In November 1620, the Mayflower completed its voyage across the Atlantic. Before its weary passengers walked on American soil for the first time, 41 men signed their names to a simple agreement. They declared their loyalty to King James and formed themselves into a “body politic.” They promised, among other things, “all due submission and obedience” to the laws and offices they would enact to govern themselves. Then the passengers went ashore, explored Cape Cod and soon established a settlement at Plymouth.
For much of American history, the Mayflower Compact—as it came to be called—has been considered a foundational document. John Quincy Adams praised it as the “original social compact,” an agreement that eventually had given birth to a nation. “In the cabin of the Mayflower,” declared the 19th-century historian George Bancroft, “humanity recovered its rights, and instituted government on the basis of ‘equal laws’ enacted by all the people for ‘the general good.’” The Pilgrims, as the Mayflower passengers had become known by this point, gained renown for their dual commitment to religious and political liberty.
In recent decades, the Pilgrims and their compact have lost some of their luster. Since 1970, Native Americans and their supporters have held a National Day of Mourning in Plymouth each November. They see the Mayflower crossing not as a stroke for liberty but as the commencement of conquest and dispossession. Meanwhile, some Americans train their gaze on other origin stories, such as the arrival of African slaves in Virginia.
What meaning, then, does the Mayflower Compact have for Americans in 2020? Setting aside the hyperbole of Pilgrim venerators past, it remains a landmark worthy of commemoration.
The agreement aboard the Mayflower was terse out of necessity. Pilgrim leaders only drafted it after their ship sailed off course, missing their intended destination somewhere near the mouth of the Hudson River. Nothing authorized the Pilgrims to form a government farther north, in New England, and the uncertainty over this stoked unrest. Some of the passengers made “mutinous speeches” and intended to “use their own liberty” when they left the ship, according to the account of William Bradford, later elected the colony’s second governor. The compact tamped down this brewing mutiny.