The Mayflower Compact,” signed by 41 males aboard the Mayflower, Nov. 21, 1620
Next week, as they have taken to doing each year at this time since Abraham Lincoln, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday will serve as a kind of wish fulfillment for a country that looks to a past event—aid from Native-Americans that helped the Pilgrims survive hunger in their settlement in Plymouth—as a celebration of how different races, ethnic groups and religious sects can live together in harmony.
But 400 years ago today, an even more auspicious event occurred: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, America’s first experiment in self-government. That document was the product of desperate improvisation in a strange, perilous new country.
The Pilgrims—or, as they were known (more properly) then, “Separatists”—had been ceded land by King James I. Better to have them halfway around the world, he figured, than closer to home (even if, in this case, they had felt it expedient to migrate to Holland to escape his persecution of them), where they could spell trouble with their agitation for removing all traces of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England and the government.
But bad storms blew the Mayflower away from their destination: territory claimed by the Virginia Company near the mouth of the Hudson River. Assessing what passenger and future governor William Bradford called “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers,” the captain decided to disembark at Plymouth Rock, in modern Massachusetts.
The original signed in Europe, then, was null and void, and the group called the “Strangers”—the merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and several young orphans on board that were unrelated to the religious sect—were making noise about breaking off on their own.
To increase the new colony’s chances of success, the Pilgrims needed to keep the “Strangers” in the fold. The Mayflower Compact, with its 41 signers—virtually the entire adult male population on board—sought to cool these tensions while giving the majority Pilgrims the most significant voice in the settlement.
A “democracy” as we know it was the last thing on these settlers’ minds. But thousands of miles away from the authority they took for granted, they needed to create their own structure. The practical experience in self-government that took root then—a secular covenant—led eventually to the notion of the “consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence.
(For a concise but informative account of the circumstances surrounding the Mayflower Compact, see Melissa Love Koenig’s November 2010 post on the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.)
(The image accompanying this post is Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, an 1899 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.)