400 Years Ago: The Mayflower Compact

Amidst all the chaos, you can be forgiven for missing a momentous benchmark. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ signing of the Mayflower Compact, some weeks before finally debarking to found the community of Plymouth. (If you see the date November 11 some places, it’s according to the Old Style calendar).

Like 35 million people, or over 10% of Americans, I can claim descent from members of this famous company; in fact, I am related in some way to roughly half of the people who came on the Mayflower. It’s not strictly speaking a boast; as much as anything else it bespeaks a limited gene pool. But I am very proud of one particular thing. The Pilgrims’ great accomplishment, their most important act, had little to do with their famous pseudo-Biblical policing of personal morality. It was a positive expression of self-governance. Before they set foot on American soil, they drew up a document that laid out, in a few short sentences, a covenant by which they all agreed to abide in their new home. The Mayflower Compact was a precursor to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and built upon the precedent of the Magna Carta. It is a social contract. It is important because these people put down in black and white their intention to found a community and to create laws that would serve to further its mission. And it was agreed to democratically, or as close to democracy as the prejudices of the time would allow (only men signed, and only some of the men). Time would rectify the flaws of the original process. Still, the idea of the Compact was cutting edge for its time. The precedent that the people in this community would live according to mutually agreed upon, written laws, made by the people themselves, the example they set in doing that is their chief contribution to the history of this country and the world, not how pious or righteous they claimed to be, or how white and English and Christian they were. If you think the whole point is to venerate them for who they were rather than what they did, you’ve missed the point.

Millions more have signed on to America’s updated social contract over the ensuing four centuries, bringing diversity, life and color. The mixture of all of these cultures, living under the same law, is what justifies us as a nation. Without a document like the Mayflower Compact, without written laws that can be changed and interpreted and referred to, and the ability to elect your leaders, a community is nothing more than a cult or a clan or a gang or a wolf pack.

On a different note: I am pleased to see that TCM is marking the occasion today at noon (EST) by showing Plymouth Adventure (1952) starring Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, Van Johnson, John Dehner, Lloyd Bridges, Dawn Addams, Leo Genn, et al. It’s the closest thing we have to a Thanksgiving classic, though the world could certainly do with a better film on the topic. I’ll be discussing this film — and the Pilgrims — in much more detail on my upcoming podcast The Medicine Show a.k.a. Son of Paleface in the next few weeks, if the creek don’t rise.