Top of page

Exhibition Join In: Voluntary Assocations in America

Making Associations in Early America

As colonial Americans began to build associations, many benefitted from an emerging group of legal practices that included elections for officers, standard language for their associations’ charters and acts of incorporation, as well as rough templates for their constitutions and by-laws. They were able to share and borrow internal structures, offices, and standards for membership, as well as to imitate and develop one another’s methods of publishing their organizations’ work in periodical literature.

Benjamin Franklin, like many of his time, made use of the tools that were beginning to characterize what Alexis de Tocqueville called an American “science of association.” Franklin was one of the most energetic builders of associations in colonial America, playing a founding role in the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Hospital, as well as Philadelphia’s first fire department and its first homeowners’ insurance company. He also played a major role in promoting Freemasonry in Philadelphia and late in life became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The tools for association that Franklin used became increasingly widespread as the number and variety of civic associations increased from the late eighteenth century onward.