MAYFLOWER COMPACT, signed aboard the May-flower on 11 November 1620 by the ship's forty-one free adult men, served as the basis for Plymouth Colony's government throughout its history. As the Mayflower's passengers had settled in New England, their patent for establishing a colony in Virginia was useless. The Pilgrim colony thus had no legal foundation, and some non-Pilgrim passengers talked of striking out on their own, ignoring Governor John Carver's now ambiguous authority. If the Pilgrims were to have a colony at all, they needed to establish a government based on some sort of consensus, and they turned to the model of their own congregational churches for guidance. The colonists would form a "body politic," which would select and wholly submit to leaders chosen by the majority, just as members of Pilgrim congregations each elected their own ministers and governed themselves. Thus, in the name of King James I, did the settlers "Covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation." The compact was put into practice when John Carver was confirmed as the colony's first governor.
The Mayflower Compact provided Plymouth with a simple constitution. The "General Court" of all freemen (nearly all adult men, excluding servants) met several times a year, elected the governor and his assistants, and passed laws for the colony. Voting directly in assembly or through representatives, asserted as fundamental right of Englishmen in the colony's 1636 legal code, also carried responsibilities. Freemen were expected to attend all General Court sessions, and those who did not faced heavy fines. Since the General Court was an assembly of citizens that was not in regular session, the governor dominated Plymouth's politics until the General Court was transformed into a representative assembly. Because the colony's expansion into several settlements made meetings of all freemen impractical, the 1638 General Court voted to allow freemen to assemble in individual towns and select deputies to attend General Court sessions in Plymouth town. All freemen were still expected to meet in Plymouth town for the June session, at which the governor and his assistants were chosen, but the General Court voted to allow colony wide proxy voting in 1652, finally doing away with colony wide meetings of all freemen. A now formal representative assembly holding regular sessions, the General Court stole the initiative from the governors. While the governor remained a powerful figure, charged with executing laws and having powers of arrest, the General Court claimed the sole right to tax, declare war, and frame legislation.
Voting rights became more restrictive as the colony grew and diversified. By 1670 property requirements excluded about 25 percent of adult men from voting, but the franchise still remained relatively open. Plymouth's governmental system was modified as the colony grew and the population changed, but the basic foundation established by the Mayflower Compact—that Plymouth would have self-government based on majority rule—remained intact. The colony never did receive legal recognition or a royal charter from England, apart from two patents issued by the Council for New England in 1621 and 1630. Failure to obtain a charter eventually led to Plymouth's annexation by much larger and more populous Massachusetts in 1691.
Bradford, William. History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morrison. 2 vols. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
Cushing, John D., ed. The Laws of the Pilgrims: A Facsimile Edition of The Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New Plymouth, 1672 and 1685. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazer, 1977.
Langdon, George D. "The Franchise and Political Democracy in Plymouth Colony." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 20 (October 1963): 513–526.
Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., and David Pulsifer, eds. Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. 12 vols. 1855. Re-print, New York: AMS Press, 1968.
In 1620 the ship Mayflower departed from England for the New World. Many of those on board were religious dissenters, known then as Separatists and later as Pilgrims or Puritans, who preferred to separate altogether from the Church of England rather than try to change the church as other dissenters attempted to do. The passengers also included emigrants who were not members of the Separatist congregation. The combined group of Separatists and "strangers," as they were called by the Separatists, had obtained a charter from the Virginia Company of London, giving them permission to settle within the boundaries of the colony of Virginia.
The Mayflower, however, did not reach Virginia. Instead, it arrived off the coast of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which was not within the boundaries of any established colonial government. The strangers asserted that they would not be bound by any laws, but william bradford, the Separatists' leader, insisted that all male passengers sign an agreement to abide by the laws that the colonial leaders would establish at the colony they called Plymouth.
On November 21, 1620, forty-one adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. The compact served as a device to preserve order and establish rules for self-government. The signers agreed to combine themselves into a "civil Body Politick" that would enact and obey "just and equal laws" that were made for the "general good of the colony." This commitment to justice and equality would be reiterated in many later documents, including the U.S. Constitution.
Source: Ben Perley Poore, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States, vol. 1 (1878), p. 931.
1 English monarchs styled themselves king or queen of France between 1340 and 1801. The custom began when the English became embroiled in the Hundred Years War with France and King Edward III of England, whose mother was a French princess, claimed the French throne.
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, &c. Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the 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 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 do enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, 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 hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the reign of our sovereign lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland, the fifty-fourth, anno Domini, 1620.1
Mr. John Carver
Mr. William Bradford
Mr. Edward Winslow
Mr. William Brewster
Mr. Samuel Fuller
Mr. Christopher Martin
Mr. William Mullins
Mr. William White
Mr. Richard Warren
Mr. Steven Hopkins
Mr. John Allerton
An agreement signed by the passengers of the Mayflower, while the ship lay at anchor in Provincetown harbor, Mass., on Nov. 11, 1620. Under the compact the settlers agreed to be ruled by the majority and to submit to the laws made by their government. Such an agreement became necessary when the Mayflower inadvertently landed at Cape Cod rather than Virginia, where the Pilgrim Fathers had a royal patent, and some members of the group refused to recognize the legal authority of their leaders, whose jurisdiction under the patent did not extend beyond the borders of Virginia. To ensure the proper ordering of the colony, the signers of the compact pledged to "combine ourselves together in 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 … as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." The compact was not a constitution; nor was it a declaration of independence from the king. It was, rather, a social contract, important as an example of government by consent of the governed as well as of the remarkable capacity of the English people for self-government. These so-called Pilgrim Fathers were a group of Puritans, originally from the village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England, who fled to Holland to preserve their religious purity. After a period of unhappy exile in Holland, they immigrated to America. They differed from other Puritans in that they had no wish to remain within the Church of England and broke with it entirely. The Mayflower Compact was the first of many such agreements by which groups of New Englanders established civil governments. These were actually extensions of the religious covenants by which members of each Congregational church mutually bound themselves in a fraternal religious association.
Bibliography: j. t. blodgett, "The Political Theory of the Mayflower Compact," Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 12 (1911) 204–213. a. lord, "The Mayflower Compact," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, NS 30 (1920) 278–294.