Nurturing Civil Society

American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

By Kathleen D. McCarthy
University of Chicago Press / 319 pp. / $35
(Buy Now)
Reviewed by Matthew Crenson*

This interesting book falls some distance short of its title. Its coverage of antebellum civil society is highly selective–no male fraternal organizations, scarcely any immigrant mutual aid societies, and no workingmen’s associations. Instead, the author concentrates on philanthropic and reform groups whose members stood outside the coverage of the American Creed: unenfranchised women and African Americans, who sought to advance their causes by petition and protest partly because they had been excluded from the electorate.

Kathleen McCarthy, it is true, places Benjamin Franklin near the origin of civic America. Alone in Philadelphia and distant from his kinsmen in Boston, he created voluntary associations as fictive “families” to sustain his conception of republican virtues. These were manly virtues, says McCarthy, proofs against “luxury, effeminacy, and vice.” To be a man was to be self-denying and committed to the common good. Franklin’s associational experiments provided a “template for the creation of social capital, the trust that enables individuals to work collaboratively to benefit themselves and the larger society.”

But the organizations that populate McCarthy’s civil society were mostly engines of contention. Even partisans now concede that social capital does not reliably produce the mutual trust that enables members of a society to collaborate for the common good. “Bonding ties,” Robert D. Putnam writes in Bowling Alone (2000), create in-group solidarity at the expense of intergroup suspicion and enmity. That is what seems most evident in McCarthy’s account of African Americans’ struggles against the superficially benign project of the American Colonization Society, which sought to send them into exile. The charitable enterprises of female activists may have been less combative at first, but they prepared the way for female abolitionists and suffragists. What they had in common with the African American associations was a communalism that set them apart from the individualistic society in which they operated.

The organizational heirs of Franklin also benefited from the legacies of Jefferson and Madison. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom decisively moved religion into the private sector, where denominations became the armatures for collective enterprises in charity and moral uplift. Jeffersonian egalitarianism helped to legitimate widespread participation in these ventures. But they were no longer so clearly the vehicles for the manly republican virtues that Franklin had championed. Women predominated in Protestant church congregations, and those congregations spawned organizations that expressed female sensibilities about slavery, inequality, and charity. Meanwhile, independent black churches spun off schools, charities, and abolitionists who challenged the patriarchal authority of slave-owners in the name of republicanism.

The nonprofit sector of the early nineteenth century did not stand apart from business or government. McCarthy traces the development of charities that financed themselves through capitalist enterprise, and others that received government subsidies.

But their outside support weakened with the coming of Jacksonian democracy, which, in McCarthy’s telling, was scarcely democratic at all. Its support for slavery, its policy of Indian removal, and the menace that it posed to abolitionists all count among the “raucous and illiberal consequences” of mobilizing the male electorate. Elections and associations were two manifestations of American democracy that seem to have coexisted uneasily, if not in outright hostility, before the Civil War. The experience of the Jacksonian era sharpened the distinction between two different versions of civil society–“one rooted in Southern political imperatives and a growing white male electorate; the other in a sprawling array of highly autonomous charitable, educational, and social reform movements.” The Southern edition tried to keep associations under state control and regarded them as sources of political patronage. For a time, male-dominated associations shouldered aside charities run by women.

This is virtually the only point in McCarthy’s book at which we get a glimpse of the beneficiaries, inmates, and pupils of philanthropic organizations. They make a brief entrance, mostly to demonstrate the inhumanity and inefficiency of male charity as compared to the female variety. The patriarchal philanthropic institutions of the South receive only passing attention. They differed from their Northern counterparts not in their extent but in their subjection to public control. One would like to know whether the auspices under which Southern charity operated made any substantive difference in their treatment of recipients.

The two cultures of civil society came by fits and starts of violence to the Civil War, when the blue states and the gray states discovered that their competing versions of democracy and freedom could not coexist. Ironically, the hostilities unleashed a wave of female philanthropy in the South that echoed its more substantial Northern counterpart.

One can appreciate the intensive research that went into this book and yet wish that it had been more comprehensive. Its coverage is clearly guided by the convictions of its author. She concentrates on the organizational accomplishments of groups that were traditionally excluded from institutional authority. But the case for the distinctiveness of female and African American philanthropy would be stronger if some of the charities controlled by white males were examined in as much detail as those that stand at the center of this book. The author’s claims for this distinctiveness may be true, but they are not demonstrated, and their uncertain status undermines a potentially powerful and provocative account of the two civic cultures of Jacksonian America.


* Matthew Crenson is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System (1998) and Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public (with Benjamin Ginsberg) (2002).