This month marks the 400th anniversary of the signing of the Mayflower Compact. Signed on November 21, 1620 (November 11, Old Style), the Mayflower Compact was an agreement that joined the people onboard the Mayflower – the ship that carried the colonists who first settled Plymouth, Massachusetts – in a single self-governing community. People have often seen it as a kind of herald of self-government in the 13 original colonies and later of constitutional democracy in the United States of America. While it is an important document for this country’s cultural heritage, its immediate purpose on the day it was signed was more narrowly focused.
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The people onboard the Mayflower adopted the Compact as a way to overcome the unexpected circumstance in which they found themselves when they arrived in America. Difficult weather had blown them off-course during their transatlantic voyage. Anchored off what is now Cape Cod, they were thousands of miles from England, and hundreds of miles from their intended destination near New York Harbor. The problem was that they had no authorization to settle so far north, and they found it too dangerous to attempt the voyage south along the coast to where they had permission to build.
In order to settle in America, English colonial ventures of that time required express permission whose ultimate origin was the Crown (they did not seek the permission of the Native Americans who lived in the land they settled). In some instances, the king granted permission to individuals to settle in a particular location. Important examples of this were Sir Gilbert Humphrey, who attempted to form colonies in Ireland and in Newfoundland, and Sir Walter Raleigh, who attempted the same in Roanoke. In some instances, the king granted such permission to private companies. The Virginia Company of London (also called the London Company) is an example of this latter arrangement. In that instance, King James I issued a number of charters, the first one in 1606, that granted the Virginia Company permission to settle in a large swathe of the eastern coast of North America (Bilder, p. 68-72).
During its entire existence, the Virginia Company’s financial performance was below its investors’ expectations, and so it sought ways to recover expenses. In 1617, it adopted a strategy to offer patents – that is, permits to do business under the umbrella of the Virginia Company’s charter – that would allow other companies operating on their own resources to build new colonies, or what they called “particular plantations,” in Virginia. The idea behind this plan was that the patentees would shoulder the financial burden of beginning a new colony and eventually profit the Virginia Company (Morison, p. 149).
It was with such a patent that the Plymouth colonists set sail. The Virginia Company granted a patent to the joint stock company that funded the settlers’ voyage on the Mayflower, issuing it to the company’s representative, John Pierce, on February 2, 1620. Under the terms of that patent, of which no copy survives, the company had permission to settle somewhere south of Long Island Sound. Once the Mayflower arrived instead in the waters off Cape Cod, it became clear to the people onboard that the colony would need a new patent. It also became clear to them that their settlement was going to lead an extra-legal existence until they obtained one.
Making things more urgent, some of the people on the ship began to fear that operating without official sanction would lead some of their number to behave lawlessly once on land, or even abandon the community – and thereby endanger those left behind. Mourt’s Relation, a work written by Mayflower passengers Edward Winslow and William Bradford and published in 1622, is an account of the voyage of the Plymouth settlers and the earliest days of the colony. It introduces the Compact with these words (I modernized the spelling):
“This day before we came to harbor, observing some not well affected to unity and concord, but gave some appearance of faction, it was thought good there should be an association and an agreement that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose, and set our hands to this that follows word for word…” (Mourt’s Relation, p. 5-6).
The compact served the immediate political purpose of uniting the signatories in recognition of the legal and civil authority of the government that the colonists would choose. The signatories were 41 of the 50 adult males onboard, most of whom were members of the Separatist community that became known to history as the Pilgrims. The ship carried 102 people, about a third of whom were children. The signers agreed that they:
“Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.”
While the Compact does not propose a frame of government, its language speaks about uniting the people into a “civil body politic,” which is a 17th-century expression that refers to a group of citizens acting together as a self-governing body. In its day, the phrase included a variety of types of organization, among them medieval boroughs, certain municipalities, and corporations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. The language was likely chosen to present New Plymouth Colony’s exercise of self-government in a light reminiscent of the Virginia Company’s exercise of self-government, that is, as authority delegated to the corporation (Bilder, p. 68-72).
The Mayflower Compact’s position in American historical memory arose in the mid to late 18th century as various political authors portrayed it in ways that supported their partisan points of view. For example, following loyalist George Chalmer’s depiction of the Compact as a statement of loyalist principle in his Political Annals of the Present United Colonies (London, 1780), James Wilson and John Quincy Adams countered with statements about the Compacts meaning interpreted in a patriotic light. In the lectures on law that Wilson delivered in Philadelphia between 1789 and 1791, he portrayed the Mayflower Compact as a statement of the original translation of the best part of the English common law tradition to America, one that set American law on a course toward improvement over the laws of England (Sargent, pp. 238-241). In 1802, the citizens of Plymouth invited John Quincy Adams to deliver a Forefathers’ Day oration, in which he praised the Compact and suggested that the settlers of Plymouth came to republicanism through their encounter with Dutch Calvinist theology. He famously argued that the Compact was “the only instance in human history of that positive social compact…a unanimous and personal assent by all individuals of the community to the association by which they became a nation” (Sargent, p. 242).
The earliest surviving text of the Mayflower Compact can be found in Mourt’s Relation (London, 1622). Another copy of the text can be found in Purchas his Pilgrims or Haklvytvs posthumus, or, Pvrchas his Pilgrimes: contayning a history of the world, in sea voyages, & lande-trauells (London, 1625). William Bradford preserved a copy of the text in his notebook, Of Plymouth Plantation, which he wrote between 1631 and 1650. The manuscript of his notebook is in the possession of the Massachusetts State Archives. Last Thursday, that institution published a digital copy of the manuscript of Bradford’s Journal that can be accessed here. The journal appeared in print in the 19th century. The Library of Congress has a copy of the 1890 edition of that text.
Bilder, Mary Sarah. “English Settlement and Local Governance.” in The Cambridge History of Law in America. Eds. Michael Grossberg, Christopher Tomlins, pp. 63-103.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. “The Plymouth Colony and Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Apr., 1954), pp. 147-165.
Sargent, Mark L. “The Conservative Covenant: The Rise of the Mayflower Compact in American Myth.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 233-251.