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What is the Mayflower Compact?

The Mayflower Compact was a pioneering document that laid the foundation for self-governance in the New World. Signed in 1620 by the Pilgrims, it established a social contract among settlers to abide by mutually agreed-upon laws. This historic pact was a cornerstone for American democracy. How did this early agreement influence the nation's future? Let's explore its enduring legacy together.
Dale Marshall
Dale Marshall

The Mayflower Compact is famous as the first written charter of government in the New World. It was signed aboard ship in Provincetown Harbor, in what became Massachusetts in the United States, on November 21, 1620 by the men of the company that sailed on the Mayflower. Just 199 words long, many of which would be considered ceremonial boilerplate, it was essentially a pledge to govern themselves and to obey whatever laws and regulations the colony might enact.

It was not commonplace for colonists of the day to determine to govern themselves, which is essentially what these English colonists did. The accepted practice was for a royally-chartered company, such as the Council for New England, formerly the Plymouth Company, to finance a voyage and establish a colony within the boundaries of the land granted in the royal charter, clearly under the jurisdiction of English law. The Mayflower Compact was the colonists' practical solution to a very real problem that presented itself to them.

The Mayflower was launched at Harwich in the county of Essex, England.
The Mayflower was launched at Harwich in the county of Essex, England.

When the Mayflower set sail from England in September, 1620, the intent was to sail for the mouth of the Hudson River and settle near there, in what was then called northern Virginia. They sailed for more than two months, encountering inclement weather along the way which forced the ship much further north than intended. When they finally reached land, in late November of 1620, it was the northern tip of Cape Cod, where Provincetown is now located. Some of the company aboard ship, called "strangers” because they weren't associated with the main body of Pilgrims, talked openly about not having to obey any laws or be accountable to anybody, since they had landed outside the boundaries of the land granted by royal charter by King James to the Plymouth Company. The Mayflower Compact was written at least partially in response to those threats, and signed by all 41 of the adult men in the party.

Plymouth, Massachusetts, was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.
Plymouth, Massachusetts, was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.

Another credible reason given for the drafting and execution of the Mayflower Compact is the realization by the party's leaders that they were embarking on a difficult undertaking, requiring the full commitment of all members. Having all men sign a pledge to become a single body and to obey the laws they might see fit to enact may very well have reinforced their commitment in the face of a great but dangerous venture.

As the first written document of government in the New World, the Mayflower Compact has been given a special status as one of the founding documents of American freedom, along with the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which were adopted in January 1639 for the governance of the towns along the Connecticut River. It was under the provisions of the Mayflower Compact that the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, governed itself until 1691, when it was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although the Mayflower Compact itself has been lost, the text as recalled and reported by William Bradford, the compact's principle architect and one of its original signers, has been accepted as accurate. Neither long nor comprehensive in scope, it nevertheless is notable for its being a document of self-governance, drawn up and executed by those who were to be governed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Mayflower Compact and why was it significant?

The Mayflower Compact was a foundational document for the governance of the Plymouth Colony, created by the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. It is significant because it established a form of self-government with the consent of the governed, a pioneering principle that would later influence the democratic ideals of the United States. The Compact was a social contract in which the signers agreed to abide by the colony's laws and regulations for the sake of order and survival.

Who were the signers of the Mayflower Compact?

The signers of the Mayflower Compact were adult male passengers on the Mayflower, which included both Pilgrims—members of a separatist Puritan sect seeking religious freedom—and other colonists, referred to as "Strangers," who were seeking new opportunities in America. In total, there were 41 signers, representing the majority of the male passengers on the ship. Their unity was crucial for the survival and governance of the new colony.

How did the Mayflower Compact influence the Constitution of the United States?

The Mayflower Compact influenced the Constitution of the United States by introducing the concept of self-governance and the notion that power derives from the consent of the governed. This early form of democratic thinking set a precedent for future American legal and political documents. The Compact's emphasis on a collective agreement for the common good can be seen as a precursor to the constitutional principles of democracy and rule of law in the United States.

What were the contents of the Mayflower Compact?

The Mayflower Compact was a brief document that outlined the signers' intention to form a "civil Body Politick" for their better ordering and preservation. It bound them to abide by any laws and regulations that would be established by officers chosen by the colonists themselves for the general good of the colony. The Compact did not specify those laws; rather, it set the framework for creating a government based on the consent of the colonists.

Is the original Mayflower Compact still in existence?

The original Mayflower Compact document has not survived, but its text has been preserved in the writings of William Bradford, who was the Governor of Plymouth Colony. Bradford's manuscript, known as "Of Plymouth Plantation," provides a firsthand account of the Pilgrims' experiences, including the Compact's text. This historical source is invaluable for understanding the early governance of what would become one of the first successful English settlements in North America.

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    • The Mayflower was launched at Harwich in the county of Essex, England.
      By: Negura Dincolo
      The Mayflower was launched at Harwich in the county of Essex, England.
    • Plymouth, Massachusetts, was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.
      By: Floki Fotos
      Plymouth, Massachusetts, was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.