I’m sitting in my study wishing the weather would be cold enough for a fire in the fireplace and I was remembering in the past at times walking through the lobbies of various federal buildings such as U.S. Post Offices and seeing displays of the founding documents upon which the U.S. form of government is based: the Declaration of Independence, of course, as well as the Constitution, and, notably, the Mayflower Compact.
We have been thinking about William Bradford’s classic History of Plymouth Plantation as an appropriate read for November. If you are just now clicking in for the first time, take a moment and scroll down through the last several postings just to get a context for this post.
Book II, Chapter I contains a narrative of the signing of The Mayflower Compact, the first American covenant instituting civil law by common consent. William Bradford posts the text of the Compact in full. Bradford places this account in Book II but I am treating it here chronologically.
You may not know this, but the actual Pilgrims were in the minority of those on the Mayflower voyage. There was the crew, of course, though most of them would be returning to England, and there were the strangers, as the Pilgrims called the other paying passengers who were simply coming along to seek their fortunes. The Pilgrims had the political authority for when they settled in Virginia as per the original charter. But the strangers were saying that they did not intend to recognize the authority of the Pilgrims since they had not landed in Virginia. The Pilgrims decided to take action. Thus the Contract, the first political document in the colonies, was drawn up by the Pilgrims. And it would assert the exclusive prerogative of the Pilgrims alone. It would consider the strangers as outsiders in subjugation to the Pilgrims.
So on board the Mayflower before they landed, the founders drew up the Mayflower Compact as a document to govern the colony. They selected John Carver as their first governor afterward. Then they began to build their settlement.
Here is the complete text of the Mayflower Compact:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
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 by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves 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 such 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, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the eleventh of November [New Style, November 21], in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.
Bradford writes that the Mayflower Compact was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship.” Notice how what Bradford calls “the first foundation of their government in this place” establishes a Puritan community from the beginning as one that excludes “strangers.” So even before landing the Puritans defined themselves as an elect group.
Well, what implicit effect does writing and signing the Mayflower Compact have? Putting their first agreement into written form was an act of major significance for the Puritans, who believed in the Bible’s literal truth and authority. Written words, from the beginning of American culture, carry the associative power of God’s word and gives the Pilgrims, as opposed to everybody else, divine authority.
What do you think about the importance eventually of The Mayflower Compact?
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