Just over four centuries ago, 102 men, women and children set sail on the Mayflower, a Virginia Company merchant ship from England bound for the New World. While the passengers had no idea what their journey would entail, they left their homes behind to seek a new life on the other side of the ocean. Their reasons for doing so were varied. Some were simply seeking a new life. Some sought the freedom to practice their own religion rather than conform to the Church of England. These Separatists later became known as Pilgrims.
On Nov. 9, 1620, after two brutal months of travel across the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean, the exhausted passengers spotted land at what is now Cape Cod, Mass., far off course from the Virginia Company-owned territory where they were supposed to land. They were confronted with a rocky landscape and unforgiving seasons. They were cold and hungry, and they had no legal right to be there. Discord brewed among them.
Before they even landed, the travelers recognized that they needed laws for their community in the New World. The Mayflower Compact was their solution — a document based on the idea that government is a form of covenant and must be derived from the consent of the governed.
So, why should we care about the Mayflower Compact? Because, with just 197 words, these weary wanderers sowed the seeds of self-government that made their small New England settlement a cradle of American democracy.
The Mayflower Compact begins with the Pilgrims’ earnest prayer: “In the name of God, Amen.” The writers continue, “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…,” acknowledging their loyalty to King James and explaining the purpose of their new society.
Their motives for creating and signing the Mayflower Compact were varied, but they had practical reasons for doing so. They were stuck in Cape Cod, in blustery November, with no military protection, no civil authority and dwindling rations. They were on their own. No doubt a feeling of hopelessness permeated the community. To survive, they needed to come together while embracing their differences in thought and belief.
Next, the writers of the compact state exactly how they are coming together: “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….” These words evoke the biblical language of God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and Aaron. The members of this community chose to bind themselves together with the same seriousness and permanence of a biblical covenant.
The Mayflower Compact was revolutionary in that it was the first example of government by consent of the governed in the New World. The foundational ideals of liberty and self-government underscoring this compact would flourish throughout the colonies and, more than 150 years later, would be reflected in our nation’s founding documents. The Plymouth settlers implemented these ideas
imperfectly; the Wampanoag people and others who lived there already were excluded from the “body
politick,” and eventually suffered great loss. Seminal ideas often are refined and perfected only after the
hindsight of tragic consequences.
People from all over the world still come to America seeking religious freedom, encouraged by our Constitution’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This separation of church and state — better phrased as the protection of the church from the state — fulfills the Plymouth Colony’s vision of freedom of religion.
William Bradford, a Pilgrim and, later, governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote in his journal, “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.” In that spirit, Museum of the Bible convened renowned scholars to explore the idea that these 17th century Pilgrims were the forerunners of our founders and examine the Mayflower Compact as shaping fundamental political ideas that were later expressed in our Constitution.
The authors of the Mayflower Compact were rugged, rough and reverent people. They endured a grueling trip across the Atlantic Ocean. They made a seemingly disastrous mistake by landing hundreds of miles north of where they were supposed to. Yet, in miserable living conditions, they did their best to come together and look to God with their covenant.
Were the settlers of the Plymouth Colony perfect? Of course not. They were imperfect people, like all of us. But their Mayflower Compact paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today. And for that, we can and should be profoundly grateful, today and always.
• Harry Hargrave is Chief Executive Officer of Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.