North Dakota Law

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Professor Ernst will present at the Minnesota Law Library’s Mayflower Compact exhibit

Minnesota State Law Library hosts Mayflower Compact exhibit

By: Dan Emerson

Considering its historic importance, the Mayflower Compact could be considered one of the most overlooked documents in American history. Signed on Nov. 11, 1620, by the male passengers of the Mayflower ship, the Mayflower Compact set a governing framework for the colonists.

“Join In! The Rise of Self-Governance and American Organizing from the Mayflower Compact to the Modern Day” is a traveling exhibit exploring how American voluntary associations and civil societies are created, built, and sustained over time. It will be available for viewing at the Minnesota State Law Library through March 31.

Using content and commentary from the Law Library of Congress’ collections, the exhibit explores the longstanding tendency of Americans to join together for a common purpose — to shape their society through fellowship, charitable and mutual aid, labor unions, emergency services, political reform, and community associations — and the tools they adopted to do so.

The exhibit is part of the 400th anniversary celebration of the Mayflower Compact, which was the first framework of government written and enacted in what became the United States.

Minnesota State Law Librarian Liz Reppe is the person responsible for bringing the exhibit to Minnesota. She contacted the exhibit managers about bringing it to the state law library last May. “We had to reserve it pretty far in advance.”A vintage illustration of the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620A vintage illustration of the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620. ( image)

The exhibit began its current tour in December, and will continue to travel to sites through November 2023.

Liz Reppe

Liz Reppe

“I was interested in bringing it to the state law library because it’s a foundation for the rest of the laws we have in the U.S.,” Reppe said. “It’s the earliest example we have of people in what became the United States making decisions about how society should operate. It’s an important piece of our early history a lot of people are not aware of.”

The Mayflower Compact has been somewhat forgotten in recent times, considering its foundational importance, Reppe said. “I don’t think it really gets a lot of attention. I remember learning about the Mayflower colony in school, but don’t remember spending a lot of time on the compact.

“Generally, people seem to be more aware of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution than the earlier document.”

Reppe said the Mayflower Compact Exhibit “serves as a good reminder that even in the early days of our time on this continent we really had to come together and make some joint agreements about how society was going to function. There were no political parties back then, but people had to come up with a way they could live together successfully.”

Sheila Hollis

Sheila Hollis

One of the prime movers behind the traveling exhibit is Sheila Hollis, a longtime Washington, D.C., attorney and law professor, history buff and trustee of Plimoth Patuxet (formerly Plymouth Plantation) a museum complex in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that replicates the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony. Several years ago, Hollis alerted the museum board about the approaching milestone anniversary of the compact signing.

The Plymouth pilgrims were a beleaguered lot who had survived a grueling trip that reduced their number from about 200 settlers to 120, Hollis said. On their way to North America, “every storm that could have happened did. There were desperately ill people, women having babies, the elderly … a real mixed group of people. They came from all levels of society; some were indentured sailors, some were highly educated. Many of them had nothing in common, but they had to find a way to live  together. They came together under extreme circumstances. Coming up with a basic framework, they were able to set up a system that worked in this country. There was no ruling party that said, ‘This is the way it’s gonna be.’”

The exhibit provides “a quick way to bring yourself up to speed or remember or implant ideas you never thought of from this particular perspective,” Hollis said. “So much has been shuffled away in American history, stuck in a file cabinet somewhere and forgotten; a lot has gone on since then, so it’s easy to forget how we ended up where we are, what we have forgotten about the past. If you don’t understand history, you can’t learn from it and understand the sacrifices that were made to take us to this point.  And what had to be reconfigured to deal with a changing population. It’s a living document.”

The Mayflower Compact still has relevance for today. “There are a lot of forces working in the world that could threaten democracy. System of laws and freedoms we have enjoyed,” Hollis added. “There are always going to be challenges but democracy always seems to grind through these issues and come up with solutions. I’m optimistic that we can ‘get there.’”

The exhibit is available for viewing during the state law library daily hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, through March 31. The Minnesota State Law Library is on the ground floor of the Minnesota Judicial Center, 25 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in St. Paul.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the State Law Library will host a Continuing Legal Education opportunity focusing on the history of the Mayflower Compact and its impact on U.S. law, on Thursday, March 23, from noon to 1 p.m., at the Minnesota Judicial Center, Room 230. It will also be available via Zoom. The speaker will be Julia L. Ernst, associate dean for teaching and engagement and professor, University of North Dakota School of Law. One standard CLE credit will be applied for.

Registration is not required for those attending the CLE in person. To attend via Zoom, please register using the webinar registration form at the State Law Library website. Those who register will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Read the original article from Minnesota Lawyer