The Mayflower Compact

Posted on Categories Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Religion & Law

About a year before the first Thanksgiving, in early November 1620, the Pilgrims landed in Cape Cod.  In Mayflower Nathaniel Philbrick recounts how before landing in Provincetown Harbor, the Pilgrims drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact.  The Mayflower Compact states in full:

 Having undertaken, for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do these present solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, until which we promise all due submission and obedience.

 The Pilgrims fashioned this secular covenant to have an agreement for governance when they disembarked from the Mayflower. 

 The passengers onboard the Mayflower originally intended to go to the Hudson River in New York, but bad storms set them off course.  William Bradford recorded that the ship also “’fell amongst dangerous shoals and roaring breakers.’”  On that basis, the captain decided to back to New England, instead of going moving on to the Hudson. 

On board were two groups of passengers other than the crew:  the Leideners, who were the Pilgrims who had lived in Holland, and the Separatists, who had been recruited by merchants to travel to the new land.         

 The passengers were in an “uproar” when they heard that the Mayflower was heading to New England.  Some Strangers said that “’when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them.’”  The future settlement was “in serious peril,” according to Philbrick.  The Strangers “had little holding them together except, in some cases, a growing reluctance to live in a community dominated by religious radicals.”  The Leideners were a tight group, sharing a common faith and background from having lived together in Holland.  Some of the Strangers and the Leideners realized that the only way to secure the settlement was to “sign a formal and binding agreement of some sort.” 

In the Mayflower Compact, the Strangers and the Leideners agreed “to submit to the laws drawn up by their duly elected officials.”  Philbrick writes that this “civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America.”  All men who were healthy enough to set foot on land had to sign the Mayflower Compact and must do so before leaving the ship.  Forty-one men signed the Mayflower Compact on November 11.

 The passengers who drafted the Mayflower Compact had tremendous foresight.  The compact guided the actions of the two very different groups of people who came together to form the Plymouth settlement, especially in light of the hardship they endured in the coming months as they tried to survive the winter and establish their new home in the wilderness. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

2 thoughts on “The Mayflower Compact”

  1. The ten years since this article first appeared has seen has seen two things that make our understanding of the Mayflower Compact even more timely today. The rise of increasing incivility in the conduct of American Politics and the approaching 400 anniversary of the landing of the mayflower in 1621. For a law school, this importance of this event might be enhanced by review of a brief entitled “A lawyers View of the Mayflower Compact” written by a descendant of one of the mayflower passengers. It is remarkably informative as to the meaning of the brief document and its wide ranging implications for civil democracy today. In addition I would point out an error in one paragraph of the article above which conflates the Strangers as being the separatist, where it was the Saints, the pilgrims themselves that were separatists from the church of England, seeking religious liberty on foreign shores. The Strangers were simply adventurers who cam along for the ride.

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