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Civic Gifts

Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State

Civic Gifts

Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State

In Civic Gifts, Elisabeth S. Clemens takes a singular approach to probing the puzzle that is the United States. How, she asks, did a powerful state develop within an anti-statist political culture? How did a sense of shared nationhood develop despite the linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences among settlers and, eventually, citizens? Clemens reveals that an important piece of the answer to these questions can be found in the unexpected political uses of benevolence and philanthropy, practices of gift-giving and reciprocity that coexisted uneasily with the self-sufficient independence expected of liberal citizens Civic Gifts focuses on the power of gifts not only to mobilize communities throughout US history, but also to create new forms of solidarity among strangers. Clemens makes clear how, from the early Republic through the Second World War, reciprocity was an important tool for eliciting both the commitments and the capacities needed to face natural disasters, economic crises, and unprecedented national challenges. Encompassing a range of endeavors from the mobilized voluntarism of the Civil War, through Community Chests and the Red Cross to the FDR-driven rise of the March of Dimes, Clemens shows how voluntary efforts were repeatedly articulated with government projects.  The legacy of these efforts is a state co-constituted with, as much as constrained by, civil society.

392 pages | 9 halftones, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Sociology: General Sociology, Individual, State and Society, Social History, Social Institutions


“Fascinating. . . During wars, natural disasters, economic depressions and previous epidemics, Americans have turned not just to the public sector for aid and guidance but also to a variety of business groups and voluntary organizations—in essence, taking “personal responsibility” for the problems they were facing. This philanthropy-rooted approach, Ms. Clemens argues, has helped Americans offset their ambivalence about active government while forging a sense of shared purpose in crisis.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Clemens is our most important political sociologist, and in Civic Gifts she explodes the myth that civil society stands apart from the state. This book is a magnificent history of the relationship between civic benevolence and the building of American identity, as well as a must-read history for anyone who has ever described the United States, like Tocqueville, as a nation of joiners.”

Rob Reich, author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better

“This brilliant, colorful, and profoundly theorized book shows how, bit by bit, a contraption arose that precariously reconciled many contradictory pieces of American civic life, state, and culture: the voluntary association, in its many surprising permutations. Clemens’ masterpiece of social, political, and cultural history reveals how the American state crafted American emotions, and vice versa. Civic Gifts is a book for all political theorists and social historians.”

Nina Eliasoph, author of The Politics of Volunteering

“In a regime like America’s—premised on popular sovereignty but with a vibrant anti-state tradition—state actors became dependent on the collaboration of others and vice versa. In Civic Gifts, Clemens shows how this interpenetration worked to transpose relations of private benevolence into support for both nation- and state-building. Her book is a major achievement in the state-building literature, in the tradition of Weber, Moore, Tilly, and Mann.”

Sidney Tarrow, author of War, States, and Contention

“Clemens impressively details questions about proper roles of, and relationship between, public and private sectors in meeting social challenges through American history. . . . Clemens thoroughly examines how civil society has related to the state, and whether they can stand apart even if they want to do so. . . . Civic Gifts thus necessarily—and knowledgeably and intelligently—considers, in some depth, notions of civic benevolence, philanthropy as gift-giving, and the building of American identity.”

Philanthropy Daily

“Richly textured, nuanced, and engrossing. . . Civic Gifts raises important questions about the relationship among charitable giving, civic identity, participatory democracy, and the state.”

Stanford Social Innovation Review

“Clemens analyzes the relationship between nonprofit organizations and American government and, in the process, forces us to set aside a powerful myth about the philanthropic world: the myth of independence.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy

"Dr. Clemens’ excellent study helps us understand the visions and practices of voluntary benevolent associations throughout America’s history—and provides a vantage point for assessing the erosion of our feelings of solidarity and common purpose with our fellow citizens."

Law and Liberty

"Clemens is attuned to the complex and often contradictory consequences of partnerships between public institutions and private organizations."

The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

"Elisabeth S. Clemens’ Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State is an ambitious retelling of the development of the American state through episodes of historical conflict between 'two different and demonstrably contradictory relational geometries: the form of the gift and the model of liberal citizenship' (p. 266)."

American Journal of Cultural Sociology

Table of Contents


1. Principles of Association and Combination
2. Civil War, Civic Expansion: The “Divine Method” of Patriotism
3. Municipal Benevolence
4. The Expansible Nation-State
5. “Everything but Government Submarines”: Limits of a Semi-governmental System
6. In the Shadow of the New Deal
7. The People’s Partnership
8. Good Citizens of a World Power
9. Combinatorial Politics and Constitutive Contradictions

List of Abbreviations
List of Archives


Comparative and Historical Sociology section, American Sociological Association: Barrington Moore Book Award

ASA Section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: Outstanding Published Book Award

The Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA): Peter Dobkin Hall History of Philanthropy Prize

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