Mayflower Compact

A small separatist group of people in England, known as Pilgrims, were persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Some of them sought relief by emigrating to Leyden, Holland, but they became concerned about liberal attitudes there leading some of their children to loosen their ties to the church. Therefore, they decided to relocate to the New World, where they hoped to be able to practice their faith freely.

After a difficult Atlantic crossing on the ship Mayflower, the Pilgrims were faced with a different challenge: There would be no civil authority on land for them to answer to. Many passengers had hired themselves out as indentured servants, promising to work for seven years to pay for their passage, and some thought that, since they were outside the bounds of English law, they could assume their freedom as soon as they landed.

In response, the leaders of the Pilgrim group created what became known as the Mayflower Compact, a document designed to be their rule and guide to life and living in the New World. The Mayflower Compact became the official constitution of Plymouth Colony, lasting until Plymouth merged into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. The first American state paper, it provides the original statement of the principles of American democracy as we now know and understand them. For the first time in world history, a group of men of their own free will agreed to be governed by themselves according to the will of the majority.

The Compact expresses four major themes: a deep faith and belief in God and His divine guidance; a deep loyalty to England and the king, even though its signers had been persecuted and exiled in their homeland; a mutual regard for one another as equals in the sight of God; and an intent to establish just and equal laws upon which would be built a truly democratic form of government.

The Pilgrims believed in God, and, believing in God, they believed in the equality of all men before God. Therefore, without precedent, they made all men equal before the law. Here then is the birth of popular constitutional liberty, foreshadowing the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.

The Mayflower signers were very careful to recognize King James I as their lawful sovereign. Although the King of England was also the head of the church, they had come to the conviction that religion was a matter of individual conscience and belief, having made that logical step from the search for religious freedom to the discovery of political freedom.

The Mayflower Compact, signed by forty-one male passengers on November 1, 1620, was a statement of democratic principles that served as the official constitution of Plymouth Colony. Although copies survive, the original document has never been found. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) In time, the Pilgrims’ democratic ideals spread to other colonies. Their example gradually softened the restrictive and intolerant government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By the time the more free and tolerant Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the latter was ready to open privileges to all.

The Compact was an agreement signed by all the men on board, including the indentured servants, promising to abide by laws that would be drawn up and agreed upon by all male members of the community. Women were not allowed to participate in the governing process. The Mayflower passengers were not men of wealth and position, nor were they a homogenous group, coming, as they did, from various walks of life and religious backgrounds. Many of them were strangers to the Leyden flock, and less than half were members of the Church of Leyden. Differences of opinion would certainly occur, and dissensions were bound to arise. But there was no one to whom they could appeal. Wise leadership proposed a document that would bind them all to submit to such a government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose. As soon as the document was completed, the entire company was called together to hear it read aloud. Once the Compact was signed, those who signed it became legal voters and proceeded to elect a governor. Their choice was John Carver, America’s first democratically elected leader. Arthur E. Chapman See also: Bradford, William; Pilgrims; Plymouth. Bibliography Philbrick, Nathaniel Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006. Wish, Harvey, ed. William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Capricorn, 1962.

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