The Concept of Membership in the Age of Reform
The first generations of American citizens learned a great deal about how to join together in ways voluntary, effective, and safe for both the republic and the individual citizen. Something new did appear in the 1830s, however, when temperance and antislavery societies that were organized around a pledge—a public confession of faith in the cause and an internalized commitment to both personal and societal transformation—brought a novel and powerful kind of voluntary membership to the United States. And thus the post-Revolutionary emphasis on procedure and law-minded practices in American civil society sowed the seeds of its own historical obscurity, for the associational diversity that it nurtured had produced new ways of thinking about the meanings of voluntary membership, new ways of joining together. The pluralism of antebellum American civil society had opened the door to something new and radically transformative.
Keywords: reform societies, temperance, antislavery, William Ellery Channing, civil society, voluntary association