The Mayflower Compact, signed by 41 English colonists on the ship Mayflower, was the first written framework of government established in what is now the United States. The compact was drafted to prevent dissent amongst Puritans and non-separatist Pilgrims who had landed at Plymouth a few days earlier.
Before being allowed to debark, the leaders of the Pilgrim colony required all male members to enter into an agreement setting out the metes and bounds of rights and responsibilities in the new world. Normally, these sorts of issues would be predetermined within the patent granted by the crown. In the Pilgrims’ case, however, they had dropped anchor in a land outside the region assigned them in the patent. They were essentially operating outside of the law, so they needed new guidelines to direct both the Pilgrims and the others who accompanied them to America (over half of the passengers on board the Mayflower were not Pilgrims). Before leaving Holland, one of the Pilgrims’ pastors who was to stay behind and prepare the second wave of travelers, John Robinson, instructed his followers to form a secular civil government, so to begin the colony in the manner in which they intended to go on, that is to say, in an orderly and tolerant fashion. As he rightly reckoned, making a secular compact with the nonbelievers demonstrated good faith and sound reason on the part of those whom many believe to be overzealous religious reactionaries.
The document signed by 41 of the 50 male adults on board the Mayflower (the other nine were either too ill or were headed straight back to England) has been described as an example of “crystalline brevity.” The text is worthy of repetition in its entirety.
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, ect., having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement 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 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 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 submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
Although in many ways unremarkable and certainly not revolutionary, this brief contract is one of our Republic’s foundational documents and was an example of Puritan pragmatism. These men and women, faced with a silent coast with nothing to anticipate but hardship and fresh despair, bound themselves together into a community of far-flung Englishmen committed to prospering and preserving their natural-born right of self-determination.