- The Making of Tocqueville’s America: Law and Association in the Early United States by Kevin Butterfield
The United States is famously a nation of joiners, but how did it get that way? In this intriguing book, Kevin Butterfield of the University of Oklahoma traces the rise of voluntary associations in the early years of the Republic and the changing nature of the associational landscape as the nineteenth century progressed. In a series of short and lively chapters that zoom out to consider organizing efforts across the board and zoom in to analyze the details of particular associations, Butterfield shows that the [End Page 240] vibrant world of membership de Tocqueville reported on in the 1830s was not some natural outgrowth of the Revolutionary experience, but the result of four decades of intense debate over the appropriate scope and form of private affiliations. In excavating the deeper foundations of the 1830s associational edifice, Butterfield’s book makes important contributions to the history of voluntary associations and of antebellum politics.
The book consists of two main parts, divided historically and thematically, plus a concluding part that sets out some broader consequences. The first part of the book focuses on evolving conceptions of membership and how they served to structure voluntary associations in the period 1783−1815. The first chapter provides the key to understanding the entire story: the defining feature of the voluntary organizations that formed after the Revolution is that rather than being structured around bonds of friendship, they were highly formalized. Through associational constitutions, bylaws, and rigorous attention to proper procedure, organizers relied upon formalized structures to launch and sustain the entities they created. That feature of associations (revisited in greater detail in the book’s fourth chapter) reflected and, in turn, shaped, broader cultural conceptions of membership in the post-Revolutionary era. For as Butterfield discusses in chapter 2, the growth and arrangement of early associations must be understood in the broader political context of the time. Butterfield contends that the formalization of associational ties was motivated in part by a pervasive partisan conflict in the early years after the Revolution over the desirability of collective political action versus rogue individualism. Formalities mediated between these two competing impulses: formal arrangements kept individuals at a suitable distance, thereby protecting individual autonomy while also providing a basis for group arrangements and collective activity. Indeed, regard for formalities soon extended to churches: they too, Butterfield reports, were increasingly organized around foundational documents that set out the powers of church leaders and the obligations and rights of members.
The third chapter brings into focus the role that the law played in supporting and shaping the emerging associational regime. Voluntary associations were typically state-chartered entities. The charter provided the source of as well as the limits to organizing authority. And courts regularly acted to police associational power and keep it within the confines of the authorizing charter, in particular by protecting what Butterfield calls the [End Page 241] “civil rights” (11) of individual members against abuses from the association’s majority.
Butterfield cites in particular an 1810 decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in which, at the behest of one William Duane, the St. Patrick Benevolent Society had voted 70–1 to expel newspaper editor John Binns from the organization on the ground that by criticizing Duane in print, Binns had violated a bylaw prohibiting members from “vilifying” each other. The court, however, ordered Binns’s reinstatement. Although the society had followed its regular procedures in expelling Binns, because the bylaw at issue punished conduct that occurred outside the activities of the society itself, it was incompatible with the society’s charitable charter and thus Binns’s expulsion was illegal. Butterfield concludes from this decision that “[b]y emphasizing the legal origins of associational authority rather than a rival, affective vision of concerted action that saw the powers of voluntary associations as deriving from the mutual agreement … of its members, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court proved willing to bring the St. Patrick Benevolent Society...