The Mayflower Compact is an agreement between the passengers aboard the Mayflower which established the governance structure of the Plymouth Colony. It influenced the development of governance in the American colonies and, ultimately, the shaping of the United States' political traditions.
The Mayflower Voyage
The idea for the Mayflower voyage originated from members of the separatist congregation, who had fled to Leiden, the Netherlands, as a result of the religious persecution under the Anglican Church led by King James I of England. However, the high number of economic challenges they faced as foreigners in this land prompted them to consider leaving Europe.
Consequently, two of the congregation's members, John Carver and Robert Cushman negotiated with the merchant adventurer Thomas Weston to assist them in establishing a colony in North America in the region of the Virginia Patent, granted by King James I to the Virginia Company of London in 1606. Weston was able to get them a charter for a colony in the same region and assembled a diverse group of settlers to join them, referred to by the separatists as the Strangers.
The voyage was organized by July 1620. A member of the congregation secured a passenger ship in very poor conditions, the Speedwell, while Weston arranged for a cargo carrack, the Mayflower, to be rented for the journey. After both ships departed for North America, it became evident that the Speedwell wouldn't withstand a transatlantic crossing, prompting its abandonment. Finally, the Mayflower set sail on September 6, 1620, resulting in a rougher Atlantic crossing than if they had departed in July. These challenging circumstances likely exacerbated tensions between the separatists and the Strangers.
After two months at sea, land came into view on November 9, 1620. Despite the initial relief, Captain Jones realized they were off-course and had arrived in modern-day Massachusetts. He attempted to reach their destination, but the weather conditions forced him to return to Cape Cod where land was first sighted. However, the Mayflower had no legal right to land in the region, and the passengers lacked the authority to establish a colony there since their charter was valid only for the specified region settled by the Virginia Company of London. As the land they found themselves in fell under the jurisdiction of the Plymouth Company, the anticipated established laws were non-existent.
The Mayflower Compact
The Mayflower Compact's specific proposer remains unknown, but potential candidates include John Carver, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, and Stephen Hopkins. Carver is presumed to have drafted the document, which was read aloud and signed by 41 male passengers on November 11, 1620.
The careful wording of the compact clarified that the colonists did not claim authority to establish law, stating that this right belonged solely to the king. Despite grievances against James I, the document acknowledged him as their sovereign and themselves as loyal subjects. Its purpose was explicitly stated – to ensure the establishment and preservation of a colony for the advancement of the Christian faith and the honour of the king and country, rather than personal interests.
The compact shielded signers from charges of treason by preventing the establishment of their own government over an independent settlement. Simultaneously, it assured those who had objected to the rule of law that they had a voice and a vote in decisions concerning the new colony. After its ratification, Carver was elected governor, who was allowed to delegate responsibilities within the party. Scouting missions, shelter construction, and the care of the sick were undertaken according to the collective needs of the group rather than catering to the interests of a select few.
Significance of the Compact
Following the establishment of the Plymouth Colony and the initiation of friendly relations with the Native Americans of the Wampanoag Confederacy, the Mayflower Compact served as a blueprint for the peace treaty between the colonists and Wampanoag chief Ousamequin. This treaty fostered a close and mutually beneficial relationship between the newcomers and Native Americans until Massasoit's passing and the arrival of more colonists from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who sought increasing amounts of native land.
Although the Plymouth Colony eventually merged into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691, the significance of the Mayflower Compact endured. It served as a source of inspiration for the early constitutions of states like Massachusetts and Connecticut. The ideas encapsulated in it also influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers and resonated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Even after gaining independence from England, the Mayflower Compact continued to shape the drafting of the United States Constitution.
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