Thanksgiving — A Fitting Time to Recall the Mayflower Compact’s Role in Shaping Our Democracy

Pilgrims departing on Mayflower (Getty Images)
Getty Images

As Americans settle around the Thanksgiving table, it may be a good time to remember the Pilgrims and other shipmates aboard the Mayflower who were responsible for that historic journey and the signing of the Mayflower Compact.

The Mayflower Compact was signed by 41 men as an agreement to be bound together as a self-governed community founded on their Christian faith and their belief in God’s providence in allowing them to establish their home in the New World.

Britannica detailed how the compact was created:

[The] Mayflower Compact, document signed on the English ship Mayflower on November 21 [November 11, Old Style], 1620, prior to its landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was the first framework of government written and enacted in the territory that is now the United States of America.

Rough seas and storms prevented the Mayflower from reaching its intended destination in the area of the Hudson River, and the ship was steered instead toward Cape Cod. Because of the change of course, the passengers were no longer within the jurisdiction of the charter granted to them in England by the Virginia Company. Within this legally uncertain situation, friction arose between the English Separatists (the Pilgrims) and the rest of the travelers, with some of the latter threatening to leave the group and settle on their own.

To quell the conflict and preserve unity, Pilgrim leaders (among them William Bradford and William Brewster) drafted the Mayflower Compact before going ashore. The brief document (about 200 words) bound its signers into a body politic for the purpose of forming a government and pledged them to abide by any laws and regulations that would later be established “for the general good of the colony.” The compact was signed by nearly all of the Mayflower’s adult male passengers (41 of a total of 102 passengers) while the ship was anchored at Provincetown harbour. Its authority was immediately exercised when John Carver, who had helped organize the expedition, was chosen as governor of the new colony.

The Mayflower Compact was not a constitution but rather an adaptation of a Puritan church covenant to a civil situation. Furthermore, as a provisional instrument adopted solely by the colonists, the document did not solve the matter of their questionable legal rights to the land they settled. (A patent was eventually obtained from the Council for New England in June 1621.) Still, the Mayflower Compact became the foundation of Plymouth’s government and remained in force until the colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. Although in practice much of the power in Plymouth was guarded by the Pilgrim founders, the compact, with its fundamental principles of self-government and common consent, has been interpreted as an important step in the evolution of democratic government in America.

Here is the text of the compact, which is included in Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622, printed here with some changes from the original written English in the 1600s:

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 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, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of 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, 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 hereunder subscribed our names; Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord King James, of England, France and Ireland eighteenth and of Scotland fifty-fourth, Anno Domini 1620.

These are the men who signed the compact: John Carver, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, William Brewster, Isaac Allerton, Myles Standish, John Alden, Samuel Fuller, Christopher Martin, William Mullins, William White, Richard Warren, John Howland, Stephen Hopkins, Edward Tilley, John Tilley, Francis Cooke, Thomas Rogers, Thomas Tinker, John Rigsdale, Edward Fuller John Turner, Francis Eaton, James Chilton, John Crackstone, John Billington, Moses Fletcher, John Goodman, Degory Priest, Thomas Williams, Gilbert Winslow, Edmund Margesson, Peter Browne, Richard Britteridge, George Soule, Richard Clarke, Richard Gardiner, John Allerton, Thomas English, Edward Doty, and Edward Leister.

As W. Robert Pearson, who was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Services, wrote:

This week we celebrate the most quintessential of American holidays: Thanksgiving. We created it to proclaim the bounty and blessings of life to be shared with family, friends and even strangers after hard work accomplished and challenges met. Thanksgiving was not given to us; it was earned and hard won.

It became reality after our Pilgrim forefathers faced and overcame the gravest of crises — the stark truth of life or death choices. When that community committed to facing that terror together, to share a common fate despite their deep divisions, they created a framework that saved themselves. That model suffused our national culture and ultimately became the foundation of our American experiment to test whether democracy — rule by ourselves alone — can survive and flourish.

Without the Mayflower Compact, there might have been no Thanksgiving. Their unity carried them through the terrible winter of 1620-21 when half the settlers perished. These Americans came together despite their divisions. By focusing on the benefit for all instead of the personal conviction of each, they surmounted their challenges. And they would have their Thanksgiving the following year.

And 400 years later Americans are still giving thanks to God for blessing this land and its people. This anniversary is a fine time to remember the visionary men who chartered a course for what would become the United States of America.

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