According to a recently opened exhibition at the Library of Congress, one reason that 17th-century Britons left their homeland for a new world was to organize and fraternize more freely. Before braving the Atlantic, America’s forefathers lived under laws that “permitted few spaces in which people could associate in self-regulating communities.” So says the wall text in “Join In: Voluntary Associations in America.”
Goodbye, king and country, and hello, Jamestown Settlement Bowling League?
The oldest item in this show — which includes 114 books, photographs, posters, pages of sheet music and other documents — is the 1606 Virginia Charter, granted by King James I to investors who sought to establish a colony in North America. In a sense, though, the story told by this array of artifacts begins not in Virginia but in Massachusetts.
Blown off course, the Mayflower’s passengers and crew found themselves beyond the established boundaries of British colonization, which at that time officially stretched from what would become Virginia to the future state of New York. And so these undocumented migrants drafted the 1620 Mayflower Compact, the first voluntary political framework in what was to become the United States of America.
A little more than two centuries later, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through the U.S. and was impressed to find a nation of joiners. “Americans of all ages constantly unite,” he wrote in “Democracy in America.” “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations, in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small.”
The library’s exhibition specifically catalogues 45 organizations, including such mainstream ones as the American Red Cross, 4-H, the American Heart Association, the National Parent Teacher Association and the Girl Scouts. Also highlighted are such workplace affiliations as the American Bar Association, the American Federation of Labor and the Society of Women Geographers, as well as religious, fraternal and neighborhood groups.
“Join In” is a generally upbeat show, but it doesn’t have its head in the sand. The show acknowledges certain uncomfortable facts: that European newcomers supplanted native inhabitants, and that the Mayflower Compact was written by and for “adult Christian males.” The ability to incorporate, in other words, is also the power to exclude.
As the exhibition suggests, this flaw also encourages people to come together. Some of the featured groups are ones that challenged the status quo. Founded in 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society published such broadsides as a guide to D.C. markets trafficking in enslaved people (included here). Seventy-six years later, the National Association of Colored People formed to address the continuing legacy of anti-Black racism. The tentatively liberalizing era of the 1950s brought about two pioneering gay rights groups: the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. On display at the library is a copy of a 1966 edition of the latter group’s magazine, the Ladder: A Lesbian Review.
Other persistent social issues have inspired very different responses over time. Beginning in 1826, the American Temperance Society crusaded to ban intoxicating drink — a prohibition that eventually came about, disastrously. In another era, a new group took an alternate approach with the publication of William Griffith Wilson’s modestly titled 1939 book, “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism.” An early copy of that publication is also on display.
Like many shows that focus heavily on printed artifacts, “Join In” is essentially a book — albeit one whose contents have been scattered around a gallery — and its excellent catalogue covers the subject nearly as well as the show itself. But the exhibition is elegantly staged and allows for intriguing glimpses of rare documents, both well-known and unexpected. (How many people have heard of the Polynesian Voyaging Society?)
In recent years, traditional organizations have declined as online connections have expanded prodigiously. Still, “Join In” notes, even today some 70 percent of American firefighters are members of volunteer companies. Much as in 1620, banding together can be essential to the common good.
If you go
Join In: Voluntary Associations in America
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE. loc.gov.
Dates: Through Dec. 31.
Prices: Free; timed-entry passes required.