The Mayflower Compact, 389 Years Later

In addition to being the day on which World War I ended and Veterans’ Day is celebrated, November 11 also is the anniversary of the “Mayflower Compact” signed by the handful of settlers at the New Plymouth Colony.  The Compact was signed on November 11, 1620.

According to the text available on the Yale Law Library website, the Compact was written like a legal document — a kind of combination of an affidavit and a contract.  It states, in pertinent part, that the signers “[d]o by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, 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.”

Why should we care (other than to note that legalese was as prevalent in those long-ago days as it is now)?  We should care because the underlying concept of the Compact was so striking and different for that day and age.  Government was to be established not by the fiat of some faraway, hereditary King, but by the consent and agreement of the governed, who signed their mutual contract in their individual capacities.  The signers, in  turn, recognized that by banding together they could create a society that would be better “ordered and preserved” than if they struck out on their own in the wilderness.  Moreover, they reserved for themselves the ability to decide which laws, Constitutions, and Officers should be deemed “most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony.”

The Mayflower Compact is one of those early American documents that we all learn about in fifth grade American History classes, but then fades into obscurity, overshadowed by the titanic significance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Yet it is one of the precursor documents which helped to create the spirit and mindset that made the Declaration and the Constitution possible.  In short, American colonists were governed because they consented and agreed to be governed.  We should all celebrate, and remember, one of the days on which that concept was realized and put into effect.

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