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.
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:
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, www.dailyrepublican.com/plymouth-orate.html
“The Mayflower Compact.” Constitution Society, www.constitution.org/bcp/mayfcomp.htm
“Mayflower Compact.” All About History, www.allabouthistory.org/mayflower-compact.htm
“The Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact.” Plimoth Plantation, www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/mayflower-and-mayflower-compact