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Joining In at the Kluge Center

This is a post by Kevin Butterfield, Director of the John W. Kluge Center

People view and walk through an exhibit at the Library of Congress.

“Join In: Voluntary Associations in America” opens to the public Dec. 16. Photo by Shawn Miller

One of the more remarkable coincidences of my professional life happened on September 12, 2022, when I arrived for my first day of work at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress as the new Director of the John W. Kluge Center. There, the very first piece of (non-bulk) email sitting in my new loc.gov email account was an invitation to speak at an event for “Join In: Voluntary Associations in America” a new Library of Congress exhibition on a topic I’d spent more than a decade reading, thinking, and writing about. The exhibit opens to the public on December 16, 2022, and will remain on view until December 2023.

I learned from Nathan Dorn, curator of rare books at the Law Library of Congress and curator of the new exhibit, that my 2015 book exploring legal aspects of how early American voluntary associations worked in practice had even been useful to him as he developed “Join In.”

I had yet to have my first meeting, so it was reassuring that I had already found a way I could contribute to the intellectual life of the Library of Congress. I had found a place where I could throw in my lot for a shared, collaborative project that aimed to do something of value.

In essence, this is what American voluntarism has been about since the first generations of American citizens began to join together in all kinds of ways and for every conceivable purpose. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all minds are constantly joining together in groups,” noted the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, following his travels in 1831. They did it, according to Tocqueville, in part because Americans were equally powerless to accomplish much at all singlehandedly.

What is more, he saw this proclivity to join together as a vital part of American democratic life. These associations taught and encouraged social cooperation, providing a counterbalance to the ways in which equality could leave individuals feeling isolated and alone. Voluntary associations built trust. People formed purposeful relationships with those around them rather than being born into those relationships as had been the case in traditional societies from time out of mind. With these bonds they could accomplish things, large and small, and the republic grew stronger along the way.

In my own work, I have written about how the men and women of the early American republic also dealt with a lot of anxiety about these kinds of private associations and how they might act to subvert or, at the very least, fracture and divide the will of the people. I looked closely at how, in the decades preceding Tocqueville’s journey to America, the ways that people joined together became increasingly formalized and legalistic. Americans assuaged their anxiety about these associations by finding ways to balance tensions between individual rights and collective action in the clubs, societies, and corporations of the early United States. Courts of law even played a role, called on more often than we’d previously appreciated to adjudicate disputes that arose within many of these newly formed associations.

The legal framework of early American associations was an important part of the story, but I hope that in my work I never obscured the larger picture of why people joined together in the first place: simply put, they could accomplish more together than they could separately. As the practices of association became more widely understood and adopted, the world-transformative potential of groups like anti-slavery associations became clear.

But the impacts of association existed on a personal level as well. As often as not, there was an element of individual self-improvement involved. As early as 1709, the third Earl of Shaftesbury had described how the clubs of Augustan England helped people to “polish one another, and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision.” Americans in the early United States saw this too.

Looking closely at the history and the power of association in all the forms that it has taken across our history—something the new “Join In” exhibit does to great effect—can also help to underscore the larger purpose of the Kluge Center itself and its role at the Library of Congress. One of the most valuable ways that the Kluge Center can fulfill its chartered mission is by bringing our scholars together, in all kinds of ways, to share ideas and to discuss their work with one another and, whenever possible, with the members of Congress and their staffs. Our hope is that the connections and associations formed at the Kluge Center allow scholars to accomplish far more than they could alone. We want to create the conditions for an “amicable collision” of ideas among researchers from around the world.

Ours is a mission that cannot be accomplished by cloistering scholars off to work in isolation. Intellectual exchange and scholarly interactions are absolutely essential to the work we do. As I begin serving as the Director of the Kluge Center, I’m honored and eager to join that effort.