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Exhibition Join In: Voluntary Assocations in America

Tocqueville, A View from Outside

Almost two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman and astute observer of American society, was struck that people in the United States had a remarkable tendency to organize themselves in pursuit of shared goals. In his book Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote, “Americans of all ages constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations, in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small.”

Tocqueville visited the United States during 1831 and 1832 and observed that those he encountered were living through a time of rapid change, when populations were moving and building new communities, transportation and the postal service were improving, and political party organization was expanding.

Influenced by these changes, Americans continued to develop their tools for association-making to meet the diversity of their goals. Americans created associations of all sizes, interests, and complexities, from small clubs with little internal order to vast national networks with structures that imitated the relationship between state and federal governments. Writing for a French audience, Tocqueville argued that citizens in a democracy rely on associations to bring them into shared concerns with their neighbors and to empower them with a voice to influence public opinion. Association-making, he claimed, was the “mother science” in a democratic society, the piece of social know-how that makes a democracy flourish.