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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.

Author Information

Elisabeth S. Clemens is the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The People’s Lobby and coeditor of Politics and Partnership, both published by the University of Chicago Press.


“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

Audience: Professional and scholarly;