The Mayflower Compact
The Mayflower Compact is one of the constitutional influences featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Pilgrims (religious dissenters called separatists who originally fled England for Holland and sought free practice of their religion in America) organized the trip and Pilgrim leaders secured the right to the land claimed by the Virginia Company on the mouth of the Hudson. To raise money for the voyage, the Pilgrims signed a contract with a group of London stockholders who would share in the profits with them from the new colony.
In order to increase the chances of success of enterprise in the new colony, the Pilgrims recruited “strangers” which included merchants, craftsman, skilled workers, and indentured servants. These were all commoners, one third of whom were children including many orphans. In total, there were 41 Pilgrims and 61 “strangers”
They landed in Cape Cod instead of Virginia on November 9, 1620 and arguing immediately broke out. Some of “the strangers” argued they were outside of the Virginia Company charter; therefore, no laws applied and they would do what they wanted.
With rebellion brewing, Pilgrim leaders realized they needed government authority. In England, this would come from the king but since they were isolated in America, it would have to come from the people themselves.
Aboard the Mayflower, by necessity, Pilgrims and “strangers” made a written agreement or pact amongst themselves that would come to be known as the Mayflower Compact. Probably written by college educated William Brewster, it was signed by nearly all of the adult male colonists including two of the indentured servants.
The colonists had no intention of declaring their independence from England when they signed the Mayflower Compact. In the opening line, both Pilgrims and “strangers” refer to themselves as “loyal subjects” of King James.
The rest of the Mayflower Compact is very short. It bound the signers into a “Civil Body Politic” for the purpose of passing “just and equal Laws…for the general good of the Colony.” It was the first time the idea of self government was expressed in the new world.
The format is similar to the written agreements Pilgrims used to establish their separatist churches in England and Holland. Under these agreements, the male adult members of the church choose how to worship God through electing ministers and other church officers. This pattern of church self governance served as a model for political self government in the Mayflower Compact.
Immediately after signing the Mayflower Compact, the signers elected Pilgrim leader John Carver as governor of their colony. When Carver died less than a year later, 31 year old William Bradford replaced him.
Each year thereafter the “Civil Body Politic,” consisting of all adult males excluding indentured servants, assembled to elect the governor and a small number of assistants. Bradford was reelected 30 times between 1621 and 1656.
In the early years, Bradford very much ruled as Machiavelli would want a prince to. His one man rule went largely unopposed.
As the country’s population grew to immigration, several new towns came into existence. The roving and increasingly scattered population found it difficult to make it to General Court, as the governing meetings in Plymouth became known as. By 1639, deputies were sent to represent each town during Court session meaning both self-rule and representative government had taken root in American soil.
While the English Magna Carta, written 400 years prior, established the principle of the rule of law, the Mayflower Compact professed and implemented the concept of law made by the people echoing Descartes. This idea lies at the very heart of democracy.
From its prude beginning in Plymouth, self government evolved in the town meetings of New England and the larger governments of colonial America. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, the Mayflower Compact had largely been forgotten, but the powerful idea of self government had not. Born out of necessity on the Mayflower, the Compact made a significant contribution to the creation of a new Democratic nation.
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