The distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.” A case in point would be the popular belief that the Pilgrims brought with them a commitment to republican self-government, or even democracy. That we might think so is almost entirely due to the so-called “Mayflower Compact,” a document that we have loaded with far more significance than it should be made to shoulder.
On the same day that the Mayflower first dropped anchor near Cape Cod in November of 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the ship’s great cabin and affixed their signatures to a 153-word statement. The text was set forth in an obscure 1622 pamphlet known as Mourt’s Relation, and although it was little thought of or referred to for the next century and a half, the day would come when many Americans would remember it as one of the nation’s founding documents, almost in the same category as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It read as follows:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland Kind, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
We have tended to read this pledge selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” Having recognized what looks to be a familiar feature in the Compact, we then often extrapolate with abandon, imputing to the Pilgrims values that belong in our world, not theirs. In reality, there appear to have been at least three motives behind the creation of the Compact, none of which involved a philosophical commitment to the right of self-government.
To begin with, there is reason to believe that the Pilgrims always expected that they would need to choose their own leaders in the initial stage of their colonial venture. At the same time, it also appears that they understood that this practice might be temporary—an aberration more than a right. In a letter that he wrote to his congregants just before their departure from England, the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, seemed to take for granted that the passengers of the Mayflower would soon “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government.” He exhorted his departing friends to show their civil governors “all due honor and obedience,” given that the magistrate bears “the image of the Lord’s power and authority.” They should be able to do this all the more willingly, he concluded, “because you are at least for the present to have only them [as your civil officers] which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.” The time might come, in other words, when the king would exercise his lawful prerogative to appoint governors over them.
A second factor stemmed from the simple fact that the Pilgrims would be settling outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. King James had granted to that company the authority to coordinate colonial ventures along a portion of the Atlantic seaboard, and the Virginia Company, in turn, had granted to the Pilgrims a patent to settle in a particular portion of their recognized domain. By choosing a location beyond the boundaries of the company’s authority, it was quite possible that they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. Hence it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” They were covering themselves, in other words, by assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. Furthermore, it is worth noting that they identify James as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.
Finally, both Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation make clear that a third factor prompting the creation of the Compact was a potential revolt brewing among a subset of the passengers. Bradford frankly admitted that the Compact was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship.” These dissidents were saying that they would do whatever they pleased when they arrived, as the Pilgrims’ patent applied only to Virginia, not to New England.
Picking up on Bradford’s candid admission, some historians have reduced the Mayflower Compact to little more than a power grab by the Leiden saints, a calculated effort to keep the non-Separatist “strangers” in line. This goes too far, in my opinion, but so does the insistence of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum that the Mayflower Compact is “an early example of democracy in America” that has “remained an inspiration since 1620.” If so, it curiously left little mark on Plymouth itself. An early voting list from 1643 shows that less than half of the colony’s adult males were eligible to vote. (All women were excluded, of course, “as both reason and nature teacheth they should be.”)
In truth, the widespread acceptance of democracy—the unchallenged right of the people to rule—was still a good two centuries away, and to credit the Pilgrims with a democratic ethos is anachronistic in the extreme. The men and women who celebrated a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621 had many virtues: they were devout, courageous, and determined. They just weren’t democratic.