On board an English ship anchored at the northern tip of Cape Cod on 20 November 1620, a social contract was signed that laid the foundations for future frameworks of government in America. The ship was the Mayflower, taking a group of English settlers travelling to the New World.
In honour of this vessel, the contract would come to be known as the Mayflower Compact, a set of rules for self-governance for these settlers, who, while they would remain loyal subjects of King James I, left all known law and order behind when they set sail for America.
Passengers of the Mayflower
The key goal of the Mayflower’s voyage was for the Pilgrims to establish a new congregation in the New World. As persecuted religious separatists leaving behind the Church of England, they hoped to be able to worship as they pleased there.
These radicals had already illegally broken from the Church of England in 1607 and many moved to Leiden in the Netherlands where their religious practices were tolerated.
Those remaining – who eventually did not sign the compact – were called ‘strangers’ by the Pilgrims. They included common folk and merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants and orphaned children. In total, the Mayflower carried 50 men, 19 women and 33 children.
The Pilgrims had signed a contract with the Virginia Company to settle on their land in Virginia. The Virginia Company worked for King James I as part of the English colonising mission in the New World. Stockholders in London invested in the voyage of the Puritans as they thought they would get returns once the land was settled and generated profit.
However, because of a dangerous storm at sea the Mayflower ended up in Plymouth, Massachusetts – much further north than they had planned.
Why was there need for a compact?
As soon as the settlers saw solid land, there was conflict. Many of the strangers argued that because they had not landed in Virginia – on Virginia Company land – the contract with the company was void. Some of the settlers threatened to leave the group.
They refused to recognise any rules because there was no official government over them. The situation prompted several Pilgrims to take action so that every man, woman and child were not pitted against one another for survival.
The Pilgrims approached the most ‘honourable’ passengers and drew up a set of temporary rules based on majority agreement. These rules would ensure the safety and structure of the new settlement.
Signing the compact
It’s not clear who exactly wrote the Mayflower Compact, but the well-educated Pilgrim pastor William Brewster is often given the credit. On 11 November 1620, 41 of the 102 passengers onboard the Mayflower signed the compact off the coast of Virginia. All of them were men, and most of them were Pilgrims, except for a pair of indentured servants.
One colonist who signed the Mayflower Compact was Myles Standish. Standish was an English military officer hired by the Pilgrims to act as the military leader for the colony. He had a crucial role enforcing the new rules and guarding colonists against attacks by local indigenous Americans.
This short document laid out several simple laws: the colonists would remain loyal subjects to the king; they would enact laws for the good of the colony; they would abide by these laws and work together; and they would live in accordance with the Christian faith.
The Mayflower Compact was essentially an adaptation of Christian religious guidelines into a civil situation. Additionally, the document did not solve the issue of their questionable legal rights to the land they settled in Plymouth. Only later did they gain a patent from the Council for New England in June 1621.
Still, the Mayflower Compact was the foundation of Plymouth’s government and remained in force until the colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
A new world
While much of the power in the Plymouth colony was kept in the hands of the Pilgrim founders, the compact, with its principles of self-government and majority rule, was an important step towards the growth of democratic government in America.
The original document has since been lost, but 3 versions survive from the 17th century, including: a booklet written by Edward Winslow, a hand-written copy by William Bradford in his journal and a printed version by Bradford’s nephew Nathaniel Morton in the New-Englands Memorial in 1669.
The versions differ slightly in wording and significantly in spelling and punctuation, but provide a comprehensive version of the Mayflower Compact. Nathaniel Morton also recorded a list of the 41 who signed the contract.
The compact’s authority was immediately exercised when John Carver, who had helped organise the expedition, was chosen as the new colony’s governor. After the colonists had agreed to work together, the hard job of starting the colony began.