Ten days after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, a group of 3,000 women gathered at the Cooper Institute in New York City. They met to save the Union.
Chairing the meeting was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in American history to earn an M.D. Blackwell knew that her nation’s medical infrastructure was not prepared to deal with the tide of blood and illness the war would unleash. The convention brought together representatives from various relief associations across Yankeedom to coordinate their efforts in the war to come.
To meet the anticipated needs of the Union armies, the women gathered in New York decided to create an organization—the Women’s Central Association for Relief—that would raise funds for the medical care of the wounded and train as many women nurses as possible. Eventually, the fast-growing organization would rebrand as the United States Sanitary Commission and bring in influential male doctors as national officers. Thousands of Sanitary women mobilized to provide meals and shelter for furloughed soldiers, work as nurses, inspect servicemen measures against cholera and food poisoning, and drum up all kinds of supplies. By 1863 it had 7,000 local chapters across the Union. This made the Commission the largest civic association Americans had yet formed. In the entire country, the only institutions with a larger membership were the Republican Party and the U.S. Army.
The federal government found the Sanitary Commission’s work so useful to the war effort that Congress officially authorized it to act as a quasi-government arm, subsidized its operations with public funds, and ordered the doctors of the Army Medical Bureau to work in tandem with the nurses and officers of the Commission. They would continue to do this until the end of the war. The work done by 3,000 women to self-organize in the service of their country had done its part to save the Union. What makes their story remarkable is that almost none had any special qualifications beyond the small-scale civic and religious responsibilities they had before the war. This undistinguished body believed that if its members worked in concert, they could do a better job than the federal government itself. They were right.
But while their actions seem remarkable now, their instinct to respond to the problem of war with self-organization was the common one in the U.S. of the nineteenth century. The Sanitary Commission was exceptional only in its scale.
In just the city of New York, prominent citizens responded to the civil war by building dozens of new voluntary institutions. The list includes the New York Association for Promoting Colored Volunteering, which recruited and equipped an African American regiment for the U.S. Army; the Loyal Publication Society and Loyal League of Union Citizens, which published more than 900,000 pamphlets for the Union cause; and the Union Defense Committee, which raised several regiments, provided financial aid to the families of poor soldiers, and sent repairmen southward to repair Union railways sabotaged near the frontlines. Like the Sanitary Commission, this last committee provided a set of services so useful to the government that it became an authorized quasi-government arm, dipping into public funds, and eventually authorizing any travel from New York City to the battlefront.
The institution builders of the Civil War embodied a type of excellence that foreign observers of their era described as characteristically American. The jurist Francis Lieber, who emigrated to the United States in 1827, credited this excellence to the fact that America had not “create[d] or tolerate[d] a vast hierarchy of officers, forming a class of mandarins for themselves.” A nation governed by a centralized mandarinate “can summon great strength upon certain occasions, as all [centralized systems] can; but it is no school of strength or character.”
But less than a century after the Civil War, American life did become dominated by centralized and professionally managed bureaucracies. The two world wars only served to entrench this way of life in business and politics. The population, in response, became increasingly conditioned to lobbying for centralized decisions instead of self-organizing. Those who introduced managerial bureaucracy to American life understood the “great strength” bureaucratic tools would grant them. But these tools destroyed the conditions that made them so adept at institution building in the first place. The first instinct of the nineteenth-century American was to ask, “How can we make this happen?” Those raised inside the bureaucratic maze have been trained to ask a different question: “How do I get management to take my side?”
The old “school of strength and character” is gone. The nineteenth-century pattern of life that created it no longer exists. But the features of its social fabric demonstrate what an agentic society with a recognizably modern set of technologies and institutions looks like. This culture was upstream of organizations like the Sanitary Commission, making possible the agentic behaviors of those who founded them. Three features are especially prominent: the aspirational ideal of public brotherhood, a commitment to formality and discipline in self-government, and organizational structures that combined decentralization with hierarchy. These are the same patterns any future culture of high-agency self-government will also have to cultivate in themselves and their neighbors.
A Portrait of the World Before Management
When nineteenth-century Europeans journeyed to the United States, they were struck by the many peculiarities of what they called “American civilization.” In their eyes, the pretensions of upper-class Americans were ridiculous and the manners of lower-class Americans were disgusting. For some of these visitors, the distinguishing feature of American life was a reckless disregard for decorum; for others, it was a restless quest for gain. But if European visitors generally depicted Americans as caught in a precarious balance between boorishness and barbarism, they afforded one consistent compliment to their hosts: awe for their boundless can-do spirit.
For some, American optimism bordered on self-parody. A characteristic account comes from British naval officer Basil Hall’s narrative of his 1827 journey from Albany to Boston. As his party wound their way through the Berkshire escarpments, Captain Hall’s American companions enthused about a proposed plan to build a railway through the mountains. Scoffing at the admiration his American guides felt for “this visionary scheme” to link Albany and Boston by rail, Hall wrote:
The same reasoning might be applied to a hundred other projects in the United States, many of them not less impracticable, but which, although existing only on paper, are, nevertheless, assumed as completed, and cast into the balance of American greatness, till the imaginary scale, loaded with anticipated magnificence, makes the old World kick the beam, to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants of that country, and the admiration of distant lands, who know nothing of the matter.
Five decades after the Albany-Boston Railroad finished construction, the Englishman James Bryce reported that the Americans still “seem to live in the future and not the present…they see the country not merely as it is, but as it will be twenty, fifty, a hundred years hence when the seedlings have grown to forest trees.” His fellow countryman James Muirhead described the spirit of America as one of “illimitable expansion and possibility; [theirs is] an almost childlike confidence in human ability and fearlessness of both the present and the future.” For Hebert Spencer, American self-confidence could be seen in their physiognomy. He told one journalist that “I perceive in American faces a ‘do or die expression’” that betrayed a “power of work exceeding that of any other people.”
When Alexis de Tocqueville compiled his reports on America for a French readership, he recalled that “In America, there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined powers of individuals.” Yankee agency became an object of fascination for him: “Should an obstacle appear on the public highway and the passage of traffic is halted,” Tocqueville told his readers, then “neighbors at once form a group to consider the matter; from this improvised assembly an executive authority appears to remedy the inconvenience before anyone has thought of the possibility of some other authority already in existence before the one they have just formed.” This marked a deep contrast with the French countryside Tocqueville knew best, where the locals left most affairs to the authorities.
These American attitudes were a function of both culture and circumstance. The social obligations of the New World fundamentally differed from those found on the European scene. American citizens were rarely embedded in large clans and their leadership did not hail from a lineage-based aristocracy. Neither their identities nor obligations were grounded in elaborate ties of kinship. The colonists who settled the future United States came from one of the few spots in Europe that embraced the nuclear family as an aspirational ideal: England. At marriage, adult children with the means to do so were expected to leave the homes of their parents to form their own independent households. Key features of this system—such as placing the legal right to choose a spouse in the hands of children, not parents—were enshrined in law.
The result was a country whose citizens generally had no extensive kin network to rely on. Despite not sharing blood, people worked with colleagues and strangers on the basis of shared, socially enforced norms of behavior, as well as moral codes that privileged behaviors like truth-telling, honest effort, and fairness. The dominance of this system ensured that immigrants from more clannish backgrounds had difficulty reproducing their ancestral family system in the United States.
The frontier nature of the country, especially its western regions, was another source of communal self-reliance. The federal government might have waged war on hostile Native American tribes but its reach into the daily lives of pioneer citizens was limited. If settlers pushing to the edge of the frontier required government help, they were responsible for creating that government themselves.
Between the end of the Civil War and Arizona’s ascension to statehood in 1912—the last of the lower 48—thirteen new states joined the Union. Each new state entailed the creation or integration of dozens of new counties, townships, or cities. Creating these new governing units meant chartering school districts, police forces, and governing councils, then constituting and staffing them on the ground. Western expansion is a story told with images of wagon trains, telegraph poles, and railroad spikes. The assembly hall and the courthouse were just as vital.
For this generation of state-builders, the distinction between “state” and “society” so central to the modern conception of the public sphere felt awfully thin. Little wonder that nineteenth-century Americans resorted to vigilante violence so readily: there was little outward distinction between turning a criminal over to their community’s police forces, judicial officials, and jurymen on the one hand and turning a criminal over to their neighbors on the other—the two groups of people were exactly the same. To the frontiersman, civic associations, religious congregations, and state organs would have all drawn on the same set of individuals, just organized differently to solve their own distinct set of problems.
This attitude towards government stayed with Americans long after the frontier receded. As one Chicagoan put the matter during the restoration of public order after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the legal authority behind any state action mattered far less than whether a given action had “the force of public opinion behind it.” As with the United States Sanitary Commission and the Union Defense Committee of New York City, citizens could start solving critical problems as they arose and worry about getting their solutions adopted as part of an official government response later.
A shared set of organizational tools helped Americans nourish cross-domain organizational competence. Successful political parties, fraternal orders, labor unions, religious conferences, and mass membership associations were all ordered along similar lines: the largest organizations in each category were federations of local chapters or lodges that spanned the whole country. The decentralized nature of this “lodge democracy” allowed Americans to preserve the frontier spirit of self-rule, even when the social conditions which originally necessitated this culture of communal self-reliance began to fade away.
In addition, the nation-spanning hierarchies that held these chapters together, and the powerful loyalties they inspired in the masses who joined their ranks, allowed them to successfully shape political and social outcomes for the country writ large. These organizations shared a common framework for conducting meetings, arbitrating disputes, and selecting leaders. Manuals of parliamentary procedure—such as Henry Martyn Robert’s 1876 guide, Robert’s Rules of Order—provided a rule set that governed deliberation in both society and state.
This was well-understood at the time. Per an 1894 promotional for the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal order that then had hundreds of thousands of members across the Midwest, any man who attended the meetings of his local chapter would “become better qualified to discharge his duties as a citizen of the republic” as “the proceedings of a [chapter] are conducted in conformity with the rules prescribed for the deliberation of congress, and familiarity with the affairs of a [chapter] qualifies a man for any public business.” The national head of the Sons of Temperance made a similar point, proudly boasting that the 250,000 young men who attended weekly Sons of Temperance meetings were not just furthering the temperance cause, but mastering the arts of “popular [democratic] debate and eloquence. Accordingly, our young men…go out into the general field prepared to do themselves, in whatever cause they may espouse, full and honorable justice.”
As the nineteenth century rolled forward, Americans were increasingly faced with the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization. In response, they went on an associational building spree. The number of fraternal orders and mass membership organizations founded in the final decades of the Gilded Age has no peer. Many of these institutions are still stalwart pillars of American life. The NRA, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the American Bar Association, the Sierra Club, 4-H, the NAACP, the Boy Scouts, the United Way, the American Legion, and the ACLU make up just a fraction of the organizations created in this period. In any given year, millions of people held leadership positions in organizations like these. They thus formed both a training ground for and a reservoir of organizational competence that could be drawn on in times of need.
These experiences cultivated flexibility in the face of crisis. Religious, civic, business, and state leaders, whose meetings shared similar procedures, whose memberships overlapped, and whose institutions were often the work of their own hands, had little difficulty coordinating together to solve shared crises or create new institutional solutions to common problems. Within days of the first Spanish Flu cases in their localities, states and cities organized emergency commissions to coordinate pandemic relief and quarantines. These committees were not created by federal order, but by the initiative of local leaders alarmed by the pandemic’s spread. They typically included a collection of government officials, prominent businessmen and clergymen, hospital administrators, and the leaders of local associations in their upper councils.
In comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic a century later, the speed with which these committees were assembled is striking. But those organizing them were doing nothing unusual: these same leaders had successfully built and manned a different set of emergency committees just two years before in order to sell war bonds and rally the home front.
Perhaps most remarkable is that despite the multitude of such groups founded by Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they did not leave behind an unwieldy institutional mess. Such instruments were not preserved past their use. When the emergency ended, so did the committees. They were wrapped up or disbanded so their leaders could focus on whatever new tasks were at hand. In today’s age of professional managerial staff, setting up a committee or a bureaucracy all but guarantees that the structure will continue to exist long after the reasons for its founding have ceased to be relevant.
The Social Fabric of Action
In the face of suffocating managerialism or institutional decay, it is easy to lionize the outputs of previous eras like the nineteenth century. Many imagine the great American man of the past as a prototypical rugged individual, neither tamed nor tameable, bestriding the wilderness and dealing out justice in lonesome silence. But this is a false myth. It bears little resemblance to the actual behavior of the American pioneer, and to the kinds of behaviors and norms that an agentic culture would need to cultivate today. Instead, the primary ideal enshrined and ritualized as the mark of manhood was “publick usefuleness,” similar, if not quite identical, to the classical concept of virtus. American civilization was built not by rugged individuals but by rugged communities. Manhood was understood as the leadership of and service to these communities. Three virtues in particular made this culture operate effectively and distinguished it from modern managerialism.
First, institutions cultivated a sense of public kinship and brotherhood, sometimes formalized by sacred oaths. Just as citizens took oaths to the republic or upon the Bible, social and political associations took their bonds of loyalty no less seriously. The fraternities, federations, and even political parties that these men belonged to embraced extravagant rituals, parades, and performances designed to build fraternal feeling among their members while reminding them of their public responsibilities. They required earnest oaths that committed their members to a life of charity, public service, brotherhood, and the betterment of their fellow men. Lodge leaders developed these rituals and treated their oaths with great solemnity. This required their culture to have a functional role for solemnity and seriousness at all. When irreverence becomes a universal norm, attempts at seriousness degenerate into performative role-play.
The famously irreverent Boomers were the first generation of Americans born in the shadow of the new managerial society. The “New Left” counterculture of the 1960s was, in turn, the first attempt to break the shackles of bureaucracy and conformity. New Left radicals condemned the “bewildering dependence” of Americans on “inaccessible castles wherein inscrutable technicians conjure with their fate” and identified the “depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy” as “the greatest problem of our nation.” Their movement ultimately failed, however, to create viable counter-communities capable of agency.
A central reason for their failure is that for all of their talk about “participatory democracy,” the radicals of the New Left were not interested in the discipline, formality, and commitment to reasoned debate that made the actual participatory democracy function. Associating rationalism and rules with the suffocating bureaucratic structures that they rebelled against, New Left radicals ended up mounting a titanic effort to liberate themselves from the very intellectual and organizational tools that successful institution builders use to assert their agency. The cause of self-liberation ended up in conflict with the cause of self-government.
The nineteenth century, by contrast, emphasized the personal discipline that self-government took. The second of its virtues was a strict code of formality and procedure, adhered to by members of all kinds of institutions. While modern institutions have plenty of procedure, the adherence and care given to general procedural norms even in small local affairs created a culture in which the culture of ownership of institutions was widely shared, not centralized.
Self-government meant a deep commitment to an otherwise mundane set of tasks. The engines of communal self-reliance were humdrum activities like reading through Robert’s Rules of Order and taking detailed minutes of all comments made at organization meetings. Through practical experience, nineteenth-century Americans realized that formality was an important tool of self-rule. Formally drafting charters and bylaws, electing officers, and holding meetings by strict procedures seems like busy work to those accustomed to weak associational ties. But the formality of such associations expressed commitment to the cause and clarified the relationships and responsibilities needed for effective action.
The temptation faced by those alienated from majority institutions is to place self-affirmation above action. This sort of “liberation” is a recipe for impotence. The brotherhood of builders only succeeds if their institutions demand the formality, discipline, and clearly delineated lines of responsibility that such building requires.
Another target of the 1960s counterculture was the hierarchy they saw as reinforcing and reproducing systems of oppression within institutions. Often, this became an attack on hierarchy as such. In practice, many found that maintaining an egalitarian culture was only possible on an extremely small scale. This informed a strongly localist tendency that lionized organization and action at “the human scale.” Modern criticisms of industrialism and centralized power continue to echo these ideologies.
The third virtue was, instead, an embrace of functional hierarchy that allowed local initiatives to scale up to a very high level. The identification of “human scale” with smallness or localism was a false conflation. The reality proved by the nineteenth-century experience is that neither hierarchy nor scale is inherently opposed to agency. Many of the postbellum institutions that dominated American life operated on a national scale, occasionally mobilizing millions of people for their causes. However, the lodge and chapter-based structure of these institutions ensured those local leaders had wide latitude of action inside their own locality. Local leaders relied on local resources and thus rarely had to petition higher-ups to solve their area’s problems.
These chapters thus not only served as vehicles of self-rule at the lower level but also prepared leaders for successful decision-making at higher levels of a hierarchy. Wielding authority at the lower levels of a nineteenth-century organization closely mirrored the experience of wielding authority in its highest echelons. Absent such training, leadership does in fact become the impenetrable closed circle that disturbed the advocates of “human scale.” Centralization, not hierarchy, caused the demise of local dynamism.
Many of the modern institutions which have most successfully retained their nineteenth-century commitment to decentralized local leadership—such as the LDS church or the U.S. Marine Corps—have famously rigid hierarchies. These institutions integrate clear chains of command with a structure and culture that encourages initiative and independent problem-solving by leaders at the lowest level of the hierarchy. The leaders of these institutions understand that the only way to train someone to effectively lead large organizations is to give them practice acting autonomously on a smaller scale. Empowering people down the chain to make mistakes lets their leaders up the chain prevent them from happening at a larger scale. Great lessons usually involve making some mistakes, so it is better that the damage be limited.
The reality is that the thriving localities were not actually localist in their ambitions. The nineteenth-century institution-builders dreamed and built on a grand scale. Ambitious people in other countries often wasted their talent learning how to climb calcified bureaucratic ladders. The ambitious American of the nineteenth century did not have that option. The only way he could realize great ambitions was by directly confronting the problems of his day. The “school of strength and character” was a culture that cultivated immense ambitions, fueling the development of cities, literature, industry, and politics.
The norms developed by this highly agentic period allowed its people to function at an extremely high level of competency. They remain powerful norms for those building institutions or agentic cultures today. Ideals like public usefulness, formalist discipline, and agentic hierarchy can be cultivated when a culture or institution actually has use for them. Those who built the organizations that won wars, secured the frontier, and developed society were motivated by useful and ambitious goals. To achieve them, they acted according to those norms and social forms they knew were effective. Such functionality may be rare in a more managerial age, but it is always within the power of human will and action to pursue it.