|This Week in History
November 8 - 14, 1620
The Mayflower Compact:
The Plymouth Pilgrims Form a 'Body Politick' To Carry Out the 'General Good of the Colony'
On November 11, 1620, the ship Mayflower out of Plymouth, England, anchored off Cape Cod. The passengers were divided between a group of English Separatists who planned to settle and improve the land, and another group, more diverse, of Englishmen who had sailed to America for a number of reasons. Some of the second group declared, now that they were safely across the ocean, "that when they came ashore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them."1
The Separatists, later called Pilgrims, knew what damage had been done to the Jamestown, Virginia settlement by adventurers who refused to fish or till the soil even if it meant starvation, and so they drew up what has become known as the "Mayflower Compact." By signing the document, 41 heads of households agreed to combine into a civil body politic, to frame laws and appoint officers, and to follow those laws and obey their elected officers. The form of the Compact was based on the agreement which the Separatists had used to bind themselves into a church, and now it was applied to the political purpose of ensuring the unity of the settlement in a wild and often dangerous wilderness.
As difficult as the first years at Plymouth were to be, the Pilgrims had endured such hard trials in England and Holland, that they were determined to succeed in the New World. Their story began in the early years of the 17th Century, when a number of English Protestants formed their own local churches, and rejected the Church of England. Unlike the Puritans, who then remained within the Church of England, these Protestants were known as Separatists. Because the English monarch was the head of the Church of England, the Separatists were thus challenging royal authority in the sphere of religion.
King James did not take this lightly, and many of the Separatistsand there were various sectswere arrested and jailed. As an account of the time describes what happened: "For some were taken and clapt up in prison, others had their houses beset and watcht night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were faine to fly and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelehood.... [S]eeing themselves thus molested, and that there was no hope of their continuance there, by a joynte consente they resolved to goe into the Low-Countries, where they heard was freedome of Religion for all men...."
Families such as the Brewsters, Bradfords, and Robinsons around the village of Scrooby in northern England began to talk of emigrating to Holland. But the ports were closed to the Separatists, and they had to hire ship captains who were willing to pick them up at isolated spots on the English coast. During one such venture in 1607, the master of the ship betrayed them and they were seized, hauled into the English town of Boston to be a spectacle for jeering mobs, and thrown into jail.
The next year the Separatists tried again, this time joined by others who were eager to leave England. A Dutch ship captain agreed to pick them up on the lonely marshes of the Humber River. The women, children, and household goods were ferried there by boat, while the men walked. The boats went aground when the tide went out, so the men arrived first. Just as the Dutch captain was loading the first group of men on his ship, armed Englishmen on horseback bore down upon them, and the captain set sail, stranding the women and children and remaining men. Again, the Pilgrims left behind were arrested and imprisoned, and harried from place to place, for they had already given up their homes and farms.
Finally, public sentiment rose in favor of the Separatists, and they were allowed to join the others in Holland. But Amsterdam was a difficult place to make a living, and they saw "the grime and grisly face of povertie coming upon them like an armed man." Finally, most of the group moved to Leyden, a quiet university town. Because they were not citizens, however, the Separatists could not work in many occupations, and they suffered economically.
William Bradford, who would become the governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote that other Separatists were loath to join them in Holland, for they would not have been able to "endure that great labor and hard fare.... Some preferred, and chose the prisons in England, rather than this libertie in Holland, with these afflictions." Bradford also wrote of another problem, "that which was more lamentable ... was that many of their children, by these occasions, and by the great licentiousness of youth in that countrie, and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawne away by evill examples into extravagante and dangerous courses." The dissolute culture which was gradually taking root in Holland was due to the ascendancy of the slave-trading Dutch East India Company and its Venetian financiers.
When news of the English colony at Jamestown reached the Separatists, they began to consider emigrating to the northern part of the Virginia grant, which at that time reached to New England. "After they had lived in this citie about some 11 or 12 years," two events helped to decide the group to emigrate. First, in April of 1619, 63-year-old James Chilton and his daughter were stoned by a group of about 20 Dutch boys. Second, just three months later, the Dutch government published an edict prohibiting separatist religious gatherings. It was not aimed at the English Separatists, but it could have affected them in the future.
Captain John Smith, forced to leave Jamestown after he was injured by a suspicious gunpowder explosion, had mapped the coast of New England in 1616. Many place names on that map, including "Plimoth," had been chosen by Prince Henry, the heir to the throne. Henry had been tutored by Sir Walter Raleigh and was the hope of the English humanists, but he died mysteriously at age 18. Captain Smith, hearing of the Pilgrims' possible voyage to Virginia, offered his services, but they turned him down, "saying my books and maps were much better cheape to teach them, than myselfe."
The Pilgrims chose instead an English soldier living in Holland named Myles Standish, but they took Smith's map with them as well. The first part of their lengthy journey took them from Holland to the English port of Southhampton, where they stayed while they endeavored to obtain permission from the King to establish a settlement in Virginia. This was eventually granted, and the Pilgrim leadership also obtained financial backing from a group of "adventurers," comprised of around 70 gentlemen, merchants, and craftsmen.
An unfortunate feature of this loan was the provision that all the settlers would work together on common land for seven years, and only after the loan and interest was repaid could they obtain farms and houses of their own. The Pilgrims were very unhappy with this provision and tried to have the agreement annulled, but necessity eventually forced them to accept it. It was only after the expiration of the seven years that the Plymouth settlement began to stabilize and bring in bountiful harvests.
The Pilgrims and the other passengers embarked on the Mayflower and the Speedwell, but the latter leaked constantly, and the group had to turn back several times to have it repaired. The Pilgrims' sojourn at Plymouth, England, was very pleasant, for from this port many of Raleigh's expeditions had left for the New World, and at that very moment, many of Plymouth's sailors were fishing off Newfoundland and New England. In Plymouth, the Puritans could hear many details about New England, and receive encouragement for their journey.
Leaving the Speedwell and some of their group behind, the Pilgrims finally left Plymouth on September 6, and arrived off Cape Cod on November 9, 1620. They tried to sail further south, but were turned back by rip tides, and so returned to Cape Cod Bay. Exploring further, they came to the "Plimoth" shown on Captain Smith's map, which had a small, somewhat shallow harbor. It had formerly been a Wampanoag Indian village, but had been wiped out, as had many southeastern New England Indian towns, by an epidemic which could have been smallpox. One of the few Plymouth Indians who survived was Squanto, who had been taken to Europe and England before the epidemic hit. He returned in time to aid the Pilgrims in planting their crops in the spring.
But before they built their town at Plymouth, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact on the ship in Provincetown Harbor. As William Bradford wrote, the Compact was "occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship." Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims, wrote that "some [were] not well affected to unitie and concord, but gave some appearances of faction [and thus] it was thought good ... that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governours, as we should by common consent agree to make and choose." All important positions were elective, and even Myles Standish had to be elected to his office as head of the militia.
The 41 signers to the Compact stated that "Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the 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 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. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, Anno Domini, 1620."
1. The spelling which appears in quotations is faithful to the original.