Beacon Street Diary blog

The Mayflower Compact and the Meaning of America

Guest Blog by Francis J. Bremer: Coordinator, New England Beginnings; Editor, the Winthrop Papers; Professor Emeritus of History, Millersville University; Program Commitee Chair; CLA Board

View a video version of this lecture here.

Recently, there has been considerable attention devoted to the “Mayflower Compact,” the agreement signed by the male passengers on the Mayflower on November 21, 1620, four hundred years ago.  Some of the commentary overstates the significance of the document, while other treatments are based on misunderstandings of the background of the signatories. Since we will likely hear much more about the Compact and the Plymouth colony during the ongoing commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the colony, I would like to offer some reflections on the document and its genesis.

While in the nineteenth century statesmen such as John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster praised the “Compact,” some of the new attention the “Compact” has received has gone further with assertions that it was the critical event in the formation of America, “the beginning of ordered liberty in the New World” as one individual has expressed it and “one of the great turning points in Christianity” as stated elsewhere.  The context for this new attention is largely a reaction to the “1619 Project” launched by the New York Times in August of last year.  That publication was a self-proclaimed effort to reframe our national history by pointing to the beginning of slavery in Virginia in August 1619, making slavery and race the determinative factors in the history of our country, and interpreting all that came later from the perspective of slavery and race.

One can, as I do, applaud efforts to devote more attention to the role of race in the history of the country, including the importance of racial dimensions in the colonial history of New England, while at the same time pointing out (as many scholars have) the exaggerations and lack of evidence for some of the bolder interpretations of the “1619 Project.”  But as is often the case, a bold call to revise our understanding of the past prompts negative critiques that are themselves polemical more than scholarly.  Thus, some (not all) political conservatives and religious evangelicals have responded to the 1619 Project with their own counter-proposals, one of which is the so-called “1620 Project.”  Books and articles have appeared denying that America’s beginning is to be found in the enslavement of African men and women, and contending that the true beginning was the assertion of self-governance and religious liberty by the Pilgrims in 1620. 

The danger such efforts for historians, and for Americans as citizens, lies in trying to point to any one event or idea as the beginning of the nation.  If one engages in such an enterprise, there are many events that could be pointed to as the beginning of America – 1492, the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, the arrival of slavery in 1619, the Mayflower Compact in 1620, the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, and so on and so forth.  Picking one – any one -- is an expression of what the particular investigator sees as the character of the country.  It is simplistic and misleading.  But, as the scholar Abram Van Engen has explained, our understanding of the past is “dynamic and provisional.” 

Examining different perspectives and evidence is a process of “engaging in the effort to see from a new angle what before had gone unseen, developing the capacity to read in a new way what before had been read over, and practicing the skill of reading carefully what before might never have been read at all.”  “History,” he concludes, “is not just an account of the period covered but an accrual or perceptions.”  What we need to do is to give up the effort to find one single source of America and its values, and to continue to explore the many influences that shaped our culture.

To come back to the “Mayflower Compact,” 400 years after its signing, it is appropriate to examine what that document contributed to the character of America.  But we need to avoid overstating its importance, and our examination has to be factually accurate.    First, let’s set out what we know.  The passengers on the Mayflower had planned to settle in the colony of Virginia, authorized to do so by a patent from the Virginia Company, which controlled that colony.  In an effort to attract more colonists, such as those on the Mayflower, the Virginia Company had adopted a policy of granting settler groups a large amount of autonomy in ordering their own affairs under the broad supervision of the colony government.  The specific patent granted to the Pilgrims does not survive and, additionally, we have no information on how they would have used the freedom the patent gave them.  We also need to remember that the colonial venture was being subsidized by a group of English merchants, and the colonists were contractually obligated to them for certain details of how the colony would operate.  When it became evident that it would not be possible to reach their intended destination and that they would be settling in an area outside the Virginia colony, the passengers on the Mayflower needed to reach an understanding regarding how they would be governed. 

Here we come across one of the misperceptions that I previously alluded to.  In a book, Saints and Strangers, written in 1945, George Willison wrongly identified most of the Mayflower passengers as non-Pilgrims and interpreted the colony’s early history as representing the triumph of more secular profit-seekers over a minority of religious fanatics.  This interpretation has been remarkably resilient, with the characterization of the majority of the passengers as non-religious leading to the argument that the Mayflower Compact was a plan of government imposed by a small religious minority over a secularly inclined majority.  The basis for this argument – that most of the passengers were seeking gold rather than God – is false.  Jeremy Bangs, the foremost scholar of the Pilgrims’ time in Leiden, has established that of the 102 passengers, eighty were either from Leiden or likely to have been from Leiden.  Furthermore, of the remaining two score, many had clear puritan sympathies that united them to the Pilgrims, as evidenced by the fact that some had been cited by the English church authorities for puritan behavior.  There were indeed some passengers who had expressed the idea that if they settled outside the land specified in the patent, they would be free to behave anyway they wished, but there is no evidence that more than a few claimed this freedom.

Someone, most likely William Brewster, the religious elder of the congregation, who had previous experience of government and diplomacy, drew up the compact, the essence of which was that those who signed did (to quote from the document) “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 by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, act, constitutions, and offices, from time to time as shall be thought mete and convenient for the general good of the colony.”  All adult males signed it, thus agreeing to come together as a single community, choose their own leaders, and obey the laws approved by the majority.

The Pilgrims were puritan congregationalists, and the Mayflower Compact was clearly derived from their religious background.  Over a decade earlier a group of men and women had gathered in Scrooby Manor House, William Brewster’s English home, and “by the most wise and good providence of God [been] brought together … to unite ourselves into one congregation or church.”  They had promised and bound themselves “to walk in all our ways according to the Rule of the Gospel and in all sincere conformity to His holy ordinances and in mutual love to and watchfulness over one another.”  Prior to their departure and to their failure to reach Virginia, the Pilgrim’s pastor, John Robinson, had advised the colonists on the need to govern themselves in such a fashion.  Perhaps suggesting how they should operate under the terms of the Virginia Colony patent, Robinson had urged them as a body to “let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good.”  He also advised them to repress all impulses that might detract from the common good.   This last point, a commitment to the welfare of all over individual aspirations – what I have elsewhere referred to as the puritan social gospel – was implicit in the covenant of the Scrooby congregation, and in the Mayflower Compact.

The values expressed in the Mayflower Compact did contribute to the character of New England.  Puritan congregationalism was a system of participatory democracy, reflecting a trust in the individual believer that expanded into the civil realm, as in the Mayflower Compact.  That impulse, spreading from the formation and governance of a church of believers, to a colony system of government, would underpin the system of town meetings whereby local New England communities would be governed.  This was not the only source for the democracy that took shape in our country, but it was one contribution to that process.  That does not mean that we ignore other, less positive parts of our history, nor the ways in which the early English settlers of New England violated the principles that their faith seemed to demand.  But it is something worth commemorating and considering four hundred years later.