When the Mayflower‘s anchor was dropped, and a full month before the Pilgrims set foot on the new world, these seemingly inconsequential people, small in number, without wealth and particular standing, and in a place remote from civilization, had a civil constitution and a government. They were a state. They had an organic law, written by them to which they subscribed; they had chosen rulers and a policy. The document was drafted and signed by forty-one men in the narrow cabin of the ship on the morning of the day when they entered the harbor and furled the sails.
The writing of the Mayflower Compact was precipitated for two main reasons. Insubordination and the breaking up of the colony; and having missed the Virginia territory by hundreds of miles to the north, there was essentially no civil or legal authority they could access for their own protection and that of their dependents and possessions. The land lease the Pilgrims had previously procured from the English authorities specified their eventual landing on a province that was under English rule and authority. But having landed in another territory, they were left without a law. Under these circumstances, the drafting of the Compact became a matter of extreme urgency, whereby they intended to immediately thwart the coming mutiny and lawlessness some among them had made known. Upon realizing that the Mayflower had not reached the shores of Virginia, some passengers who had boarded to either serve as crew, or to travel for their own reasons, spoke openly of their intentions. Landing somewhere else absolved them of their obligation to the company, they argued; and therefore, they attempted to incite mutiny, aiming at severing themselves from their obligations. In the face of this development, these astute statesmen on the ship concluded that a contract drawn up and signed by every responsible person of the company might be as binding as any government grant. In essence, they sought to find a way to enjoin men to rule and authority regardless of their landing location.
These men, in the absence of ruling authority, were in effect organizing themselves on the basis of common rights. They were enacting political equality, and were attempting to ensure stability and order in government by making each person a part and a participant of it. As for socio-economic differences, this document dealt a blow to social distinctions based upon the principle of personal responsibility and accountability. Age was the distinguishing factor. Forty-one adult men affixed their names in agreement to the document, which signatures themselves symbolized and were in essence a thrust against known social pretensions. It was man for man, and simple manhood was what counted. It was an unequivocal statement that man has rights because he is a man as opposed to earning his rights due to being of a certain class. On the Mayflower some men were better than others, some were more intelligent than others, some were richer and others possessed more wisdom, experience and capacity to rule the little and fledging state, but all men were recognized, and their rights protected.
These are the words that have inspired men to strive for freedom; these are the words that have given light and guidance to those who have pledged themselves and their fortunes for the cause of freedom and the pursuit of happiness under the canopy of the rule of law:
“In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland; Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaking 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 part of Virginia; do by these present 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 thereof, to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and 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, the eighteenth; and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini, 1620.”
The Mayflower Compact’s ideals and concepts are enduring. It is generally considered to be one of the most important contributions to civic thought. Its relevance has endured 400 years of human history, in which time man has witnessed changes and radical departures from the Compact’s principles, but has not seen a more sustainable theory. It is a remarkably short and precise document. The Mayflower Compact birthed our popular constitutional liberty, and its depths have been plumbed for continuing guidance and inspiration. Though the text is not a political manifesto, there is no doubt that it ranks among the greatest ideals due to its emphasis in self-government. This fact lends an inescapable accuracy as to its intent and purposes. Not being a political manifesto, which King James would have taken as treasonous, this new world law was the document binding individuals to self-government, by which civil laws would apply to all equally, and give to all equal responsibility to pursue opportunities for personal betterment.
None among the passengers understood this ideal and principle better than the Pilgrims. By virtue of their exile for the sake of freedom, and by having in practice advanced a successful church government system, and by having through it modeled conduct beneficial to all, the Pilgrims’ contribution to the Compact bespeaks of their understanding of the document’s major underlying force: self-governance is the product of obedience to God and His Word. Self-governance, as the Pilgrims modeled, is an idea inherently alien to man apart from the guiding light of the Scriptures. No society had ever adopted such a radically different proposition, and it was upon their landing on distant shores, and due to the ever-present threat of lawlessness, that this document was drafted. It became the Colony’s law and authority that equally benefited the Pilgrims, and those who, in contrast, held not to the same Faith.
The liberty which poets have through the ages dreamed about; the liberty about which philosophers have discoursed and speculated; the liberty which tyrants abhor and treat with disdain; the liberty for which heroes have volunteered their possessions and lives; the liberty which is regulated by the rule of law, and which loses none of its appeal, vitality and rewards emerged in this short document to be the ruling ideal of a tiny colony embarking on an experiment unthinkable and daunting, yet exhilarating and utterly promising. The issue of society ceased to be whether a man is master of another, or whether a man is a servant of another by virtue of his social class, material possession, name and status. Centuries later, the guiding principle of self-government and freedom inspired the country that was birthed from this ideal to find it necessary to shed its own blood to correct a terrible wrong, and to enshrine forever the noble cause of liberty for all men under God and under the rule of law. It is a high ideal worthy of all efforts which continues to demand attention and consideration, no matter if efforts at times fail, for its worth is not measured by the attempts but by self-evident Truth.