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The following essay was originally published as part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project.


The Plymouth colony was not the first English colony in the New World. It was not even the first successful English colony. But it may have been the single most important one: important both for the precedents it established, and the legacies it left.

. . . [T]here is a strong case that we should celebrate Nov. 11 — the day that the rugged square-rigger called the Mayflower made safe harbor near what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts — as one of the greatest moments in our national story, comparable in its way to July 4, Independence Day, and Sept. 17, Constitution Day.

Indeed, there is a strong case that we should celebrate Nov. 11 — the day that the rugged square-rigger called the Mayflower made safe harbor near what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts — as one of the greatest moments in our national story, comparable in its way to July 4, Independence Day, and Sept. 17, Constitution Day. But let me qualify that statement a little.

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.

By contrast, the earliest settlers of Virginia had been motivated primarily by material considerations. They mainly wanted what the Spaniards had wanted from their colonial possessions: Gold. But the settlers of New England were driven almost entirely by religious zeal. Most of them were Puritans, men and women of a Calvinist religious bent who believed the Church of England had not gone far enough to purge itself of its Roman Catholic aspects, and who despaired of such a cleansing renewal ever taking place in their lifetimes. Hence their decision to emigrate to the New World, for a new beginning.

The Plymouth colonists in particular were not only Calvinists but also Separatists, which meant that they had separated themselves from the Church of England as a hopelessly corrupted body and preferred to worship in independent congregational (meaning self-governing) churches. This would turn out to be one of the most primal constitutional moments in history. It established the foundational principle of self-rule that would become the heartbeat of the American republic and its free institutions.

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.

There were clear and present dangers in these unexpected circumstances, and the group’s leaders knew it. They were especially worried that the colony might not be able to hold together as a law-abiding entity, in the absence of any larger controlling authority. About half of those on board were “Strangers,” the Pilgrims’ term for non-Separating passengers, who did not share their religious motives for making the arduous trip, but whose skills and labor were going to be essential to the colony’s success in a harsh and forbidding environment.

Some among the Strangers had already indicated that as the colony was being planted outside the reach of the royal charter, they might feel free to go their own way and “use their own liberty,” as one of them said, “for none had power to command them.” This was a frightening prospect. What were the Pilgrim leaders to do?

In response, they drafted and signed on Nov. 11, a short document they came to call the Plymouth Combination (the name “Mayflower Compact” would not be applied until the 1790s). In that document, they committed themselves to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick,” and committed themselves to obey any and all laws and authorities that would be established thereby.

[The Mayflower Compact] 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.

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 inauspicious as this event was at the time, taking place so far away from the awareness of the world’s centers of population and civilized life, it proved to be a crucial milestone in the development of self-governing political institutions. The signatories were following the same pattern of self-government that New Englanders would use in organizing their churches.

Just as in the Congregational churches ordinary believers came together to create self-governing churches, so with the Mayflower Compact a group of ordinary people came together to create their own government, and in doing so, asserted their right to do so. It wasn’t starting fresh. It was building on very deep foundations.

What made these developments even more astonishing was that they amounted to a real-world dramatization of the theory that civil society was based upon a “social contract” among its members. Here was a case where a group had actually done it — and they did it years before the theoreticians, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, had gotten round to formulating the idea systematically.

That’s not to mention doing it a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and that “it is the Right of the People to … institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Now, some qualifiers. First, and most importantly, we need to be absolutely clear that this agreement aboard the Mayflower was not something fashioned in a pre-political and pre-cultural “state of nature,” such as would later be imagined by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. All we have to do is look closely at the document to see that. The truth of the matter shines out in virtually every sentence.

The document begins with the words “In the Name of God,” a phrase that instantly invokes the entire range of ideas associated with biblical monotheism and with well-established traditions of Christian worship — not features associated with the concept of the state of nature. It proceeds to identify the signatories as “Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James,” a gesture affirming the ongoing legitimacy of the English monarch.

It identifies their voyage as having been undertaken “for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the honor of our King and Country.” It identifies the signatories as endorsing the agreement “in the Presence of God and one another.” And it proposes the goal of framing “just and equal Laws,” that promote the “general Good of the colony.”

In other words, this agreement was informed and directed at every turn by the religious, political, legal, and cultural practices of contemporary England. It wasn’t starting fresh, not at all. It was building on very deep foundations. Also, even when the Declaration of Independence appeared on the scene, it drew not only assuredly upon Locke’s theories, but also upon the same reservoir of American experience, a total of 150 years of American colonial self-governance: in Massachusetts, in Virginia, in Pennsylvania, in all the original colonies.

The Pilgrims wisely chose to establish a government based on civil agreement, not on compulsory divine or biblical authority.

One other point. We cannot ever forget the daring, the sheer courage, that the Pilgrims showed in undertaking this dangerous and uncertain transatlantic migration. Whatever the variety of their motives may have been, in the end, the Leiden Separatists were drawing primarily upon the astonishing depth of their commitment to their religious faith. The Pilgrims wisely chose to establish a government based on civil agreement, not on compulsory divine or biblical authority.

When they landed at Cape Cod, they might as well have been landing on the surface of the moon, with no admiring onlookers, no applauding audience, no swelling background music. Surely there must have been some among them who trembled a bit, silently and inwardly, and wondered for a moment if it had not all been an act of utter madness rather than solid and reasoned faith that carried them so far away from all they had known, into the terrors and uncertainties of a strange and forbidding land.

Some of what they must have been feeling was well expressed by William Bradford, who led the Pilgrim settlers when they arrived at Cape Cod. I can hardly improve upon his words:

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses, or much less towns, to repair to, to seek for succor. . . . Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? and what multitude of them there were, they knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weather-beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace? What indeed, but their religious faith could have sustained them, just as it had propelled them across the seas?

One final, and extremely important, observation, one that should persuade us that all Americans, and not merely devout Calvinists, have good reason to cherish and be thankful for the document that the Pilgrims devised. That is the fact that the Mayflower Compact did not establish a theocracy.

Yes, its language was permeated and ringed about with Christian imagery and assumptions, and those images and assumptions were of vital importance to the minds of those who formulated it. Yes, the Pilgrims’ religious faith was the thing that drove them across the seas, in search of a better and more faithful way of life. A free people was coming together under God, and, by their own initiative, establishing the institutions by which they would rule themselves.

But in the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims wisely chose to establish a government based on civil agreement, not on compulsory divine or biblical authority. Such an arrangement was designed not only to confine the Strangers, those who were not members of the church, but to include and embrace them as citizens whose contribution to the life of the colony would be essential to its success. It was an arrangement that was both pragmatic and principled.

Much would be learned in the nearly two centuries of British North American colonial life, and much of what was learned came out of this same kind of interplay between high hopes and hard realities. Above all else, what was being learned in the challenging environment of the English colonies was the habit of self-rule, developed in the lives of free colonists who were too distant from their colonial masters to be governable from afar. That brute fact, the impossibility of governing a free people from a distance, would drive the American Revolution.

The example of the Mayflower Compact can thus serve as a model for all that was to come: a free people coming together under God, and, by their own initiative, establishing the institutions by which they would rule themselves. May we continue to look to that model and that example.

Wilfred McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, a visiting scholar at the Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and is the author of  Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.

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