In the minds of Americans the Mayflower Compact should rank right up there with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately this document has been all but forgotten by us Americans. I’m a history fanatic and I never read it before seeing it spread across conservative and libertarian websites which marked the 400th anniversary of the document’s drafting and signing on November 11th.
This Federalist Article describes in detail the importance of that document. As you can see from this quote that free exercise of religion was central to the drafting of the Mayflower Compact and the founding of Plymouth Plantation.
We think of the Pilgrims as our forebears, and it is legitimate to do so. But it’s important to remember that the Pilgrims, and the other Puritans who settled New England in the seventeenth century, did not imagine that they were establishing the United States of America. Nothing could have been further from their minds. They were doing something entirely different. They were about the business of establishing a haven where they could enjoy a pure and uncorrupted church.
Religious freedom was at the heart of the Mayflower compact because the pilgrims fled England because of religions persecution which led to a painful exile.
After 11 years of living in increasingly difficult exile in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, they secured a land patent from the Virginia Company permitting them to establish an English colony where they could practice their faith freely. That was their dream. Across the ocean, they came aboard the Mayflower and made landfall at what is today Cape Cod — outside of the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction, and indeed, outside the jurisdiction of any known government.
Self governance was also at the very heart of Mayflower compact.
This would turn out to be one of the most primal constitutional moments in history, one that established the foundational principle of self-rule that would become the heartbeat of the American republic and its free institutions.
As you can see from this quote from the Text of the Mayflower Compact that Pilgrims were deeply religious individuals who were still loyal to the King of England. You can also see that they were creating a colony that they would govern themselves.
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France, and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe, by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick,
This next quote is very reminiscent of the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Self governance and equal protection under the law are spelled out quite clearly.
for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.