American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society 1700-1865
by Kathleen D. McCarthy
University of Chicago Press, 2003
319 pp., $35
Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management In American Civil Life
by Theda Skocpol
University of Oklahoma Press, 2003
366 pp., $26.95
Modern-day donors can find among Victorian-era philanthropists numerous examples of people who committed themselves and their money, successfully, to strengthening civil society. But to appreciate and understand these nineteenth-century social entrepreneurs, their stories must be told by fair-minded people who are willing to honestly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Victorians’ efforts.
Two new works that survey previously little-known aspects of nineteenth-century philanthropy could have greatly improved our understanding of the way Victorians engaged civil society. Unfortunately, both miss their opportunity because the authors, Kathleen D. McCarthy and Theda Skocpol, place their own agendas ahead of the accomplishments of those they write about.
McCarthy is a historian at the City University of New York, and her work American Creed chronicles American nonprofits before the Civil War. Skocpol is a Harvard professor of government who looks at the rise and fall of associations and how their membership trends have affected American political life. McCarthy’s error lies in writing about an interesting period of American philanthropic history in a constricted and lifeless way, kowtowing to the dictums of political correctness. Skocpol provides important information on membership trends among America’s largest associations, but errs when she draws questionable conclusions about contemporary politics.
McCarthy has been one of our more energetic philanthropic historians; she usually, but not always, studies history through a feminist lens. So the antebellum period she scrutinizes for American Creed should have been fruitful territory. In this era, feminists were key players in developing not-for-profit organizations that battled slavery, fought poverty, and advanced religion, among other useful activities.
Beyond the obvious territory McCarthy could have exploited are other signs of pre-1865 nonprofit vibrancy. Some of America’s great corporations have their roots in the era’s philanthropic work. The influential credit reporting agency Dun & Bradstreet, for example, was the brainchild of Lewis and Arthur Tappan. The two brothers were abolitionists who started a credit-evaluation service (called the Mercantile Agency) following the depression of 1837. Their goal was to generate enough income so they could dedicate their lives to ending slavery.
If McCarthy had simply described the achievements and failures of these long-forgotten philanthropists, American Creed would have been an interesting book. But McCarthy binds the men and women she portrays in the constricting corsets of political correctness. Donors, for example, are always described as being either “white male elites” or “white female elites.” Her work, it seems, was written to win the applause of her fellow feminists.
Such labels reduce our knowledge of the past and distort history. This is most evident in her treatment of Dorothea Dix, who created several important insane asylums, such as Washington, D.C.’s St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. “Feminist scholars have tended to give Dix a wide berth,” McCarthy writes. “In many respects, she epitomized the worst elements of female moral superiority. She was self-righteous, self-absorbed, and self-sufficient to the point of veering towards antifeminism.”
But what’s important about Dix is not whether feminist scholars like her, but whether her activities improved the lives of the mentally ill. The reader is given no information about how the mentally ill lived before Dix became active, or how their lives were changed by her work. Nor does McCarthy quote extensively from Dix’s writings. As a result, readers cannot independently judge whether Dix was a productive or an ineffectual moral reformer.
Theda Skocpol is a better and more provocative writer than McCarthy, and Diminished Democracy does provide valuable information. But whereas McCarthy’s work suffers from excessive politicization, Skocpol’s suffers from wrongheaded conclusions that overshadow her very fruitful research.
Skocpol is primarily interested in the 58 associations throughout American history that have at some point had 1 percent or more of the population as members. These associations—ranging from the Ancient Order of Free Masons (created in 1733) to the Christian Coalition (created in 1989)—include cause-centered groups, fraternal organizations, veterans’ groups, the National PTA, and the American Bowling Congress.
One might wish for a stricter definition of what Skocpol considers an “association.” The American Automobile Association and the AARP may be large, but people join these groups not to commune with their fellow drivers and retirees, but to get deals on car insurance and hotels. Skocpol also includes unions, such as the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, in her data set. But since many workers are required to join unions as a condition of their employment, these labor are not voluntary organizations.
Despite the problems of definition, Skocpol is on to something. No one has written about the growth and decline of these large organizations before, and over the course of her research Skocpol uncovered some important trends. Most notable are the dramatic changes in demographics among large-membership associations between 1955 and 1995. Many suffered a great loss of membership. For example, the Odd Fellows—a national fraternity whose first United States branch was founded in Baltimore in 1819—lost 92 percent of its members, falling from 1.1 million to 100,000, during this period. Over the same time span, fraternities—including the Eagles, Elks, Free Masons, and Nobles of the Mystic Shrine—shrunk by at least 35 percent. The American Legion’s membership dropped by 41 percent, while their rivals, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, showed a 10 percent increase.
Unfortunately Skocpol is not content simply to present the findings of her research. Instead, she wants to go another step and argue that these large national associations were popular because they were groups where all classes could mix equally, as well as arenas where politicians could commune with working people on neutral ground. She cites as an example President Warren G. Harding, who was proud of his membership in the Loyal Order of Moose—and even prouder that he was inducted into the Moose by his chauffeur.
In the 1960s, however, activists turned large associations into groups where most of the political activity was done by professionals, and members were relegated to writing checks and not bothering the pros at headquarters. Because most members of these groups became passive consumers of information, these associations ceased to be mass movements for political change and ceased to be active forces in political life.
This argument has two flaws. First, Skocpol can’t demonstrate that most people joined these organizations for political reasons. Second, University of Alabama historian David Beito has shown that fraternal orders saw their memberships fall because many of the benefits they offered (access to doctors, subsidized hospitals) were taken over by an ever-expanding welfare state.
Despite their shortcomings, both books do offer donors valuable information. American Creed reminds us that even small donations make a difference. Slavery in America, for example, was abolished because of the contributions of thousands of contributors, most of whom gave little more than $1,000 (in today’s dollars).
And Diminished Democracy reminds us that nonprofits are most successful when they involve donors actively in their cause. While Skocpol’s work has many shortcomings, she is right to argue that nonprofits are far less effective when they keep donors at arm’s length. Civil society is a spontaneous order whose healthy existence depends not on centralized control, but on the individual decisions made by millions of Americans. Large donations can artificially prolong the existence of failing nonprofits, but can’t change the reasons why old nonprofits age and die. As the Everett Carll Ladd, a public policy expert, showed in his book The Ladd Report, associations, like corporations, thrive and die only if there is a market for their services. The reason why the National PTA’s membership has fallen by 60 percent since 1965, for example, is not because parents have stopped caring about their children, but because they found independent, locally-controlled parent-teacher organizations more useful than the PTA.
Given its diffuse nature, civil society cannot be forced by a central source to take political stands. Funders should remember this when making grants aimed at strengthening civil society. Grants meant to mold or control civil society have less chance of succeeding than those that encourage dynamic local control and creativity.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of The Foundation Builders and By Their Bootstraps.