When Alexis de Toqueville traveled through the United States in 1831 to observe American penal institutions, he wrote down his observations of American political and civil society. Four years later he published Democracy in America, one of the defining texts of early American history. He titled Section 2, Chapter 5, "Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life." In it, he marveled that Americans "of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. 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." This came as quite a shock to the young 19th-Century French aristocrat, and de Toqueville freely admitted his prior ignorance of such associations. Europe, by this time, had lost much of the religious, cultural and civic vigor which had sustained it and enabled it to expand in the 15th to 18th Centuries. America, by contrast, had dynamic communities anxious to help others, improve their standard of living, and exert a powerful influence on government policy. He noted, "I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."
I mention de Toqueville's analysis of 19th-Century American society to remind readers that from the beginning of our history, Americans have actively and spontaneously engaged in civic and political life by forming voluntary associations. The emphasis is on the voluntary aspect of these organizations and their intention to affect change in government. While all levels of government might have encouraged civic participation, the Federal Government did not create and fund its own voluntary societies, let alone micromanage them. To do so would have had the reverse effect of the original intention of voluntary associations - it would have allowed politicians a unique means of manipulating public policy for their own agenda, ideological or otherwise.
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