Alexis de Tocqueville, in the introduction to "Democracy in America," noted that the power of the American experience was to be found in the way citizens joined together in free association. Such free association, he posited, could be the greatest power for good to lift, ennoble and enlighten citizens of every economic class — not through coercion of government but through cooperation and goodwill.
I was reminded of the power of such association on Wednesday when I was asked to speak at a breakfast meeting of the Bonneville Exchange Club. It was a small gathering of about 15. It started, like so many service organization meetings, with the ringing of a bell, the Pledge of Allegiance and a humble prayer — pure Americana.
I was starting to think through where I would start my speech and what I could say to the group that might be of benefit. I almost missed the magic of the meeting. There were two important items of business. First, the group was planning to take some children in need bowling before Christmas. Second, there was a sign-up list for "bell ringing" shifts for the Salvation Army. This group really didn't need me to inspire anyone. I was struck by the powerful simplicity of simply doing good — no government mandate required — just good people doing good.
On a morning where I was most pessimistic about America's politics, I came away, once again, inspired by the real power of the people. It reminded me of Margaret Mead when she noted, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
This type of free association, to exchange ideas and find opportunities to serve, has a long history. Benjamin Franklin launched his Leather Apron Club (often called Junto) in 1727. Franklin originally called it the Leather Apron Club as most of the members were from trades like printing and carpentry. He wrote in his autobiography: "I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, (1727) I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased."
Franklin also used a series of questions to frame the groups meetings, discussions and actions that were similar to other improvement or temperance societies. Questions laid out by Cotton Mather's Neighborhood Benefit Society were mirrored by Franklin.
Some of Mather's Neighborhood Benefit Society questions included:
Do we know of any person languishing under sad and sore affliction, and is there anything we may do for the succor of such an afflicted neighbor?
Is there anything which we may do well to mention and recommend to the justices for the further promoting of good order?
Is there any matter to be humbly moved unto the legislative power to be enacted into a law for public benefit?
Franklin's Leather Apron Club had 24 questions, including:
What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?
Have you lately heard of any citizen's thriving well, and by what means?
Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation?
Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded? If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?
Do you think of anything at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?
Have you any weighty affair in hand, in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?
Mather summarized the potential for good of such associations by saying, "The man that shall produce and propose such Societies will do an unknown deal of Good in the neighborhood."
As I looked around the room at the Bonneville Exchange Club on Wednesday I realized that this small group of thoughtful, committed citizens had changed the world. Without fanfare or headlines, they just helped each other, talked about important principles and served the people of their community.
It was a bit of a full-circle moment for me as my father, Robert Matheson, had been one of the founding members of this club and its first president nearly 50 years ago. There weren't many young professionals left in the room, but there should be. A new generation of service organizations and members would do wonders for the world.
The Bonneville Exchange Club and countless similar organizations give me great hope for the country. I saw around that table a tiny army of earth-bound angels without wings and a team of superheroes without capes — America at its best. The liberty to freely associate and the notion to use it to improve lives and make a difference for fellow citizens is still a defining characteristic of a most unique nation.