On November 11th 1620, a group of 41 people on the Mayflower created and signed a set of rules for self-governance. This was the first framework of government written in the colonies which would eventually become the United States. The Pilgrims, as they would come to be known, were at that time called Separatists. They belonged to the Christian sect of Puritanism. Unlike the other Puritans, however, the Separatists believed that the Church of England (the Anglican church) could not be reformed/purified and therefore wished instead to completely separate themselves from it, hence the name Separatists. Since worshipping in the Anglican church was mandated by law in England, the Separatists were often harshly persecuted and even killed for their desire for religious freedom.
Image: The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America A.D. 1620, unknown year & artist, retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003671548/
The Separatists were a singularly unique group of settlers from any who would come before or after. They
were a very tight group, fiercely loyal to each other and unflinching in their Christian values. Whereas, Jamestown was settled completely by male businessmen and adventures, the Mayflower was filled almost entirely with families. In fact, 33 of the 102 passengers were children or adolescents, and there were 28 women on board. In contrast, Jamestown was settled with no women whatsoever, and over a dozen years later they were desperately placing ads in English newspapers to recruit women to come to Jamestown and be brides for the men, all expenses paid.
Although the Mayflower Compact is very…compact, it nonetheless powerfully demonstrates the underlying desire of the Pilgrims for fair and just rule, where there should be equality under the law. Not only were these ideas rare even in philosophical circles at the time, they were utterly non-existent in any government in the world. One cannot overlook the sense of oneness and unity in the document, and the predilection that a “body politick” for the purpose of self-government should be formed around shared values and goals. It is important not to gloss over that. Many of the early colonial documents recognized this relationship between self-governance and unity. But not just any kind of unity. The unity they all spoke of was a unity based on people unified around a common set of values and principles.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that in this document the Pilgrims continue to assert their loyalty and allegiance to the king of England. They are not fully setting themselves up here as a government completely separate from England. However, the Mayflower Compact is clearly an early (if somewhat incomplete) assertion of independent democratic values, and it undoubtedly played a role in future colonies who did seek permanent independence from British rule.
John Quincey Adams would later describe The Mayflower Compact as "the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country."
The full document is posted below. You are an American, you should read the whole thing. We also think you will enjoy this brief excerpt from our lesson on the Mayflower Compact. In the excerpt we discuss the importance of the Pilgrims to world history.