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Exhibition Join In: Voluntary Assocations in America

A Toolkit for Associations

Americans adopted the organizational tools of early corporations to give structure and legal status to their associations. The English companies that began colonizing North America received authority from the Crown to create their internal governing structures and to enact laws for the colonies they founded. At that time, English law permitted few spaces in which people could associate in self-regulating communities. Generally designated as corporations, these associations included guilds, towns, and also certain favored trade ventures—groups of private citizens, which the Crown permitted to govern themselves so that they could achieve large-scale goals to benefit the state. These ventures exercised a powerful influence on colonists such as those who arrived on the Mayflower.

Such efforts acquainted Americans with a variety of forms for organizing their collective efforts. Many familiar aspects of our own voluntary associations, such as boards of governors, constitutions, charters, by-laws, and elections—the basic building blocks of civic associations—have their roots in this early experience of governing on behalf of a home company. In this way, colonial experience contributed to American associations’ essential and enduring toolkit.