The Mayflower Compact

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The Mayflower Compact was a social contract the pilgrims signed in November 1620 in order to establish law and order in the new colony.

Why Was the Mayflower Compact Written?

When the pilgrims left Plymouth, England in 1620 they had been granted permission from King Charles I to land in northern Virginia and build a colony.

During the long 66 day journey on the Mayflower to the New World, the ship drifted off course and eventually landed in what would become modern day Cape Cod.

"Signing the Mayflower Compact," oil painting by Edward Percy Moran, circa 1900
“Signing the Mayflower Compact,” oil painting by Edward Percy Moran, circa 1900

The pilgrims worried that they had no legal right to colonize the area because they did not have permission, known as a patent, from the king to do so. They were also well aware that previous colonies had failed due to a lack of social order. Some of the Mayflower passengers were not separatists and they questioned their authority, which caused concern among the group.

The group decided to draw up a social contract 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 from the king.

What Did the Mayflower Compact Do?

The purpose of the Mayflower Compact was to establish basic law and order in the colony. The document was intended to be not just a contract between the colonists but also between themselves and God.

Full Text of the Mayflower Compact:

“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, 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 at Cape-Cod the 11 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.”

William Bradford, who would later became governor of Plymouth Plantation, explained the decision to sign this social contract in his journal titled Of Plymouth Plantation:

“This day, before we came to harbour, observing some not well affected to unity and concord, but gave some appearance of faction, it was thought good there should be an association and agreement, that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose, and set our hands to this that follows, word for word.”

When Was the Mayflower Compact Created?

The Mayflower Compact was created on November 11, 1620 off the shore of Cape Cod.

Signers of the Mayflower Compact:

The pilgrims signed the contract in the cabin of the Mayflower ship. All of the 41 men on board the Mayflower signed their names:

John Carver
Edward Tilly
Digery Priest
William Bradford
John Tilly
Thomas Williams
Edward Winslow
Francis Cooke
Gilbert Winslow
William Brewster
Thomas Rogers
Edmund Margeson
Isaac Allerton
Thomas Tinker
Peter Brown
Miles Standish
John Rigdale
Richard Bitteridge
John Alden
Edward Fuller
George Soule
Samuel Fuller
John Turner
Richard Clark
Christopher Martin
Francis Eaton
Richard Gardiner
William Mullins
James Chilton
John Allerton
William White
John Craxton
Thomas English
Richard Warren
John Billington
Edward Doten
John Howland
Moses Fletcher
Edward Leister
Stephen Hopkins
John Goodman

The original document has been lost, possibly due to British looting during the Siege of Boston, but three different copies exist, all with slightly different wording, spelling and capitalization.

The first version was printed in a book written by Edward Winslow in 1622 titled Mourt’s Relations. The second version was published in William Bradford’s journal Of Plymouth Plantation in 1646.

The third version was printed by William Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, along with a list of men who signed it in a pamphlet titled New England’s Memorial in 1669.

Although the document has come to be known as the Mayflower Compact, the pilgrims never actually called it that and that named was not used until the year 1793.

What is the Significance of the Mayflower Compact?

The Mayflower Compact is significant because it is one of the first examples of a colony self-governing itself and many consider it to be the beginning of American Democracy. During a speech in Plymouth in 1802, John Quincy Adams summed up the importance of the Mayflower Compact and why it came to be:

“That is [the Mayflower Compact], perhaps, the only instance in human history of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent, by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation. It was the result of circumstances and discussions which had occurred during their passage from Europe, and is a full demonstration that the nature of civil government, abstracted from the political institutions of their native country, had been an object of their serious meditation. ” 

Adams, John Quincy. “Oration at Plymouth 1802.” The Daily Republican, 22 Dec. 2002,
“The Mayflower Compact.” Constitution Society,
“Mayflower Compact.” All About History,
“The Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact.” Plimoth Plantation,


About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

6 thoughts on “The Mayflower Compact

  1. Ron Petersen

    The article refers to the Mayflower passengers as Puritans. It is my understanding that this is not correct, and that they are accurately described as Separatists. The Separatists believed that the Church of England was beyond reform and were seeking to “separate” into a new church. Puritans sought to remain within the Church of England and “purify” it from within. Mayflower folks were the former, Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Co!ony settlers were the latter.

    That is my understanding, please correct me if I err.

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      The pilgrims were separatist puritans. They were a sect of puritans that had given up on the idea of purifying the Church of England and wanted to completely separate from it. I just updated the article in response to this comment because it seems it wasn’t clear on this.

    2. Rose A. Doherty, Partnership of Historic Bostons

      I agree that the Pilgrims were separatists who wished to leave the established Church of England.

      The Puritans or Congregationalists wanted to purify the church of any Roman Catholic practice. They wanted the congregation to choose the minister, they wanted many sacraments such as marriage and confirmation eliminated, and they did not want control by the bishops. They were call Puritans by others although they did not refer to themselves that way.

      The Pilgrims and Puritans would have seen themselves as quite different.

      Rose A. Doherty, Trustee, Immediate Past President
      Partnership of Historic Bostons

  2. Bill Goss

    Being a direct descendant of five of the Mayflower families, this article gives me special thoughts and feelings, especially as we approach this Thanksgiving season.

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