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

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

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The Golden Age of Fraternity was a unique time in American History. "Jinners"--and from 1870-1910 more than half of all Americans participated in clubs, fraternities, militias, and mutual benefit societies--helped create a booming associational life in America between the Civil and First World Wars. Today this period is held up as a model for a revitalization of contemporary civil society. But what if these much-admired voluntary organizations more often served parochial reasons than the general good? This work aims to dispel many of the myths about the curative powers of clubbing while bringing to light the hidden lessons therein. Relying on extensive analysis of city directories, club histories and membership lists, Kaufman shows that organizational activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had more to do with pragmatic interests than with civic engagement. The rise of associational life began with organizations that helped cover the increasing cost of burial in the decades after the Civil War. It grew by playing on the competitive interests of individuals divided by race, class, and ethnic group--a competition fueled by the mass migration of Europeans, Asians, and black slaves. The decline of associational life, Kaufman contends, began immediately after World War I, not post-50's, and can be traced to a specific set of micro-economic changes and diminishing immigration and demographic pressures. The end of fraternalism, this provocative study concludes, was a good thing. And therein lies a powerful lesson for contemporary society. Challenging conventional wisdom, Kaufman calls for less attention to voluntarism and more attention to social programs that would span racial and ethnic divides. Of interest to a wide interdisciplinary audience in sociology, history, political science and American studies, this is a highly original work that will attract widespread attention.