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Mayflower Compact: The Beginnings of Self-Governance in America

Introduction

“We, whose names are underwritten … enact, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices … as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie…”

Explanation

These lines are from the Mayflower Compact, which was written to preserve unity and address tensions between the factions on the ship the Mayflower. 

Mayflower Compact

English settlers on the Mayflower wrote the Mayflower Compact in 1620. It established principles of self-government, common consent, and unity in the colony. 

The History

In 1620, 102 men, women, and children arrived on the shores of Massachusetts. They had traveled from England and had received a charter from the Virginia Company to settle near the Hudson River, which was, at that time, part of Virginia. Harsh storms, however, forced them to anchor in Massachusetts instead, outside of Virginia Company territory.

Of the 102 settlers, 41 were Pilgrims, or members of a Puritan sect called the Separatists, who wished to break away from the Church of England and form independent congregations. The Pilgrims hoped to practice religion more freely in the New World. The rest of the settlers were common people, including merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants, and orphans. 

Once the settlers anchored in Massachusetts, tensions between the two factions began to grow. The non-Pilgrims argued that the Virginia Company contract was void because they were outside of its jurisdiction. Some individuals threatened to leave the group and set out on their own. Leaders knew they needed to unite the settlers and provide a basic framework for self-governance in the absence of any other laws or rules. The document they wrote eventually came to be known as the Mayflower Compact. 

Although it is unclear exactly who wrote the Mayflower Compact, historians usually give university-educated Pilgrim William Brewster credit. The document is short - only 200 words long - and outlines fundamental principles rather than specifics. The Compact explains that the colonists would write and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices … for the general good of the colony.” The colonists would be bound to those laws, and would additionally pledge to work together to build a single society. Additionally, the Compact established that the colonists would adhere to the Christian faith. 

Though the Mayflower Compact was not a constitution and did not resolve the legal issues of settling outside of the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction, it was an essential step in establishing self-government in the colony. The Compact was signed by nearly all the adult male passengers on the Mayflower, including two indentured servants. 

Why Care?

The Mayflower Compact was in effect until 1691, when the settlers’ Plymouth Colony joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Compact has been credited with helping the colonists survive their first brutal winter; it helped preserve unity and ensured that the colonists stood by their mission and each other. It also provided a government framework that maintained order and civil society in the absence of any other legal documents.

Additionally, the Compact was the first document establishing self-government written in the New World. It marked an early push for democratic government and was important in cementing ideals of self-government and common consent in America. Many believe it influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Think Further

  1. Why might settlers other than the Pilgrims have wanted to come to America?
  2. How effective can a 200-word document be? Do you think such a short document can adequately govern a new colony?
  3. How might the Mayflower Compact have influenced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

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Learn More

  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Mayflower Compact.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/Mayflower-Compact.
  2. History.com Editors. “Mayflower Compact.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/mayflower-compact.
  3. “Mayflower and Mayflower Compact.” Plimoth Plantation, Plimoth Plantation, www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/mayflower-and-mayflower-compact.
  4. “Mayflower Compact.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-usa.org/foundations-of-our-constitution/mayflower-compact.html.
  5. “The Mayflower Compact.” MayflowerHistory.com, mayflowerhistory.com/mayflower-compact.