Although many now worry that it is endangered, American civil society has long been an important element of what has made the United States an “exceptional nation.” Historian Jon K. Lauck argues that in 19th century America, the surprising epicenter of that civil society turns out to have been the Midwest, a region frequently derided by the literati and others as close-minded and unenlightened. Lauck makes a strong case against this latter view, proposing that a better understanding of the Midwest would shed light not only on the roots of American exceptionalism, but also on its prospects.
In The Good Country: A History of the Midwest, 1800-1900, Lauck argues that during the 19th century, nowhere in the United States—indeed, in the world—was democracy as far advanced as in the twelve states of the Midwest (then more frequently called the “Northwest”). “There was,” he writes:
a communally agreed to ideal, a model for behavior, a goal to be striven for, a moral code, a way of inspiring the young, a motivation for civic duty, a virtuous patriotism, a recognition of civic obligations, and, perhaps most telling, a willingness to bleed and die for one’s home, especially as against sinful rebels who put the young republic at risk.
Historians, writers, and social critics have often portrayed the region, Lauck notes, as “the old square world.” But social equality was the norm, religion was ubiquitous, immigrants plentiful, and literacy was high. “By the Civil War,” Lauck says, “over 90 percent of Midwesterners could read and most middle-class families owned books.” Though initially limited to White men, the right to vote extended further and with fewer conditions (such as property ownership) than in other parts of the United States. Rooted in agriculture and later in small businesses, its economy reinforced what Lauck terms “the moral teachings of Christian/Victorian culture.” In his view, the Midwest epitomized American “exceptionalism.”
Even so, Lauck writes, while the Midwest was “a good country,” it was not a perfect one. Although women played a larger role in the region’s civic and cultural life than they did elsewhere, they faced obstacles to voting and holding office that changed slowly. While slavery was legally prohibited, various forms of discrimination were still practiced in many states, especially those that had French settlers. (Though frequently mistreated as well, Native Americans, Lauck reports, often fared better than Black people.) Still, the Midwest became a hotbed for reform movements, not least of all for ending slavery. (The first abolitionist paper, The Philanthropist, was published in Ohio.) Eventually, the Civil War helped to solidify the region’s identity, including through being memorialized in statues and pageants.
Underpinning the democratic ethos of the Midwest is the least well-known of the nation’s founding documents, the Northwest Ordinance. Promulgated in 1787 by the short-lived Confederation Congress, it is usually understood as outlining the requirements for admitting new states into the Union. But it was much more: In advance of the U.S. Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance included a bill of rights that protected religion, the right to jury trials, and the ownership of property. Finding “religion, morality, and knowledge … necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” it proclaimed that “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” And most importantly, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the region (though it allowed for the return of fugitive slaves to other parts of the country).
According to Lauck, the Northwest Ordinance was not simply a piece of parchment to the residents of the Midwest. It was no less than a regional Magna Carta, which left its imprint on their political cultures. It spurred constitutional conventions and competitive elections to chart a pathway to statehood. It protected the flourishing of religious expression as people from the eastern and southern states, as well as from Europe, moved into the new territories. It kept slavery and its peculiar social arrangements below the Ohio River; Senator John C. Calhoun, in fact, regularly called the Northwest Ordinance a “sin against the South.” And it led to the creation of an extraordinary number of schools—not only elementary and secondary ones, but also academies for higher education—many of which continue to exist.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Midwest had developed a vibrant civic life, built around not just its churches and schools, but also its societies for art, music, philosophy, and literature. Theaters and opera houses grew common, as did public sculpture, Lauck reports. “Much of this commitment,” he writes, “was driven by prominent charities, generous individuals, and general civic commitment.” He adds: “Midwestern elites saw civic and cultural stewardship as a duty.” After the Civil War, the influence of the Midwest expanded, including in the nation’s political life, reaching what Lauck calls “peak Midwest” by the end of the century.
Whether or not the United States is truly an exceptional nation has long been—and continues to be—debated. In 1906, German sociologist and historian Werner Sombart published Why is There No Socialism in the United States? A Marxist who embraced some elements of Naziism, Sombart believed that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction and that a market-driven economy would, in its latter stages, give way to more government direction and control. He saw that happening in Europe but not in the United States then, even though its economy was well on the way to moving from agrarian to industrial.
Many besides Sombart have offered a variety of explanations for this apparent anomaly. Since at that time American workers were coming from different ethnic, racial, religious, and national backgrounds, creating a unified labor movement to press for political change was challenging. The openness of the American economy and society—and especially, the still untapped potential of the “frontier”—served as a safety valve of sorts, giving those who were unhappy with their lot tangible avenues to try to improve it. American political institutions, especially at the national level, were designed to have limited power and were often controlled by those favoring business interests. In any case, the evidence Sombart presented for the historical inevitability of capitalist decline was as shaky as the Marxist analysis on which it rested. Sociologist Daniel Bell later wrote that Sombart’s book really should have been titled, “Why should there be Socialism in the United States?” arguing that “there is no exception … because there is no rule.”
A better case could be made that the United States was what Seymour Martin Lipset called “the first new nation,” breaking with previous patterns of political and social development. Indeed, such a case was made by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic work, Democracy in America. The scion of a family that had suffered during the French Revolution, he came to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to study new methods of running prisons. In reality, he came to understand why, though motivated by similar ideals, the American revolution had turned out better than the French one. In under a year, Tocqueville travelled widely—to Green Bay in the (then) west; New Orleans in the south; Quebec in the north; along the Ohio River; up and down the East Coast—taking copious notes, which he spent much of the 1830’s turning into the two volumes of his book.
Democracy in America begins by calling for a new science of politics, one that accounts for the new principle that the United States had embraced: that all men are created equal. Tocqueville describes how this idea affected the country’s laws and political institutions, its customs, the relations between the sexes, its literature and arts, and beyond. While he does not stint on criticism and sometimes overlooks or misinterprets important developments, he also shows how these features of American life contributed to the country’s successes. By contrast, their absence created obstacles to democracy and economic growth in those nations (or regions, like the South) that were built around different principles, such as deference to kings and aristocrats—or slaveowners.
Particularly relevant is Tocqueville’s discussion of “the uses Americans make of civic associations.” Everywhere he went, he reported, the people Tocqueville saw were creating organizations for all sorts of purposes, from making local improvements to conducting wide-ranging reform movements. Tocqueville explained this by noting the absence of a class of benefactors, and also the limited powers accorded government. But he also saw that the need for the public to undertake these tasks had several salutary effects, including teaching participants the skills and habits of working together, forcing them to moderate their own preferences and desires to compromise with others in order to achieve common goals. Or, as we would say today, civic groups helped build “social capital,” the relationships among people that can be as valuable as the money in our pockets or expertise in our heads. To Tocqueville, the “science of association”—the knowledge of how to create and conduct civic organizations—was the “mother of science,” a key to making democracy function effectively.
By the time that Tocqueville returned to France, the American population had begun to change, rapidly and thoroughly. Between 1820 and 1850, immigration—mostly from Ireland and Germany—had raised the number of Catholics in the United States from 195,000 to 1.6 million, making Catholicism the largest religious denomination in the country. In the years following the Civil War, that number continued to rise, driven by high birth rates and immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Immigrants from Asia and the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe further diversified the population, giving rise to a backlash that culminated in the immigration restrictions of the 1920’s.
Nevertheless, a century of population change made little difference in the propensity of Americans to form civic associations. It may even have increased it: Faced with real or perceived discrimination, Catholics created their own networks of schools, social service organizations, political clubs and other groups to serve their communities. Jewish immigrants formed numerous landsmanschaften in big cities, mutual aid societies that performed a variety of tasks aimed at helping their members fit into their new country. In the South, recently emancipated slaves set up organizations to provide public services that segregationist governments refused to offer. (The National Park Service is currently studying the feasibility of establishing the first national historic site in honor of a philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, CEO of the Sears Roebuck Company, and the Rosenwald Schools, some five thousand elementary and secondary schools, built with his support between 1910 and 1930 in African American counties below the Mason-Dixon line.) When one immigrant, Andrew Carnegie, became the wealthiest man in the world at the end of the 19thcentury and began giving his money to build public libraries, he challenged the communities interested in having one to agree to provide support for their upkeep. It is probably no coincidence that Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio were among the top recipients of his grants.
The end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th saw the development of many other civic groups as well: Rotary and Kiwanis, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA and child welfare movements, United Ways and community foundations (both started in Cleveland), to name just a few. It was, one historian termed it, a “golden age of fraternity,” though women were full participants too. When the Spanish Flu struck in 1918, it was met with a “much higher sense of civic duty,” a historian of that pandemic said, than when Covid arrived a few years ago.
How come? We know why Americans were so civic-minded in 1918. But why are they less so—if that was the case—a hundred years later? And what does this change say about the “exceptional” uses of civic associations Americans have historically made?
In the mid-1990’s, Robert D. Putnam brought public attention to the weakening of civil society in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Using a variety of surveys, he argued that volunteering, giving, and membership in a wide range of organizations had been falling since the 1960’s. The book’s title came from a drop in the number of bowling leagues, a matter of no small consequence to bowling alley operators who derived a large share of their revenue from selling refreshments during league competitions. Although confident in the accuracy of what he was reporting, Putnam acknowledged he had no entirely convincing explanation. He pointed to the increased television-watching that started with the Baby Boomers as the most likely culprit.
Others issued similar warnings. A blue-ribbon commission, co-chaired by former Senator Sam Nunn and former Education Secretary William Bennett, claimed that the United States was well on the way to becoming “a nation of spectators” and not of citizens. Theda Skocpol, who focused on the problems of organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis, perceived—as had Putnam—a threat to democracy itself in their declining memberships. Long before Covid or Donald Trump arrived on the scene, among scholars and policy-makers, as well as in many communities (where long-established groups, like United Ways, were facing challenges), the belief that the United States had a growing “civic deficit” was widespread.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment. One critic of Putnam’s work pointed out that while we may be bowling alone more often these days, we are also “kicking soccer balls together” more frequently than we used to. Others noted that organizations, like labor unions, which were important at one time had become less so because American industry had changed. Competition mattered too; United Ways were an efficient way to raise money when they were created, but other, more direct methods, such as appeals by mail or telephone, had developed. Putnam himself seems to have reconsidered his earlier findings. In his most recent book, more optimistically titled The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, he contends that the decline that he had earlier documented might really have been a dip in a much longer cycle that has already turned upwards.
Whether the uses Americans make of civic associations is greater or less now, they have certainly changed. I moved from the East Coast to the Midwest in the 1990’s to head a think-tank in Indianapolis. Unexpectedly, I found myself part of the city’s business and civic leadership as a member of a group called the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. Created in 1965, it had played a central role in shepherding the city’s development during the “Rustbelt’s” turbulent times. While it still exists, a recent study of civic leadership in Indianapolis indicates that many other organizations, speaking for a much wider range of interests, now have seats at the table. Although potentially improving decision-making, the inclusion of more voices also increases the difficulty of mastering the “science of association.”
Other features of civic life have also changed. Twenty years ago, the Census Bureau started asking Americans about how often they volunteered for organizations like charities and churches. It turns out that a smaller share of the population than one might have expected does so regularly: about one in four adults, according to the tally released last year. But twice as many say they provide help informally to friends and neighbors, and this is probably an underestimate. (Some people, for example, may view service to a religious congregation or a child’s school as not truly voluntary.) In any case, professionalization in the nonprofit sector has grown enormously over the past few decades, presumably making them more effective—but also reducing the value of volunteers.
Additionally, a smaller proportion of Americans gives money to charity today. Researchers at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy estimate that, at the beginning of this century, about two-thirds of households made donations annually; now, half do, with much of the drop coming after the “Great Recession” of 2008-09. Between last year and the year before, because of the poor economy, giving in inflation-adjusted dollars declined more than in any similar period over the last seventy years.
However, the American population is different from what it was in 2000. It has fewer people who identify as religious, more who are immigrants or minorities, and fewer in the middle-class, all factors that reduce the likelihood of giving, at least in the short-term. Charities have also become less dependent on donations and more reliant on earned income (such as tuition fees) and various kinds of government support. The result is that despite Internal Revenue Service efforts to revoke tax-exemptions for organizations that no longer operate, it has more nonprofits on its books than ever. While the share of givers has been dropping, the amount of gifts has been rising steadily (except for last year). New ways of providing support, such as donor-advised funds, have grown in popularity.
A few years after I moved to the Midwest, Commentary Magazine asked me to participate in a symposium on “the national prospect.” My assignment was to write about what it looked like from the nation’s heartland. “There is much to be optimistic about,” I wrote, “as traditional values still infuse much of civic life.” But, I added, “places like Indianapolis cannot isolate themselves from the major streams of American culture.” The Midwest would be shaped, I argued, by the tension between its traditional civic values and the modern ones of our increasingly national (and international) culture. So too for the uses Americans make of civil society.
Judging from where I live in Indiana, civil society in the Midwest remains alive and as a recent poll showed, still has considerable appeal to Americans. As Faith Bottum wrote, “Midwesternism is a state of mind. Geography matters less than having nice neighbors, a sense of community and questionable cuisine.” But like the Midwest, civil society has changed. The ability to adapt may, in fact, be its least appreciated aspect. Strangely enough, the roots of American exceptionalism may be most discernible in “the square old world” of the Midwest.
Leslie Lenkowsky is emeritus professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University. This was originally presented at a conference on “Exploring Civil Society,” sponsored by The Winchester Foundation, Winchester, IN, October 5, 2023.
Image: A pyrex casserole dish, symbol of Midwestern friendliness. (Flickr: AquaOwl)
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