Writing of Jacksonian America, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville saluted Americans’ proclivity for forming “civil associations” for purposes large and small. Tocqueville observed that they formed associations to “give fĂȘtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.” Not only did these associations help bring about their immediate aims; they brought together highly individualistic citizens and sowed fellow-feeling. “I often admired the infinite art,” he concluded, “with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal . . . get them to advance to it freely.”
If Tocqueville is right—and I believe he is—then how rank-and-file people respond to traumas such as natural disasters represents a barometer of American cultural well-being. Florence relief provides a hopeful reading on that gauge. Let’s preserve that self-starting ethos—and perform an act of cultural upkeep.