On the morning of November 11, 1620, when the Mayflower dropped its anchor off the coast of Cape Cod, the group of English Separatists later known as the Pilgrims fell to their knees and blessed God for bringing them safely across the “vast and furious ocean” to a new life in the New World.
Before they could begin this new life, however, they had to solve some very practical problems. Their solution was to draft an agreement, later known as the Mayflower Compact, that became a first in consensual government and ensured everyone in the new colony would abide by the same laws.
The Mayflower Compact Was an Agreement to Bind Colonists Together
Back in England, the Separatists had signed a contract with the Virginia Company to establish a colony near the Hudson River, which at the time was part of Virginia. By its terms, the stockholders who financed the journey would share in the new colony’s profits.
In order to increase the voyage’s chance of success, the Pilgrims recruited a number of other people—ordinary merchants, craftsmen and workers, along with their families and indentured servants—to come along with them. These “strangers,” as the Pilgrims called them, had their own reasons for joining the journey, and didn’t share the goal of separating from the Church of England.
After bad weather during the Atlantic crossing pushed the Mayflower hundreds of miles further north, to Cape Cod, the “strangers” didn’t think they should be subject to the contract’s provisions anymore. As William Bradford later wrote in his famous History of Plymouth Plantation, some of them made “discontented and mutinous speeches” claiming that since they were not in Virginia, “none had power to command them.”
Before departing the ship, then, the Pilgrims decided to draw up an agreement to bind them and the “strangers” together, and ensure that everyone in the new colony would abide by the same laws. The result, a document drafted and signed aboard the ship by nearly all of the adult male passengers, would become known as the Mayflower Compact.
The Rules of the Mayflower Compact
While they intended to form a government for their new colony, the Pilgrims and others aboard the Mayflower were not declaring their independence: The Mayflower Compact (though the Pilgrims never called it that) began with a clear statement of loyalty to King James of England, along with a commitment to God and to Christianity.
In settling the first colony in the “Northern parts of Virginia,” the document continued, the Pilgrims and the other Mayflower passengers would “covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politick.” As part of this united body, they pledged to make and abide by the same “laws, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, and offices” in order to further “the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
In its form and content, the Mayflower Compact echoed that of earlier covenants that Separatist Christian groups had drawn up when they established their churches in England and Holland, to bind them to each other as well as to God.
The agreement also drew on the secular tradition of the social contract, the idea of covenants between men themselves, which went back to ancient times, but would later be made more famous by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
According to a list printed by Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, in his 1669 pamphlet New England’s Memorial, 41 of the adult male passengers on the Mayflower signed the agreement, including two of the indentured servants aboard. Soon after signing it, they elected John Carver as the first governor of the new colony, which they called Plymouth Plantation.
Impact and Lasting Influence of the Mayflower Compact
While 400 years earlier, the Magna Carta had established the idea of the rule of law, this had previously meant the king’s law. In the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims and strangers were pledging their loyalty to laws they would make themselves. As historian Rebecca Fraser wrote in her book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America: “Plymouth Colony was the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch.”
The Mayflower Compact was clearly a religious document, in that it held that the people derived their right of self-government from God. But it did not mention a specific church, or method of worship, leaving it open for acceptance by both the Separatist Pilgrims, and the “strangers,” many of whom remained loyal to the Church of England.
Finally, as the first written constitution in the New World, the Mayflower Compact laid the foundations for two other revolutionary documents: the Declaration of Independence, which stated that governments derive their powers “from the consent of the governed,” and the Constitution.
In 1802, speaking at Plymouth, the future president John Quincy Adams underscored the lasting importance of the agreement signed aboard the Mayflower more than 180 years earlier, calling it “perhaps the only instance, in human history, of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.”