Alexis de Tocqueville
“Among the laws that rule human societies, there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve. …”
— Alexis de Tocqueville
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-4563 DLC]

Americans of all colors pulled themselves out of poverty in the 19th century by creating wealth through invention and enterprise. As they did so, they generously gave much of their income — along with their time and personal attention — to the aid of their neighbors and communities. When the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville visited a young, bustling America during the Jackson administration in the 1830s, he cited the vibrancy of this "civil society" as one of our greatest assets.

De Tocqueville was amazed that Americans were constantly forming "associations" to advance the arts, build libraries and hospitals, and meet social needs of every kind. If something good needed to be done, it didn't occur to Andrew Jackson or his fellow citizens to expect politicians and bureaucrats, who were distant in both space and spirit, to do it for them. "Among the laws that rule human societies," wrote de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America," "there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve. ..."

Indeed, this "art of associating together" in the 19th century produced the most remarkable flowering of private charitable assistance ever seen. This era saw the founding of many of America's most notable, lasting private associations — from the Salvation Army to the Red Cross.

For many reasons, such groups are far more effective in solving social problems — poverty, homelessness and illiteracy, for instance — than are government programs. They are more likely to get to the root of problems that stem from spiritual, attitudinal and behavioral deficiencies. They are also more inclined to demand accountability, which means they won't simply cut a check every two weeks without expecting the recipient to do something in return and change destructive patterns of behavior. Ultimately, private associations also tend to promote self-reliance, instead of dependency.

And if these groups don't produce results, they usually wither; the parishioners or others who voluntarily support them will put their money elsewhere. In contrast, when a government program fails to perform, its lobbyists make a case for more funding. Worse, they usually get it.

From start to finish, what private charities do represents a manifestation of free will. No one is compelled to provide assistance.No one is coerced to pay for it. No one is required to accept it. All parties come together of their own volition.

And therein lies the magic of it all! The link between the giver, the provider and the receiver is strong precisely because each knows he can walk away from it at the slightest hint of insincerity, broken promises or poor performance. Because each party gives his own time or resources voluntarily, he tends to focus on the mission and doesn't get bogged down in secondary agendas, like filling out the proper paperwork or currying favor with those in power.

Management expert Peter Drucker summed it up well when he said that private charities, both faith-based and secular, "spend far less for results than governments spend for failure."

Men and women of faith — whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem or something else — should be the first to argue that God doesn't need federal funds to do His work. When they get involved in charitable work, it's usually with the knowledge that a change of heart will often do more to conquer poverty than a welfare check. They focus on changing hearts, one heart at a time.?

That's the way most Americans thought and behaved in the 19th century. They would have thought it a cop-out of the first order to pass these responsibilities on to politicians. Instead, Americans became the most generous people on earth. Christians specifically viewed personal, charitable involvement as "servanthood" commanded of them by Christ.