Reflection on the Mayflower Compact after 400 Years

by Robert J. Heinsohn*

“……Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honor of our King and Country presents  together into a Civil Body Politic of the Christian Faith and Honour 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 Combineourselves 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 submissions and obedience.  In witness whereof we hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord and King James  of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth.    Anno Domini 1620.” [1]

I underlined a portion of the Compact that captures ideas in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution written by our colonial founders a century and a half after the 1620 Compact.  President John Quincy Adams believed that while the Compact was an expedient measure addressing an emergency, it contained ingredients leading to the development of democracy [2]. 

Passengers aboard the Mayflower were Puritan Separatists who fled England because of religious persecution.  Puritans were English protestants who wanted to reform religious practices of worship and selection of clergy in the Church of England.  King James punished Separatists and prosecuted severely for treason those attempting to flee England.  In 1608 Separatists in Scrooby fled to Holland and settled in the university city Leyden.  The Dutch were a tolerant nation and allowed the Separatists to find employment, principally in the manufacture of textiles.  Referring to the Mayflower passengers as Pilgrims is a contemporary practice introduced decades after the Mayflower sailing.

Pilgrims were members of a Separatist congregation in Scrooby England.  Scrooby was in a triangle of towns in Yorkshire on the Great North Road to Edenborough.  The rector of the Scrooby congregation was John Robinson who remained in Leyden to minister to Pilgrim families planning to sail to America after1620.  It is believed the Compact was written by William Brewster and John Carver, Puritan Separatists and passengers on the Mayflower.  Brewster was educated in Cambridge but never ordained in the Church of England.  When in Leyden, Brewster wrote and printed Separatist literature sent secretly to English Separatists.  John Carver was a wealthy London merchant who joined the Leyden congregation in 1610.  He was the principal agent seeking a patent to settle in America, and also chief organizer for the Atlantic voyage.  The Pilgrims elected Carver the colony’s governor and Brewster the congregation’s Elder.  William Bradford was an orphaned lad from a family of local yeoman.  At the age of 12 he began attending Separatist services and fled to Holland with the Robinson congregation.

In 1607-09 the Dutch anticipated war with Spain (thirty years war).  The Pilgrims fearing they might be drawn into the conflict, looked for opportunities to travel to North America.  At the same time, a group of London speculators (Merchant Adventurers) sought a patent from King James to establish a settlement in north America to obtain furs, fish, agricultural products and timber to be sent to England.  The Merchant Adventurers recruited people with special skills, but unknown to the Leyden Separatists i.e. “Strangers” to join the Pilgrims bound for America to protect their interests.  The patent obtained from James I granted the Pilgrims permission to establish a colony at the mouth of the Hudson River in the northern portion of the Virginia patent for Jamestown. 

The Leyden Pilgrims and London Merchant Adventurers formed a joint stock company in which the Merchant Adventurers agreed to hire the Mayflower and crew, finance the Pilgrim’s travel to North America and supply it with manufactured goods after landing.  In return, the Pilgrims agreed to export products to the Merchant Adventurers in England.  At the end of the agreement both parties agreed to settle their financial obligations and the Pilgrims kept their property in America.

The Mayflower encountered storms crossing the Atlantic and deviated from its course and destination.  After 65 days the ship made landfall in Cape Cod Bay and anchored in Provincetown Harbor.  On November 11 they began exploring sites for a permanent settlement.  A captivating documentary account of the Mayflower’s perilous voyage can be found in the DVD Video “Desperate Crossing”. [3]

On December 11 the Pilgrims discovered Patuxet, a former Indian settlement with dependable fresh water and land suitable for crops.  They named the colony Plimoth.  Since the colony lay North of the boundaries of the Virginia patent confrontations arose among the Pilgrims.  Some wanted to sail south to Jamestown.  Carver and Brewster convinced the Pilgrims to remain in Plimoth since their health had weakened and it was dangerous of sail south in December.  The discussions quelled mutiny and 41 adult Pilgrim men signed the Compact.  By the spring half, of the 102 Mayflower Pilgrims died owing to their weak physical condition and harsh winter living conditions aboard the Mayflower and in new structures constructed in Plimoth.

The Pilgrims sought friendly relationships with their Indian neighbors (Wampanogs).   A treaty was agreed upon in which each party would aid the other.  The Wampanoag agreed not to steal from the Pilgrims and would aid them if attacked by other Indian tribes or neighboring colonies.  In return, the Pilgrims agreed to aid the Wampanoag’s if attacked by their Narragansett neighbors.  The agreement lasted for decades.

In the spring of 1621 Carver died suddenly while working in the fields.  William Bradford was elected governorand remained governor, on and off, for 36 years.  His adroit leadership enabled the Pilgrims to settle financial obligations with the Merchant Adventurers and administer day to day activities in Plimoth enabling the colony to grow economically.

While Jamestown was the first successful English colony in America, only a few of its leaders were elected by the colonists, the rest were chosen by the Virginia Company Directors in London.  Plimoth’s leaders were fully elected by the colonists and the Merchant Adventurers played no part.  Consequently, Plimoth is the first fully self-governing colony in America.

James I died in 1625 and his successor, Charles, adopted a tolerant attitude toward Puritans and their desire to leave England.  Between 1629-33 thousands of Puritans sailed to New England to take advantage of opportunities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Lacking a deep-water harbor, Plimoth evolved into a farming community supplying the prosperous Bay Colony.  The Bay Colony eventually absorbed the Plimoth Colony.  Relationships with   the Indians remained friendly for over 50 years until land disputes between New England colonists and Indians erupted.  In 1675-78 a viscous war embroiled all the New England colonies.  The war was called the King Philip war after the leader of the Indians.

The underlined portion of the Compact is written in delightfully plain, straight-forward language rarely used in the early 17th century.  Today America is riven by political acrimony eroding our republic of laws .  We yearn for leadership of the caliber of Brewster, Carver and Bradford and their grasp of self-governance.  We owe these brave souls our eternal gratitude.  While few in number, the Mayflower leaders are our American founders as are the more numerous leaders from Virginia 400 years later.

*I am a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants (SMD) and a past Deputy Governor of the Pennsylvania chapter of SMD.  Nine of the Mayflower passengers are my ancestors.


[1]  William Bradford (edited by Samuel Eliot Morison), 2002, “Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647”, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

[2]. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, 2009, “Strangers and Pilgrims, Travelers and Sojourners”, General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Plymouth, Massachusetts

[3] Wolfinger, L. Q., ”Desperate Crossing”, 2006, DVD Video, produced by the History Channel