Plymouth Colony

America’s first governing document, the Mayflower Compact

Long before the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution there was another document that sought to establish a governing arm and purpose for the colony known as Plymouth Plantation. The Mayflower Compact was this country’s first governing document.

Everyone knows the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving celebration; therefore, in the wake of today’s political wrangling I felt the need to review the first document that made all others possible. It is short on rhetoric but was sufficient in providing a platform for establishing a government in this new land.

When the Mayflower ship landed farther north of its intended target of Virginia territory, the colonists realized they were outside of the governing powers of the land granted in a patent from the Crown to the London Virginia Company. The ship carried not only those we know as the Pilgrims who made the crossing for religious freedom but it also had many “strangers” (colonists who were not members of the congregation of religious dissenters leading the expedition). The strangers knew they did not have to answer to any laws and therefore announced they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them….” To prevent chaos the colonists decided to establish a government and allegiance to the king. (This, of course, is during a time the king was seen as a benevolent figure and way before unrests that led to the Revolution.)

The Mayflower Compact was drafted and the Pilgrims required all men to sign it before leaving the ship. Historians feel it was more of a social contract than an actual legal document in which the settlers consented to follow the compact’s rules and regulations for the sake of survival. It was signed on November 11, 1620 by 41 of the ship’s 101 passengers. The compact bound all signers to accept whatever form of government was established after landing. The compact created a “Civil Body Politic” to enact “just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices. The compact remained in effect until Plymouth was incorporated into the Dominion of New England in 1686 and then the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

As they disembarked the Mayflower no one could predict the tremendous hardships facing them. Only half of the original 101 passengers would be alive by the next spring. The first winter was brutal and most of the colonists remained on board ship until they had sufficient housing built to accommodate them. They suffered exposure, scurvy, and contagious diseases in addition to surviving harsh winter storms.

As every school child knows the new venture was successful. In the fall of the following year the Pilgrims held a time of celebration for the fall harvest and invited the local Native Americans to share in their good fortunes and to repay them for their kindness and guidance.

The Mayflower Compact is a testament to the Pilgrims’ dedication to their cause and a willingness to work together to achieve their shared dreams. They saw the importance in putting aside individual wants and needs to join together in a civil body politic; for better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the common goals. They were willing to compromise in order to establish a workable government to ensure the success of their great venture.

Modern version of the Mayflower Compact

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, 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 advancements 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 another, covenant and combine ourselves 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 hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, 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, 1620.[12]


NOTE:  for a more historical look at the first Thanksgiving please see “Thanksgiving Thoughts: from five kernels of corn to gobble till you wobble”, Nov. 24, 2010