is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

For the Common Good? American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity

Author(s):Kaufman, Jason
Reviewer(s):Beito, David T.

Published by EH.NET (February 2004)

Jason Kaufman, For the Common Good? American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. x + 286 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-514858-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David T. Beito, Department of History, University of Alabama.

Jason Kaufman is a man on a mission. Dissenting from Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Putnam, he examines the dark side of American voluntary associations. He indicts them for exacerbating racial and ethnic divisiveness, retarding the welfare state, nurturing a unique American “love affair with guns,” (p. 31), fueling “libertarian paranoia and mutual distrust,” (p. 9) and even for a causative role in Prohibition. Kaufman’s broadly social democratic outlook shapes his assumptions about the identity and definition of this dark side. To his credit, he does not shrink from acknowledging that his views about the good society help to frame his argument.

Kaufman carefully chronicles the development of a wide array of associations, including volunteer fire companies, business associations, shooting clubs and, most especially, fraternal societies. A key theme is that the disadvantages of the golden age of fraternity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries far outweighed any advantages. A consequence of exclusionary membership policies, for example, was to encourage workers to define themselves in parochial terms, such as race and sex, and to foster anti-statism thus depriving America of the “opportunity to join Western Europe in the adoption of people-friendly social policies” (p. 198). Fraternalism, writes Kaufman, contributed to the comparative weakness of class-conscious organizations which, had they been stronger, might have united workers as they did in Europe.

There is much to like in this book. Kaufman’s research is diligent and he draws extensively and creatively from primary sources. But there is also considerable room for criticism. A persistent problem is that he too often holds American voluntarism to an impossibly high standard and exaggerates, or fails to put into comparative context, the sins in society that it allegedly fostered. A case in point is Kaufman’s almost matter-of-fact assumption that fraternal societies “historically engendered more ethnic, racial, and religious separatism” (p. 9) in the United States when compared to most other countries. This is by no means obvious. Ethnic and religious divisiveness have deeply plagued several highly developed welfare states, including France, the Netherlands, and Germany, in recent years. A strong case can be made, in fact, that the story of assimilation and the melting pot during the golden age of fraternity compares favorably with the Canada’s French and English strife, Britain’s Catholic and Protestant troubles, or renewed anti-Semitic and anti-Islam attacks in Western Europe. Blaming American voluntarism for the virulence of American racism makes about as much sense as blaming the pioneer welfare states of Germany and Austria for the holocaust or recent firebomb attacks on immigrants.

Along the same lines, Kaufman unduly slights the contributions of fraternal societies to assimilation by finding jobs and inculcating attitudes of upward mobility, thrift and self-reliance. Even a superficial survey in the primary sources of immigrant organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth societies reveals ample evidence of paeans to American patriotism and freedom of opportunity. Kaufman also neglects another crucial comparative context. While it is true that most fraternal organizations excluded blacks and women as full members, so too did the vast majority of political associations and labor unions during the same period. The exclusion of blacks from all-white unions often had the added effect of freezing them out of entire occupations. I do not raise this to downplay the importance of racial exclusion by fraternal societies but merely to point out that lodges were not the only, or for that matter, the most pernicious offenders as implied by Kaufman.

Similarly, Kaufman does not give adequate weight to the ways in which fraternalism contributed to the advancement of women. An example is his charge that societies “reached out to men but kept women at arm’s length, thus denying them the opportunity to purchase sickness and burial insurance on their own” (p. 50). Again, to the extent the critique is valid, it also applies to labor unions and political associations. In addition, it tends to slight the tremendous growth of auxiliaries and parallel organizations. While Kaufman mentions the Women’s Benefit Association, he does explore the implications of why this group, which also zealously supported feminism, existed in the first place. Finally, he skirts over the fact that women were primary financial beneficiaries of fraternal life insurance and that they constituted a majority of the residents of fraternal homes for the elderly.

As to blacks, some of his statements are overly dismissive such as one that they “had few if any successes with fraternalism” (p. 27). It is true that Kaufman’s study largely excludes the South. Even so, this sweeping claim, which includes no regional proviso, does not bear close scrutiny for either North or South (where most blacks lived, after all). Black women had significant leadership roles in thousands of lodges in cities ranging from New Orleans to New York that dispensed vast amounts of sick benefits, many continuously for decades. Black fraternal hospitals in the South gave low-cost health care to thousands for decades. The sponsoring organizations of these hospitals generally admitted women on equal terms with men and even, in several cases, had female majorities. It is likely, in fact, that the largest single black female voluntary association in the early twentieth century was the Household of Ruth (with nearly 200,000 members) of the Odd Fellows. The best-known black female fraternalist (not mentioned by Kaufman) was Maggie Lena Walker, the head of the Independent Order of St. Luke, probably the first woman bank president (at least who achieved the position in her own right).

These criticisms are not meant to belittle Kaufman’s overall accomplishment, however. His indictment may be relentless and uncompromising, but it also deserves to be taken seriously. He raises many challenging questions that other scholars have failed to ask. A copy of For the Common Good? should be on the shelf of any specialist in the history of American voluntary associations.

David Beito is author of From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII