Soon, his face caught fire and he collapsed. After five hours in what they assumed would be their coffin, the men stirred. Forty-one were still alive, with only five dead.

Pulaski never received a cent from the government for his heroism. But Pinchot used the fire to tell the story of the Forest Service, the small band of underfunded heroes who risked their lives to save others. The fire turned out to be the making of that new and embattled agency.

When you look back at that era, you are struck by how many civic institutions were founded to address the nation’s problems. Not only the Forest Service, but also the Food and Drug Administration, the municipal reform movement, the suffrage movement, the Federal Reserve System, the Boy Scouts, the 4-H clubs, the settlement house movement, the compulsory schooling movement, and on and on. Four amendments to the Constitution were passed in those years.

In fact, when you look back on most periods of American history you see a rash of new organizations being created. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin helped build the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Fire Department, The Pennsylvania Gazette, The American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital and much else.

In the 1930s, the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies were created. The late 1940s saw the creation of the big multinational institutions: the U.N., NATO, the World Bank, the I.M.F., the beginnings of the European market.

When you look around today, you see a lot of history-making new companies being created, but you don’t see too many big civic organizations. There are some great social entrepreneurs, like Bill Drayton, who started Ashoka, but the only vast national civic movements I can think of are the charter school movement and the Tea Party.

We’ve got just as many problems as previous generations faced — as many as in the progressive era, I’d say. Why has there been this decline in civic institution building?

Political polarization has got to be a big culprit. The federal government can’t build anything new, even something as obvious as a national service program. The churches have let us down, too. The Christian churches have been behind most of the big social movements in American history, like abolition, poverty programs and civil rights. But for the past generation the church has been fighting a defensive war against the sexual revolution, not an offensive assault for opportunity and human dignity.

The affluent have also been less entrepreneurial. Many civic institutions in past decades were created by people like T.R. and Pinchot, who inherited family empires but devoted their lives to civic institution building.

But I wonder if there is also a malaise, a loss of faith in the future and a loss of expertise in institution building, a sense of general fragmentation and isolation. American foreign policy, which used to be about building positive coalitions to make life better, now seems to be based on the idea that we should defensively withdraw from things. There has been a loss of civic imagination.

The good news is that one could have said the same thing in 1890, when politics was steeped in corruption and the economy wracked by crisis. But by 1910 the landscape was transformed. There were new organizations, new movements, a new mentality and a new burst of optimism.

Even the worst fires clear the way for new growth.

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