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What is the Mayflower Compact?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Mayflower Compact is famous as the first written charter of government in the New World. It was signed aboard ship in Provincetown Harbor, in what became Massachusetts in the United States, on November 21, 1620 by the men of the company that sailed on the Mayflower. Just 199 words long, many of which would be considered ceremonial boilerplate, it was essentially a pledge to govern themselves and to obey whatever laws and regulations the colony might enact.

It was not commonplace for colonists of the day to determine to govern themselves, which is essentially what these English colonists did. The accepted practice was for a royally-chartered company, such as the Council for New England, formerly the Plymouth Company, to finance a voyage and establish a colony within the boundaries of the land granted in the royal charter, clearly under the jurisdiction of English law. The Mayflower Compact was the colonists' practical solution to a very real problem that presented itself to them.

When the Mayflower set sail from England in September, 1620, the intent was to sail for the mouth of the Hudson River and settle near there, in what was then called northern Virginia. They sailed for more than two months, encountering inclement weather along the way which forced the ship much further north than intended. When they finally reached land, in late November of 1620, it was the northern tip of Cape Cod, where Provincetown is now located. Some of the company aboard ship, called "strangers” because they weren't associated with the main body of Pilgrims, talked openly about not having to obey any laws or be accountable to anybody, since they had landed outside the boundaries of the land granted by royal charter by King James to the Plymouth Company. The Mayflower Compact was written at least partially in response to those threats, and signed by all 41 of the adult men in the party.

Another credible reason given for the drafting and execution of the Mayflower Compact is the realization by the party's leaders that they were embarking on a difficult undertaking, requiring the full commitment of all members. Having all men sign a pledge to become a single body and to obey the laws they might see fit to enact may very well have reinforced their commitment in the face of a great but dangerous venture.

As the first written document of government in the New World, the Mayflower Compact has been given a special status as one of the founding documents of American freedom, along with the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which were adopted in January 1639 for the governance of the towns along the Connecticut River. It was under the provisions of the Mayflower Compact that the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, governed itself until 1691, when it was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although the Mayflower Compact itself has been lost, the text as recalled and reported by William Bradford, the compact's principle architect and one of its original signers, has been accepted as accurate. Neither long nor comprehensive in scope, it nevertheless is notable for its being a document of self-governance, drawn up and executed by those who were to be governed.

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