Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

January 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

David Konig


This dissertation examines how the concept of voluntary membership evolved between the 1780s and the 1830s, a period in which men and women created thousands of groups seeking everything from fraternity to profit to social reform. Before observers foreign and domestic would begin to identify the voluntary association as a defining characteristic of post-Revolutionary American culture, Americans who organized and joined such groups had struggled for decades to determine what membership ought to look like, what rights and duties the act of joining should entail. By the time Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted in 1831 that Americans were "forever forming associations," they had come to some answers. A revolutionary idea evolved unsteadily through the practical, day-to-day experiences of membership, as men and women began to insist upon basic principles of procedural fairness: the idea that people carried rights into every social relationship. Historians have yet to examine these debates over the norms of belonging, largely owing to the long-lasting influence of Tocqueville's rosy picture of spontaneous cooperation and, more recently, J├╝rgen Habermas's theory of associations in the public sphere. But Americans of the post-Revolutionary generations were anxious and uncertain about private governing power and the potential abuses of even voluntary commitments. In groups as diverse as women's literary societies, men's political fraternities, business corporations, and mutual benefit societies, Americans responded to the challenges they perceived by erecting procedural protections for members and by embracing a legalistic rather than an affective understanding of what it meant to belong. For they were anxious, too, about how they could make these groups work, how they could make collective action a reality in an age when even the survival of the new republic appeared tenuous. Innovation born of conflict within the groups--especially, efforts to forestall and to resolve disputes over the meanings, burdens, and benefits of voluntary membership, many of which wound up in court--shaped the post-Revolutionary associational landscape. While there continued to be encomia about the natural sociability of man and the tender ties of affection, in practice the American joiners that Tocqueville described had embraced a wholly different model of associated action. The rules by which the joiners organized themselves evinced a trend toward greater precision and an increasing emphasis on legalistic formalities. What is more, law-making and judicial institutions became comfortable assuming a role as superintendent over the actions within private societies, holding them to broad standards of justice and resolving the conflicts that arose within them, such as contested expulsions, and thereby setting the furthest limits of private governing authority. They created a substructure for Americans' efforts at collective action, one that evinced a pervasive liberalism, in that it was grounded in an individualistic common law, legal guarantees of the rights of individual members, and a reliance on adversarial legalism and procedural formalities to reconcile conflict, even in these ostensibly private, wholly voluntary groups. The conflict-driven process of defining voluntary membership had a second effect: Americans of this period came to accept the pluralist makeup of their society, in which myriad groups pursued divergent ends rather than a singular, public good. They could do so because, internally, most of these groups had begun to look the same, and those few associations that did appear to threaten the autonomy of their members, such as the Freemasons, came to stand out in ways they had not just a generation before. By about 1840, certain conceptions of voluntary membership had become so generally accepted that the judicial superintendence of private associations would become less direct, resting on broad schema of procedural expectations.


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