This Day in History 11/21: The Mayflower Compact is signed

The Mayflower Compact, a painting by Jean Leon...

Image via Wikipedia

The Mayflower Compact, signed on November 21 (November 11 in the old calendar), 1620, causes a lot of confusion.

Therefore, before we go any further, let’s get some things clear:

1. The so-called Pilgrims (or Separatists or whatever the fuck they wanted to call themselves) were not interested in creating a democracy.

2. They did not believe in religious freedom for anyone but themselves.

3. No one asked the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Patuxet or any of the other indigenous tribes of the region to sign this thing (which they would have happily done with a tomahawk to their pasty white skulls).

The usual line fed to us is that the Pilgrims created the Compact as the first form of government in the Thirteen Colonies of North America.  There goes log of bullshit # 1–sorry, Jesus freaks, but the tobacco-growing, native-wenching planters of Virginia had you beat by one year, creating the House of Burgesses in 1619.

The other old saw follows that the Pilgrims intended to form a democratic form of government among the colonists, thus being the antecedent to the United States Constitution.  Again…this is wrong on so many levels.

The reasons for the Compact were complex, but mostly had to do with the sizeable amount of colonists aboard the Mayflower who were (gasp!) not Pilgrims, Separatists, Puritans or anything else.  They had no illusions about John Winthrop‘s City on a Hill, or creating a New Jerusalem in the wilderness–they came to go to Virginia and join the wenching tobacco planters.  When the ship veered off course and landed at Cape Cod instead, the outsiders, or “strangers” claimed independence from the Pilgrim leaders.  By contract, the voyage was to land in Virginia.  It didn’t, so by law (at least in their mind) the Bible-thumpers had no control over them.

The Pilgrims, rightfully, got nervous.  They understood that if they didn’t stick together, the colony would not survive, be it by starvation, disease, exposure, or the aforementioned tomahawks to the noggin.  So they decided to bargain with the “strangers” and form a haphazard agreement.  It was basically not much of a government at all, but rather a social contract meant to bind the colonists to the rules set forth from that point on.

The following is a modern translation of the Compact:

 “In the name of God, Amen. 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, etc.

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor 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 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 hereunto 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, 1620.”

Three things are abundantly clear in reading this modern translation:

1. The Pilgrims had a shitty sense of geography.  They still insisted they were in Virginia–albeit the “northern parts of Virginia.”  This was probably put in to keep the “strangers” from trying any legal funny business.  By that definition, Virginia should extend all the way to fucking Nova Scotia.

2. The Compact did not lay out a single plank for a framework of government.  All it did was establish a “body politic” that would be bound to the rules and regulations of the colony, rules that are supposedly “convenient for the general good of the colony.”  Exactly how these rules would be enacted–and especially who would be involved in government–was left eerily vague.  Looking at the list of 41 white male signers, you can guess who was running things.

3. For a group of people threatened with prison, torture and death by their own home government, the Pilgrims still show a remarkable allegiance to James I of England, Scotland and Ireland–even going so far as to use his full and correct title TWICE (how’s that for filling a page!)  This could lead modern readers to think the Pilgrims either still showed obedience to the sovereign or were real sado-masochists under those doublets and breeches.

Was the Mayflower Compact important?  Sure it was.  It was among the earliest attempts to create a social contract bound by the consent of the governed, albeit imperfectly.  It embodied the social and communal ideals of the Separatist movement, emphasizing rule of law and mutual cooperation.

Yet was the Compact the big thing our teachers made it out to be?  Probably not.  It didn’t establish a government at all.  It didn’t stipulate the rights of colonists.  It didn’t lay a foundation for governance or the creation of laws.

Worst of all, the Pilgrim fathers certainly had selective amnesia about the Compact when it came to women, dissenters and especially Native Americans.  The subsequent wars over New England, particularly the Pequot War of 1637 and especially King Phillip’s War of 1675-1676, demonstrate a concerted effort by the English colonists to marginalize, exclude and ultimately erase any native influence on their culture and their precious Compact.

It would take another 167 years of foundations–and another two centuries of defining those foundations–to actually create the system that lived up to the Pilgrim ideal.

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