The famous Mayflower Compact was born of necessity. When the Mayflower passengers realized they had arrived several hundred miles north of where they intended to go, they faced a crisis. Cape Cod, where they arrived in November 1620, was beyond the northern boundary of the Virginia Company’s charter. That charter granted them permission to establish a colony for King James I in the northern part of the Virginia Company, near the mouth of the Hudson River. They did not have a charter or permission to be where they arrived, nearly five months after their initial efforts to leave England.
The Mayflower brought 102 passengers: 50 men, 19 women and 33 young adults and children. Of those, only 41 were Separatists, or religious refugees. The others, known to the Separatists as Strangers, were merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants and orphaned children. The Separatist religious refugees longed to establish a place where they could worship according to their own understanding of Christian community. The others came at the behest of the investors financing the trip to ensure a return on their investment. These two groups, with vastly different agendas, were now stranded beyond the jurisdiction of their charter.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Their situation was desperate. Supplies were dwindling and anxiety was rising. It was winter and they had no shelter beyond the wretched crowded ship. And now, they were anchored in the wrong place. Challenges erupted as soon they learned they were beyond the boundary of territory of the Virginia Company. Some argued this meant their contract with the Company was no longer valid and they were free to set out on their own. Future Pilgrim governor William Bradford later wrote, “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.”
The Separatist leaders feared none of them would survive if they didn’t stay together, establish some semblance of order, and appease King James I. The king had granted their charter. Disappointing or disobeying a monarch could mean being abandoned and left totally on their own, cut off from any future help. Worried they might all die if that were to happen, several Separatists crafted a set of rules for self-governance. Today we know it as the Mayflower Compact.
Treading Troubled Waters
Since King James I issued their charter through the Virginia trading company, he could easily withhold sending any future supplies or settlers to help stabilize a fledgling colony. The Separatists knew they had to do something quickly to avert total chaos. We do not know for certain who actually wrote the Mayflower Compact, but the authors likely included William Brewster as the Separatist’s spiritual leader and only one with any college education, young William Bradford who showed outstanding leadership, and John Carver, one of the older Separatists. After they agreed on the wording for the Mayflower Charter, they exerted peer pressure to secure the signatures the adult men on board. According to Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton in his New England’s Memorial, 41 of the 50 men signed the document. They then appointed John Carver governor of the new settlement.
The original document has been lost, but we know the contents thanks to reports about it in early American documents, including the 1622 Mourt’s Relations, written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. The English considered themselves loyal subjects to King James, even though some of them wanted to get far away from his influence over how they should worship. Thus they carefully crafted a document that professed loyalty to the King while asserting their right to govern themselves in their new location.
The Impact of the Compact
The document they crafted has become an important part of our USA history. It was the first document to establish self-government in the New World. Two centuries later John Quincy Adams claimed the document was “the only instance in human history of that positive, original, social compact.” It is widely accepted that the Mayflower Compact influenced the wording of our Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It was actually a covenant based on a Puritan church document. It applied only to how they should govern themselves and did not address the sticky reality they did not have a legal right to establish a settlement where they did. They obtained a patent the follow June from the English Council for New England.
Text of the Mayflower Chronicle
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, 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 eighteenth and of Scotland fifty-fourth, Anno Domini 1620.
I’m pleased to announce Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale or Two Cultures is now available in electronic and print form at these places:
Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Audio book coming soon!