over the kingdom. (vol. 1, pp. 109110)

Although he observed the importance of voluntary association as a counterpoise to the potential for majoritarian tyranny in democracies and to the hazards of overly powerful government, Tocqueville undoubtedly exaggerated the ubiquity of private volunteerism in the United States. Many states adopted laws that discouraged private philanthropy (in Mississippi, for example, it was illegal to establish charitable trusts until well into the twentieth century) and kept voluntary organizations under strict regulatory scrutiny (i.e., New York's Regents of the University of the State of New York, which oversaw the activities of all educational, charitable, cultural, and professional organizations) (Zollmann, 1924). Only in New England and the upper Midwest was private volunteerism allowed to flourish relatively unimpededand even there, prominent leaders like Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing and Baptist political economist Francis Wayland wrote widely circulated critiques of voluntary associations as posing dangers to republican government (Channing, 1900; Wayland, 1838).

In the antebellum era, voluntary associations began to play crucial roles in empowering Americans who, because of gender, race, or ethnicity, were disenfranchised. By the late eighteenth century, as whites began excluding free blacks from their congregations, black religious leaders organized their own churches. Women, generally barred from full economic and political participation, carved out a "separate sphere" of civic activism, using voluntary associations to expand their traditional domestic helping and caring roles to the dependent, disabled, unchurched, and uneducated (Scott, 1991). Immigrant associations helped those newly arrived from Europe to find economic opportunities, show their political muscle, and meet their needs in times of distress.

Volunteerism during and after the Civil War

The Civil War helped Americans to overcome whatever qualms they may have had about volunteerism. Though the war gave rise to a strong national government, it also strengthened the voluntary impulse. Armies on both sidesat least in the first years of the wardepended on volunteer soldiers. In the North, caring for the wounded and attending to the public health needs of the armed forces depended on national voluntary associations, the United States Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission. These national bodies used local chapters to raise funds, produce medical supplies, and raise morale (Brockett, 1864; Frederickson, 1965).

After the war, voluntary associations flourished on an unprecedented scale (Skocpol, 2003). Fraternal and sororal organizations proliferated in countryside and city alike. Veterans' organizations with chapters in every city and village advocated for the interests of those who had served in the armed forces. The growth of cities and the increasing corruption of the political system encouraged the growth of associations advocating civil service, sanitary, and education reform. The growth of industry gave rise not only to national trade associations to advance the interests of merchants and manufacturers, but to labor organizations to defend the rights of working people. As demands for specialized expertise grew, professionals of every sortphysicians, lawyers, clergy, architects, engineers, and educatorsorganized membership associations to set professional standards and advance their collective legislative interests.

The rapid growth of voluntary associations among a people that, on the whole, had little experience with them led inevitably to considerable organizational disorder. Union army officer Henry M. Robert (18371923), assigned to posts in Washington State, California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, encountered what he described as "virtual parliamentary anarchy" in voluntary organizations (Doyle, 1980). This moved him to write his famous Rules of Order which became the national standard for Americans swept up in the tidal wave of association building in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, two parallel traditions of volunteerism, one public, the other private, were firmly in place. On the public side, most municipalities depended on the voluntary energies of citizens, who served on boards and commissions and ran key municipal services (such as fire protection) on a voluntary basis. On the private side, many public services, such as social welfare and health care, had become largely dependent on voluntary donations of money and labor. But even when formally private, volunteerism sought not merely to serve members in their private capacitiesit was almost always linked to government, seeking to sway public opinion on civic issues or to elicit government commitment. During the 1920s, Herbert Hoover sought to create an "associative state" based on partnerships between voluntary associations and government agencies (Hoover, 1922; Hawley, 1977).

Volunteerism served both democratic and undemocratic purposes. Organizations like the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klanboth voluntary associationssought to disempower and terrorize racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Elite art museums, symphony orchestras, and universities sought both to enlighten the public and to shape its values in ways favorable to the interests of monied elites (DiMaggio, 1986). Professional associations often used efforts to elevate professional standards as ways of excluding Catholics and Jews (Auerbach, 1976). At the same time, voluntary associations were vehicles for national and international efforts to oppose lynching, promote economic and social justice, and advance women's suffrage (see, for example, Dray, 2002).

Inevitably, as the twentieth century advanced, hitherto voluntary activity began to be affected by professionalization. As the revenue needs of educational, health, and social welfare institutions grew, they were increasingly likely to turn to professional fundraising firms instead of depending on the efforts of volunteers (Cutlip, 1990). As medical and social work practice increasingly required higher levels of expertise, professionals and managers began to replace volunteers as key decision makers in health and welfare agencies (Starr, 1982; Perrow, 1963). By the late 1920s, the establishment training programs for volunteer trustees and directors in schools, libraries, and social agencies suggest that even volunteering itself began to require trained expertise (Hall, 2000). Inevitably, professionals pushed volunteers to the margins in most large nonprofit organizations.

Volunteerism and the Rise and Fall
of the Welfare State

As the World War II ended, American policymakers began to take the full measure of the domestic and international responsibilities the nation had taken on as leader of the free world. International leadership would require the development of capacities to manage the domestic economy, to maintain internal political stability, and to sustain military preparedness. This would require a vast expansion of government.

The realities of the U.S. federal system, with its divided and subordinated responsibilities, combined with continuing popular distrust of big government prevented the creation of a European-style centralized bureaucratic state. The American welfare/warfare state, as it emerged, concentrated revenue gathering and policy powers in the national government while allocating most of the tasks of implementing national policies to states, localities, and private sector actors (Webber and Wildavsky, 1986; Donahue, 1989).

Tax policy became one of the most important instruments of the welfare state. The universalization of income taxation and steeply progressive individual and corporate taxes provided a powerful tool for influencing the activities of citizens and citizen organizations. Although the federal government used grants and contracts to influence private sector activity, the deductibility of donations and bequests and exemption from corporate income and other forms of taxation became effective ways of encouraging transfers of funds between private sector actors. Implementing this system required a revolution in the tax treatment of charitable enterprises. Between 1947 and 1954, Congress rewrote the tax code, creating powerful incentives for charitable, educational, and religious organizations to incorporate and seek certification of charitable status from the federal government.

Depriving many voluntary membership organizations of tax exemptions that they had historically enjoyed, in combination with the establishment of federal social insurance programs, eliminated the raison d'etre for the mutual benefit organizations that comprised the majority of secular voluntary associations in the United States. By the 1960s, traditional voluntary membership associations were dying out and, as Robert Putnam has noted, volunteerism of every sort was declining (Putnam, 2000; Skocpol, 2003).

The place of voluntary membership associations was being taken by charitable tax-exempt "nonprofit organizations" that were increasingly likely to be run by professional managers and funded by a mix of donations, commercial revenues, and foundation and government grants and contracts. Though volunteers still played a role in the nonprofit sector, they were increasingly likely to be involved with start-up organizations (which, if successful, quickly became professionalized) and religious bodies. There were exceptions to this pattern: religious organizations continued to command nearly two-thirds of the volunteer labor in the nonprofit sector; self-help groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, explicitly rejected professionalism and depended entirely on the voluntary support of their members (Wuthnow, 1994); character building organizations like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts also continued to depend almost entirely on volunteers.

The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a revival of public volunteerism. The Peace Corps, established in the early 1960s, sent American volunteers to developing countries. During the War on Poverty of the late 1960s, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) drew volunteers to impoverished urban and rural areas within the United States. The conservative revolution, which began in earnest with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, advocated voluntary community efforts as a substitute for big government programs that, conservatives argued, perpetuated a culture of poverty. Some of these efforts, like Americorps, were government-sponsored. Others, like Habitat for Humanity, enlisted private citizens to help address public problems, such as poor housing. Colleges and universities became enthusiastic promoters of student voluntarism and community service as forms of experiential learning.

Dismantling big government through devolution (shifting burdens from the national government to states and localities) and privatization (shifting government responsibilities to private sector actors) was the central project of the conservative revolution. George H. W. Bush's speeches following his nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency in 1988 were not only high-profile official endorsements of volunteerism, but also suggested a peculiar blurring of public and private conceptions of volunteerism at the end of the twentieth century. In his 1989 inaugural speech, the president declared

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.

At the end of the twentieth century, the traditions of public and private volunteerism that had diverged two centuries earlier were evidently converging as institutionsgovernment, business, and universitiespromoted volunteering as ways of fulfilling their responsibilities to the public. Such institutionally sponsored effortswhich often contain coercive elements (such as being requisites for graduation or promotion)raise questions about the voluntariness of contemporary volunteerism.

See also Citizenship ; Civil Society .


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Volunteers, U.S. The U.S. Volunteers was the federal government's primary mechanism in the nineteenth century for raising large forces of citizen‐soldiers needed in wartime to augment the small regular army and organized militia and National Guard. These ad hoc units were locally raised and led, but funded by the federal government and under the overall command of U.S. Army generals.

With congressional authorization, governors nominated local notables whom the president commissioned as temporary officers. These recruited local men into temporary units up to regiments. In keeping with militia traditions, enlisted men elected the junior officers.

The system drew upon the essentially local basis of American society in the nineteenth century in order to serve national purposes. It enabled the central government to raise a sizable wartime force in a country where political power was fragmented by federalism.

Raised only when needed, the U.S. Volunteers did not exist in peacetime. Unlike the militia, which, by law, could not be kept in federal service for more than nine months nor sent outside the country, the U.S. Volunteers were enlisted for terms of one to three years, and between 1794 and 1902 fought outside the country in the Mexican War, the Spanish‐American War, and the Philippine‐American War. Within the United States, they fought in the Indian wars, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.

Use of U.S. Volunteers ended in the twentieth century when a strong federal government drew draftees and volunteers into a truly national army.
[See also Army, U.S.: 1783–1865; Army, U.S.: 1866–99; Conscription.]


John Whiteclay Chambers II , To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America, 1987.

John Whiteclay Chambers II