A nation of joiners: An interview with Johann N. Neem

Historians in the News

AMERICA IS OFTEN called a nation of joiners, and the landscape of any community testifies to our desire to belong - from the Masonic lodge to the city softball league to the suburban megachurch. This impulse spans the country, uniting citizens in a multitude of common purposes and communities to serve. Such civic engagement is seen as an obvious virtue.

But it wasn’t always seen that way. In fact, the founding fathers actually worried about it.

Historian Johann N. Neem says that our current social and political landscape, composed of an entire alphabet of competing interest groups, was far from the society that our early political leaders hoped to build. They envisioned a country where citizens’ first sense of responsibility would be to the state itself, and thought that any group developed outside the government could become a threat to the republic’s stability.

Having formed their own groups to bypass and then break British authority, the new American leaders feared that their own fragile power could be undone by strong private interests, whether those belonging to farmers, church leaders, or corporations.

Who should we blame for what took place in America? Start with Massachusetts. In his new book, “Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts” (Harvard, 2008), Neem finds that it was in Massachusetts and its neighboring states that the young country began to develop its ideas that private organizations - churches, colleges, advocacy groups - could have a public role in our democracy. Both at an elite level and at the grass roots, the pluralist civil society that we have come to inherit first took shape in the Commonwealth. How our predecessors came to understand and form these groups, Neem says, have lessons for our own time.

Neem, a professor at Western Washington University, spoke to Ideas by phone from his Bellingham, Wash., office.

IDEAS: What does it mean when we say that the United States is a “nation of joiners?”

NEEM: There has been a lot of discussion in the last 10 or 15 years about whether Americans have been joining enough groups. I’m looking at the period where Americans first started to form voluntary associations, join groups. What I found most surprising was coming from the 21st century backwards. Today we tend to have a very celebratory language about the value of these groups. When Americans started developing these groups, they were deeply contested. There was a real struggle to understand where these groups would fit in in a democracy....
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