When the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony first arrived in the New World and landed at Cape Cod, they didn’t have a charter or a patent to settle the area.
A charter was a document from the British government that gave a colony the legal right to settle an area and establish local law there. A land patent was a document that granted land to a colony but didn’t give permission to establish local law there.
The colonists had originally planned to land in Northern Virginia, where they did have a patent to settle, but they had drifted off course during the long voyage and ended up in Cape Cod.
The pilgrims worried they didn’t have any legal right to settle Cape Cod and were concerned that without any social order the colony might fail, much like earlier colonies did. Since some of the passengers on the Mayflower were not separatists like themselves, they questioned the pilgrims’ authority which concerned many members of the group.
As a result, the group decided to draw up a social contract, now known as the Mayflower Compact, that would establish a local government and oblige the pilgrims to abide by the law of this government until they could obtain a new patent.
The group signed the contract on board the Mayflower on November 11, 1620. The compact is one of the first examples of a colony self-governing itself and is considered by some historians to be the beginning of American democracy.
This claim is debatable though as an article in the Washington Post points out that the pilgrims identify themselves in the document as the “loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James” and appear to have been more concerned with trying not to commit an illegal act in the eyes of the crown than with self-governing.
They also identify the king in the document as their king “by the grace of god,” and not their king by their consent which could technically make the Mayflower Compact more of an affirmation about the divine right of kings than the right of self-rule. These ideas are all open to interpretation though.
Compared to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony had a much more modern type government that wasn’t as intertwined with the colonist’s religion, according to the book Plymouth Colony: Its History and Its People:
“With the Mayflower Compact, the colonists agreed to a form of democracy that would not be practiced in their homeland for several centuries. Though Bradford and his supporters has envisioned something close to a church-state, the large non-Separatist population prevented the full implementation of this idea as it was subsequently practiced in the adjoining Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a result, Plymouth obtained a reputation for having a less rigid and more moderate government, though it never practiced the toleration soon to come to Rhode Island. Its land policy of making grants to the many prevented it from becoming a manorial or proprietary colony, such as Virginia or other English colonies would later become. It became something unique. Unfortunately, at least for those who measure progress in terms of large-scale industrial and commercial expansion, the original choice of settlement on the shores of shallow Plymouth Harbor prevented the colony from ever achieving the size, prominence, wealth, or importance of Massachusetts Bay Colony or New York. The future of Plymouth was virtually prescribed by 1627. It would be what it would be.”
Politics and government were a big part of life in the Plymouth Colony. Attendance at town meetings was practically mandatory and the majority of colonists both voted and served in the local legislature, according to the book Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the Seventeenth Century:
“Government, then, in both its political and judicial aspects, was something Cape Codders knew well. Freemanship aside, they participated in it indirectly by voting for town Deputies to the General Court, and directly by serving either as Grand Jurymen or as trial jurors. Within the towns, it was impossible to to avoid political involvement. Even for the small minority who did not fill a government position, attendance at town meetings was made virtually obligatory by assessing fines for absence. For the vast majority, they not only voted, but they also served. Without a professional bureaucracy, local offices were filled and community services performed by the town’s citizens. Some men were apparently good at it, and filled every post the town had and did so repeatedly. Others were not so adept, and served less often. But whether it was the obligation to repair the roads, decide a lawsuit, collect taxes, or be a Deputy, the men of the Cape did what was required. Government and politics in seventeenth-century Plymouth was a participatory system in the best sense of the term.”
The General Court was a gathering of all the freemen, men who were allowed to vote, in the colony and met in the local meetinghouse about four times a year. The court had the authority to pass laws, impose taxes and hold criminal trials.
The Plymouth Colony never received a legal charter from the king and based its existence as a self-governing colony completely on the Mayflower Compact and two land patents it received from the New England Council in 1621 and 1630.
Despite the fact that the colony did not have a charter, it still operated as though it had a charter government. In a charter government the legislature was run by a governor, council, and assembly which were all chosen by the people of the colony. A charter government was also allowed to enact their own laws but the laws were not allowed to contradict the laws of England.
The colonists knew that not having a charter could cause legal problems for them though and tried repeatedly to obtain an official charter, according to the Plymouth Colony Archive Project website:
“Governor Bradford and other prominent officers of the Colony realized the riskiness of proceeding without a royal charter for their venture. They instead possessed only a land patent issued by the New England Council, a private corporation which did not possess the authority to grant the colonists any right to self-governance. Bradford, Isaac Allerton and others attempted repeatedly over the years of the Colony to obtain a charter from the Crown. They failed to do so, and Plymouth Colony ultimately lost its self-governance and was annexed as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.”
When Plymouth Colony was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691, it then became a royal colony, known as the Province of Massachusetts Bay, with a mixed government. A mixed government meant it was partly a charter government and partly a royal government. In this mixed government, the governor was appointed by the Crown but both the assembly and the council were chosen by the people.
This mixed government came to an end less than 100 years later when the colony won its legislative and economic freedom from Britain during the American Revolution.
Stratton, Eugene Aubrey. Plymouth Colony, Its History & People, 1620-1691. Ancestry Publishing, 1986.
Morse, Jedidiah. The American Universal Geography. Thomas & Andrews, 1812.
Krusell, Cynthia Hagar. Plymouth Colony to Plymouth County. Pondside Publishing, 2010.
Erickson, Paul. Daily Life in the Pilgrim Colony 1636. Clarion Books, 2001.
Fennell, Christopher. “The Plymouth Colony Archive Project.” Historical Archaeology and Public Engagement, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1998. www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/ccflaw.html
“The Mayflower Compact.” Constitution Society, www.constitution.org/bcp/mayfcomp.htm
“Mayflower and Mayflower Compact.” Plimoth Plantation, www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/mayflower-and-mayflower-compact