This post is by Lee Ann Potter of the Library of Congress.
In the October 2023 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article began by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat, diplomat, and sociologist who traveled to the United States and Canada for nearly ten months in 1831-32, taking extensive notes on his observations. By 1835 he had transformed his notes into Democracy in America, one of the most influential books of the 19th century.
In it, he included an entire chapter titled “OF THE USE WHICH THE AMERICANS MAKE OF PUBLIC ASSOCIATIONS IN CIVIL LIFE,” and shared his fascination with the spirit of association that he witnessed. He wrote, “Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.”
Among the digitized collections of the Library of Congress, in the papers of individuals whose influence and impact on society were significant, there is ample evidence of the spirit that de Tocqueville observed.
In our NCSS article, we suggested that the evidence, in the form of membership cards and certificates, can capture both the attention and imagination of students, and perhaps encourage them to consider the impact and influence of their own memberships and associations.
Specifically, we shared that:
- The Papers of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist, features an entire collection of “Membership cards and dues;”
- The Papers of Mary Church Terrell, the African-American civil rights leader, lecturer, and educator, who championed racial equality and women’s suffrage in the late 19thand early 20th century, include her NAACP membership card, her church membership card, her 1947-48 membership card in the District of Columbia branch of the National Women’s Party, and more;
- The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the reformer, feminist, and suffragist, contains her lifetime membership certificate in the National Woman Suffrage Association and an 1885 certificate announcing her unanimous election to the Kansas State Historical Society as a corresponding member;
- The Papers of Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president and vice president of the United States, United States civil service commissioner, governor of New York, and was an author and conservationist, includes a certificate announcing that he was unanimously elected as an honorary member of the Oregon Historical Society in April 1911; and
- The papers of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted contains a certificate dated March 20, 1896, indicating that Olmsted had been elected as a corresponding member to the National Geographic Society.
We encouraged sharing copies of the featured membership cards and certificates with students and inviting student pairs to analyze them. We also suggested leading a class discussion about memberships and associations; asking students what they think membership in a particular association or organization reveals about an individual; asking them to categorize the associations and organizations represented in the sources; and encouraging them to describe and categorize the organizations and associations that they personally belong to, including clubs and teams.
Finally, we suggested sharing with students quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville and inviting them to discuss de Tocqueville’s observations and his use of the term “civil life,” as well as their personal experiences with associations, the information suggested by the featured sources, and the many roles that associations play in society.
If you are interested in learning more about the United States’ interest in joining organizations and associations you may be interested in exploring the Library of Congress exhibition, “Join In: Voluntary Associations in America.”
If you shared and discussed these sources with students, we would love to hear if they prompted students to propose topics for independent research—and what those topics were!
Do you enjoy these posts? Subscribe! You’ll receive free teaching ideas and primary sources from the Library of Congress.