Policy Review Banner

Profiles in Citizenship

Friday, March 1, 1996

Clara Barton struggled with bureaucratic insensitivity all her life. Her biggest problem was getting official permission to do good.

Born Christmas Day, 1821, Barton showed a talent for organizing charity when she established the first free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. After enrollments soared, the local school board pushed her aside.

When the Civil War erupted, she felt driven to help. After learning that soldiers from her home state of Massachusetts were quartered in the U.S. Senate chambers without beds or supplies, she brought items from her home and, with her own money, purchased and prepared food for them.

Barton discovered that ambulances, medical supplies, and hospital construction were not high priorities for the Union military bureaucracy. Henry Halleck, the Army's general-in-chief, dismissed them as "effeminating comforts." (He felt the same about shoes and shirts.) Union soldiers commonly died on the battlefield waiting for treatment, yet the Medical Department, valuing bureaucratic ritual over need, refused to change policy. Frustrated, Barton collected supplies and personally arranged their distribution.

Barton eventually accumulated three warehousefuls of supplies and persuaded the Army to help distribute them at the front. At great personal risk -- a bullet ripped through her sleeve at Antietam and killed the injured soldier she was aiding -- Barton fed troops and helped evacuate the wounded. Nearly two years into the war, the Army finally agreed to contribute supplies to her volunteer efforts. She devised a plan for each state to establish a distribution agency where it had a substantial regimental presence.

Barton encountered bureaucratic resistance everywhere. When the War Department ignored a sergeant's requests for a furlough -- despite the fact that both of his arms had been blown off in battle -- an outraged Barton escorted him to the office of Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson. She then explained that his furlough request was being disregarded and handed the senator the necessary paperwork. When Wilson extended his welcome, Barton commented, "You will pardon the sergeant for not offering you a hand -- he has none." The soldier left on furlough the following day.

Exhausted by such struggles, Barton sought rest in Europe. In 1870, the Grand Duchess of Baden enlisted her help with the International Red Cross's relief effort for civilian refugees and wounded soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. Admiring the systematic organization and efficiency of the institution, Barton undertook a one-woman effort to found an American chapter of the Red Cross. She sought congressional approval for the organization's involvement in wartime humanitarian aid, but was initially thwarted by fears of foreign entanglements.

To make the organization more attractive to an isolationist Congress, Barton expanded its proposed focus to include domestic peacetime disaster relief, an expansion later adopted by the International Red Cross under the "American Amendment." Finally, in 1881, Barton founded the American Association of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C. She was elected its first president.

Barton kept the American Red Cross decentralized, giving hands-on authority to local chapters. Journalist Joel Chandler Harris (of Uncle Remus fame) praised the charity's efficiency: "There are no exhibitions of self-importance. . . . The perfection of its machinery is shown by the apparent absence of machinery."

Nevertheless, in 1904, at 81, Barton was maneuvered out of the presidency by socialite Mabel Thorp Boardman, who wanted to transform the Red Cross into a more centralized administrative structure based on new theories of "scientific management." After leading a failed coup against Barton, she vengefully instigated a congressional investigation into the organization. Once the investigation vindicated her, Barton resigned.

For her life's work, Barton received the German Iron Cross, the Red Cross of Geneva, and the Empress Augusta medal, among other honors. "They do brighten up an old dress," she joked. She spent her last years caring for relatives, occasionally pinning her medals on her dress before going out to milk the cows. She died at 91, in Glen Echo, Maryland.

Today, Barton's organization remains volunteer-oriented and decentralized; its ratio of volunteers to paid workers is about 50:1. In addition to collecting 6 million units of blood (nearly half the nation's entire clinical blood supply) each year, the Red Cross provides aid after natural disasters, processes emergency communications between military personnel and their families, and offers first aid and medical training.

Barton learned early on that charities attract two kinds of people: those concerned with doing good and those concerned with looking good. The former want to help; the latter are primarily interested in social engineering and self-aggrandizement. Her persistence and character ultimately triumphed over bureaucratic interference, making the Red Cross an effective force for good -- and one worthy of the memory of Clara Barton.