The United States has often been called “a nation of joiners.” For nearly three centuries, Americans have created and joined voluntary associations to pursue their shared goals and to meet the needs of their communities. Even today, voluntary associations are ubiquitous in American society, occupying a central place in the social and communal lives of many people in this country.
A new Library of Congress exhibition, “Join In: Voluntary Associations in America,” opens a conversation about the importance of voluntary associations in American life and history. Pulling together items from across Library of Congress collections, the exhibition reveals a nation struggling with an inheritance of conflicts and exclusions, but motivated to join together to solve the problems that face their communities.“Join In” examines this longstanding impulse of Americans to join together, focusing on associations for fellowship, for charitable and mutual aid, for labor and professions, for emergency services, and for reform, as well as associations for building communities. Using select examples from these fields, the exhibition provides a fascinating window into American life from the 18th through the 21st centuries. Objects in the exhibition include documents from the earliest years of Prince Hall Freemasonry, Benjamin Franklin’s proposed volunteer fire department, the American Red Cross, and an 18th-century association for New York lawyers. More recent organizations represented are Alcoholics Anonymous, the Mattachine Society, the National Congress of the American Indian, and Scouts for Equality.
Another thread in the exhibition is the heritage of common tools and strategies that Americans inherited for creating and running voluntary associations. Tracing a few lines of development from, for example, English corporations law and from non-conformist church covenants, the exhibition shows how Americans of the 18th century found themselves in possession of a particular know-how, a shared understanding of how to organize, build and sustain voluntary associations. Documents featured include early 17th-century charters that established corporations for the creation of the British colonies in America, Cotton Mather’s 1710 Essay Bonifacius, the constitutions, by-laws and periodical literature of several societies in 18th-century Philadelphia, and the earliest publication to include the Mayflower Compact.
The associations in the exhibition show how Americans have found ways to realize their aspirations for their communities and their country. They show how they have fashioned over time a formidable tradition of cooperation and shared goals. They also reveal how many of our lives are touched by this tradition. For these people, this exhibition will perhaps reflect back to them an important aspect of their life in an interesting and unaccustomed light.
The exhibition opens to the public on December 15th, 2022, during that evening’s Live at the Library event. It is housed in the South Gallery on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and it remains open until December 23, 2023. We hope that you will come and have a look!
Every Library of Congress visitor must reserve timed-entry passes in order to maintain safe capacity levels in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Reserve your timed entry pass here:
Schlesinger, Arthur M. “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Oct., 1944), pp. 1-25.
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