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Exhibition Join In: Voluntary Assocations in America

Detail of the “Mayflower Compact” from Governor William Bradford’s manuscript journal, written 1620–1647, the earliest surviving handwritten copy of the text. Special Collections Department, State Library of Massachusetts
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“A Civill Body Politick”

The Mayflower Compact, here in this later manuscript, bears witness to an agreement by the Plymouth settlers to join together in a self-governing body, or in the language of the period, a “body politic.” That expression, “body politic,” referred to townships, professional guilds, institutions such as universities and hospitals and some for-profit corporations. As civil society grew in America in the following centuries, the law recognized a growing number of organizations, voluntary associations and others, as bodies politic.