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the duty and right of association

I was pleased but not at all surprised to see Tracy Rowland’s recommendation of Barbara’s book, Street Saints. And, not just a recommendation. Rowland proclaimed Street Saints as one of her best reads of 2010 over at Carl Olson’s website, Ignatius Insight Scoop.

As most readers of The Imaginative Conservative know, Barbara has been putting into action and describing the meaning of association—first in Europe during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and second in the poorest areas of the United States—for well over two decades. Almost certainly, she is our best living example of an intellectual who actively manifests those actions in the form of true and dignified charity.

Barbara’s words and actions follow those of the nineteenth century thinker, Alexis De Tocqueville, brilliantly. They also follow beliefs of the nearly forgotten twentieth century conservative, Robert Nisbet.

Americans, de Tocqueville noted, possess a special gift of association. If a problem existed, whatever that problem might be, Americans worked together to combat it. Americans do this in the realm of culture, the arts, religion, education, etc.  Indeed, there seemed to be no aspect of life, de Tocqueville argued, not touched by an association.

In combining, one with another, Americans not only helped solve whatever the problem might be, but they also, in the French observer’s words, enlarged the heart and renewed “ideas and feelings.” All—the givers as well as the recipients—grew morally and spiritually.

The right, duty, and habit of association is difficult to maintain, to pass down from one generation to the next. The failure to do so, however, can have serious and probably permanent consequences, all detrimental.

If government “leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track,” de Tocqueville argued, “it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny.” When citizens help citizens, the heart, the mind, and the soul of the individuals involved is enlarged. But, when government becomes involved, the equation changes, and society and government wrestle for a limited and diminishing part of the culture and community. “The more government takes the place of associations,” he argued, “the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government come to their help.”

What Nisbet did in words a six decades ago, and what Barbara does here and now in word and deed, is remind us of this noble heritage. Barbara asks all Americans to grasp this fundamental American right, duty, and habit.

In so doing, Barbara also looks back to the American Founding.  Indeed, it would have to be nearly impossible to look at the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and believe that the Founders somehow had a Rousseauvian, collectivist republic in mind when establishing a stable order to our political society. Through the rights to petition, assemble, and contract, they knew a permanent society could only be built upon strong families, communities, and businesses.

Other great Americans have recognized this as well. In his lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, founding father James Wilson understood the fundamental right of association—itself necessary for Americans to achieve character, “the nearest, the dearest” species of property. John Marshall recognized and defended the right of association in numerous Supreme Court cases, whether dealing with colleges or American Indians.  Paul Elmer More and Albert Jay Nock understood its importance during, between, and after the twentieth-century world wars.

A thank you to Tracy Rowland and especially to Barbara Elliott for asking us to remember such things, all fundamental to our American character and to true progress.

Books on conservative culture by Mrs. Elliott and Dr. Birzer are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Dr. Birzer, Thanks for reminding us of the people that embody the most noble aspects of American life. I completely agree that Barbara is one of the leading, if not the leading, intellectual who lives to serve her community. In fact, I am so inspired by her grasp of conservatism manifest through community outreach that I have decided to write my thesis on exactly that–it will be dedicated to examining the lives of conservatives who understand the necessity of serving their communities in tangible ways, ultimately uniting people through the love of Christ.

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