Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Democracy

Taking on Tocqueville: Revisiting the Connection between Democracy and Civil Society

Editors’ Note: HistPhil takes a brief break from our forum on the Tax Reform Act of 1969 for a post by Thomas Adam complicating the historical association between the growth of democracy and the surging of civil society.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s dictum that Americans formed associations for addressing social problems while the French and English waited for the state to solve them has encouraged a particular understanding of civil society and civic activities in which they are regarded as synonymous with democracy in the United States. As Kathleen McCarthy aptly put it in her American Creed: “it is not possible to understand the meaning of American democracy without understanding civil society.”

Tocqueville’s observations during his travels in the United States in 1831 inspired, to borrow McCarthy’s title, an American creed that causally links democracy with civil society. A high density of civil society organizations (such as voluntary associations, endowments, foundations, and cooperatives), thus, could be regarded as a predictor of a democratic order while a low density or absence of civil society organizations was considered a predictor of authoritarian rule. Such assumptions caused twentieth-century historians of countries such as Germany to forgo the search for civil society organizations in their country’s past since the authoritarian and dictatorial rule seemed to indicate the absence of civil society. General accounts of German history, therefore, contain little information about civil society actors. German society was believed to have been a wasteland of civil society.

Yet such interpretations of German society were simply wrong. In the 1990s, historians of philanthropy unearthed a plethora of information about all kinds of civil society actors there, from associations to foundations. But it is not the sheer existence and immense scope of civil society organizations in German society which is of particular interest for us but rather the simple fact that civil society organizations clearly existed within non-democratic systems. In fact, the peak of German civil society did not coincide with the democratization of German society in the 1920s and (in West Germany) in the 1950s but preceded (and so cannot be said to cause) democratization and occurred within the context of the authoritarian German Empire. And more importantly, the dictatorial systems of the twentieth century – Nazism and Communism – were not void of civil society organizations either. Both systems restricted but did not completely abolish associations and foundations that supported social, cultural, and educational institutions. They rather permitted such organizations to continue their work for as long as it benefitted and thereby stabilized these systems. Democracy of the 1920s and in West Germany of the 1950s, by contrast, came with a large-scale destruction of German philanthropy and the subordination of civil society to the (democratic) state.

The Kingdom of Prussia in 1865 displayed an extensive network of civil society organizations that included associations, endowments, and foundations, which provided services in the fields of education, social welfare, and supported all kinds of cultural institutions. These organizations were essential for the functioning of Prussia’s public institutions. Donors who created these institutions had a voice in the shaping of monarchic society, and the visions of donors often coincided with the visions put forward by monarchical rulers. The number of Prussians involved in giving, the number of organizations created, and the amount of money given were truly astonishing.

This enormous growth of civil society organizations in a country that was not only non-democratic but also had no formalized separation of state from church, an arrangement which has often been credited for the proliferation of civil society in nineteenth-century U.S. society, calls also into question assumptions about the impact of disestablishment on civil society. In fact, the growth of Prussian civil society was greatly helped by an established church. While American states such as Pennsylvania and New York sought to limit the funds directed towards civil society organizations by restricting the amounts that could be transferred to foundations through last wills and testaments, no such laws were introduced in Prussia. These American laws resulted from fears about the power of the dead hand and fears that religious groups could regain power and influence lost with disestablishment. The absence of similar laws in Prussia allowed for a free flow of money from individuals who left at their deathbed their riches to endowments and foundations. The result was a fast-growing civil society sector in monarchic Prussia and a slow-growing civil society in much of the democratic United States.

Somewhat paradoxically, the lack of separation of state from church in Prussia contributed to the secularization of philanthropy while the separation of state and church in the United States has moved philanthropy closer into the service of religion. Disestablishment forced American religious communities, which were stripped of state funding, to find new ways of supporting their operations and institutions. In order to secure their survival, each religious denomination created its own network of voluntary associations that replaced the state as source of funding. These voluntary associations provided the funding for the support of churches, charities, and colleges.

Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian voluntary associations involved a growing number of men and women in fundraising activities but also provided extensive social services to those involved. In the process, much of civil society and philanthropy obtained a decidedly religious character. The networks of associations and endowments established a continuously growing number of funds. More and more services were offered by these denominational funds, which in turn required more and more philanthropic support, which involved more and more supporters.

The expansion of voluntary associations that served specific denominations secured religious communities a growing influence in American society and perpetuated religiosity in general. It was, after all, religious and not secular voluntary associations that provided most social services for much of the nineteenth century. Higher education is a case in point. Religious communities in need of ministers, teachers, and community leaders founded and supported scores of religious colleges. These colleges admitted and produced Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians who filled the ranks of their denominations and secured their survival and expansion. American colleges became instrumental in reproducing the religious diversity and divisions of American society and in keeping the American nation a Christian one.

Christian communities in Prussia, by contrast, enjoyed state support and had, therefore, no need for the development of extensive networks of voluntary associations to fund their operations. Therefore, philanthropy and civil society could emerge outside of religious communities. Donors gave predominantly towards public institutions, which were not connected to a specific religious denomination but were rather state institutions open to members of all religions, such as public schools, universities, museums, libraries, and social housing projects. They gave less frequently to institutions run by religious communities; in this sense, their giving separated religion from philanthropy and civil society. Philanthropy in Prussia was a public and universal, not a religious and parochial, service.

The comparison of civil society in nineteenth-century Prussia and the United States provides fascinating insights into the evolution of civil society. This comparison suggests that it was simply wrong to assume a causal connection between civil society and democracy. Instead, the emergence and development of civil society is linked to the transformation of societies from an agrarian and organized system of social hierarchies to an industrial, more socially dynamic order. The destruction of established social hierarchies, the creation and accumulation of wealth, and the emergence of social inequality provided powerful incentives for the formation of civil society. Since this economic modernization and transformation occurred not only within democratic societies such as the United States but also within monarchic societies such as Prussia, it seems clear that civil society developed in and contributed to the stabilization of both types of political system.

-Thomas Adam

Thomas Adam has been appointed as Associate Director of the International and Global Studies Program at the University of Arkansas in 2020. He was a professor of transnational history at the University of Texas at Arlington from 2001 to 2020. He is the editor of the Yearbook of Transnational History and the author of Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the State in German History, 1815-1989.

One thought on “Taking on Tocqueville: Revisiting the Connection between Democracy and Civil Society

  1. Very interesting article — except one drawback is that the author equates civil society to charitable, or perhaps not-for-profit organizations. In a June 2004 Alliance Magazine issue Barry Knight tightly summarizes Michael Edwards’ concept of civil society:

    “Edwards suggests that there are three component features of civil society that are commonly conflated in the ‘lazy thinking’ that bedevils the field. The first component, deriving from de Tocqueville, is civil society as ‘association’ where citizens come together to organize. The second component, having its roots in the Greek polis, the Islamic Ummah and the Jewish Tikkum Olam, is civil society as a metaphor for ‘a good society’. Whereas the first meaning is descriptive, the second is normative. The third component, most articulately formulated by Habermas, is civil society as the ‘public sphere’ where the free play of ideas creates ‘dialogic politics’.”

    Thomas Adams speaks only to the first component feature.


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