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American Democracy Built On Volunteer Spirit

American Democracy Built on Volunteer Spirit

Volunteerism continues to be crucial to a functioning democracy, American authors Susan Ellis and Katherine Campbell say in their book By the People.

Civic voluntary activity long has been a noteworthy aspect of American society. Volunteers helped shape the nation and continue to contribute to its prosperity. The more citizens involve themselves as volunteers, "the closer they come to making the ideals of democracy real," the authors, who are experts in volunteerism, say.

American volunteerism includes such activities as serving on community committees, raising funds for worthy causes, working to preserve historical landmarks, serving on fire and ambulance crews and leading youth groups.

Within American institutions, professions and social events, the impact of volunteerism has been noteworthy. Volunteerism is a "method of accomplishing a shared social goal" that has been adopted quickly by "every new wave of immigrants," Ellis and Noyes say.

"European settlers of the new American colonies all had the same priority: survival. ... Cooperation frequently meant the difference between life and death," the authors say.

To achieve this cooperation, members of every new community had to assume a variety of roles covering every aspect of need. They adapted the institutions and beliefs they brought with them into new models.

The settlers discovered that this mutual service did more than simply provide for survival; it also "provided social outlets and promoted a sense of community," the authors say. The new system came to define much about American life.

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Without a diversified government, many aspects of society at the time were handled by individual volunteers or voluntary societies. As settlements grew, they adopted forms of government that strengthened mutual ties and depended on individual service.

Books were rare, so personal collections were shared, and often donated to the community. Historical documents often were combined with the book collections, creating local libraries and museums. As cities appeared, many services eventually were taken over by the government. But in the beginning, they were done by interested citizens.

Volunteers also delivered services in areas such as education, crime management, emergency response, newspapers, mail delivery and caring for the poor.

As Americans pushed westward into new territories, families traveled in groups for safety. These "mobile communities" divided tasks among their members, with each person's contributions being important to the success of the entire group.

This spirit carried over when they reached new lands. Experimenting with new approaches to community organization, settlers developed "democratic governing codes" built on mutual aid and individual volunteer service -- codes that later formed the basis for state constitutions, the authors say. As the United States grew, groups formed to address problems of newly arrived immigrant groups.

Many notables in American history are associated with voluntary efforts or philanthropic development. They include:

* Benjamin Franklin, who in the 18th century founded one of the country's first libraries, the first volunteer fire company and the first zoo;

* Clara Barton, who worked on the battlefields to help the U.S. Civil War wounded then founded the American National Red Cross, adding disaster service to the European model;

* Jane Addams, whose settlement house movement in the late 19th century addressed problems of the urban poor and led to significant social reforms.

The support the first settlers received from the local American Indian tribes is formalized in many of America's Thanksgiving traditions.

Incorporating many traditions, addressing new challenges, learning from working together -- America has developed in an environment that encourages innovation and helping one another. It continues to exemplify the best of what it means to participate in a democratic society.


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