The Mayflower Compact, 400 years ago, showed Pilgrim’s Progress toward civil society

Exactly 400 years after 41 men in the galley of a ship called the Mayflower agreed to form a “civil body politic,” the public would do well to put the “civil” back into our self-government.

The Mayflower Compact was signed on Nov. 21, 1620 (Nov. 11 under the then-current Julian calendar), not just by noblemen, as had been the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Arbroath, but by 36 ordinary “freemen,” three hired men, and two indentured/apprenticed servants. While acknowledging King James as their “sovereign,” they agreed to be governed by “just and equal laws” they themselves would “enact, constitute, and frame.”

This short document was remarkable and groundbreaking for many reasons, a number of which are discussed in parts one and two of the Heritage Foundation’s three-part video conference series, which concludes on Nov. 23. Not least among them were the then-novel idea of what later became known as a “social compact,” the reliance on the consent of the governed, and the reality that what became democratic self-government was rooted inexorably in faith, as practiced by people insistent on religious liberty from a crown-sponsored church.

Americans, especially younger ones, should study and learn this history as a counterweight to the anti-American claptrap so often taught today that claims this nation has been irredeemably racist and benighted from its inception.

To start, though, let’s avail ourselves of the double meaning of the word “civil” — one relating to societal arrangements and the other to something akin to, although greater than, polite and considerate personal interactions. It is beyond doubt, alas, that today’s politics have become a decidedly uncivil arena. It is also beyond doubt that the incivility now is greater and potentially more destabilizing than it was in prior decades.

This is not to say politics was ever genteel. It was back in 1895 that the fictional Mr. Dooley exclaimed that “politics ain’t beanbag,” and the arena never softened since then. Still, the level and prevalence of vitriol has risen in the past quarter century far beyond, perhaps dangerously so, what it had been in, say, the 1950s through the mid-1990s.

Some analysts might blame this cultural descent on Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama or (certainly!) Donald Trump, talk radio or MSNBC, Ted Kennedy’s invention of Borking or Russia’s use of Twitter bots, and almost all those analysts would, in their own way, be right. Whatever the causes, though, the effects are serious: Among a host of already disturbing survey findings too voluminous to list here, at least one poll has found that three-fifths of the public seriously fear that the United States is on the verge of another (un-)Civil War.

There may be all sorts of very intentional ways that, as individuals and subcommunities, we all can find ways to improve the situation. See, for example, this piece I co-wrote several years ago. No matter how well intentioned, though, few of them are likely to have a widespread-enough effect in a nation of 330 million souls.

Perhaps, though, the Mayflower Compact itself offers guidance by way of example.

For many years, I and others have been writing about massive surveys that continue to show the appalling ignorance of civics and history among great swaths of the public, quite specifically including this nation’s supposed educational elites. Along with that ignorance comes a fundamental lack of understanding about how fair, thoughtful, and nuanced is the U.S. constitutional system or how it and all our founding principles encourage human flourishing. Indeed, the benefits of freedom itself, along with the capacity of a society of ordered liberty to self-correct over time, are often misunderstood, unappreciated, or even belittled.

Contrarily, the more that people appreciate the wonder and uniqueness of the so-called American Experiment — how what became America developed practical self-government in a deliberate social compact combining equality and freedom — the more they will trust that a particular election is part of a republican process rather than a cataclysmic event from which we may never recover. The more they understand the nature and the humility of self-governance, the less threatened they will feel by the ebb and flow of partisan power.

And if they feel less threatened, their emotional temperature will more likely remain at equilibrium. At that equilibrium, the tendency toward constructive civility will naturally rise, even without intentional efforts. And with more civility will come a greater ability again to hear the other side, to compromise, to reach accords, and in short, to govern effectively.

The Mayflower Compact was the first great expression of the mind and of the determination to combine “solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another,” for “better ordering and preservation” by use of “just and equal laws” applicable to people of all social stations. That enterprise of mutuality and equality, undertaken by free men who risked their lives for the free exercise of religion, was not just a new body politic but a civil body politic. When we understand the significance thereof, we can and should return to its values and virtues.

Our goal, then, should be to emulate the national civic education and celebration that accompanied the bicentennial of 1976 with a concerted national effort to reinculcate appreciation for the history and civics that make the U.S. a light among the nations. Four hundred years after the Mayflower Compact, it’s time to renew the Pilgrims’ civic faith.

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