Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13




The Process of Voluntary Association:

Organizing the Ravenna Temperance

Society, 1830


With attention beginning now to focus on voluntary association as a

characteristic feature of pre-Civil War American life, it is important

not to lose sight of the phenomenon of voluntary organization as it-

self a historical problem. One aspect of this problem that particu-

larly needs discussion is a complex of issues arising from the extra-

parliamentary nature of voluntary groups. This aspect matters be-

cause such groups, it is generally accepted, often intended to pro-

duce public benefits; indeed, they often aimed to revolutionize the

American economy and way of life.

In a famous and widely-quoted passage in his 1836 classic, Democ-

racy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized both the ubiquity

of voluntary organizations and the public nature of many of their


Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form as-

sociations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in

which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious,

moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The

Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to

build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to

the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If

it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encour-

agement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of

some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in

England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.1

It is particularly important in this context to stress Tocqueville's decla-

ration that such projects would have been sponsored by the govern-

ment in his native France. But in the United States, he observed,



Marc Harris is Acting Associate Director, Division of Research Services, Louisiana

State University.


1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and tr. Phillips Bradley, 2

vols. (New York, 1945), 2:114.