What Was the Purpose of the Mayflower Compact?
So, what was this document, and why was it written? Well, as the name suggests, the Mayflower Compact was written by the passengers of the Mayflower, the 17th-century English ship which brought Puritan Separatist settlers to North America. The Puritans were a sect of protestant separatists who fled England to escape religious persecution. Wishing to preserve their language and culture, while still enjoying religious freedom, the Puritans petitioned King James to establish a colony in Virginia.
The venture was partly financed by funds from the Virginia Company and investors in London. Two ships were contracted to carry 130 passengers to the New World: the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The passengers aboard the two vessels were either Saints or Strangers. The Saints, as they referred to themselves, were the pilgrims making the voyage for religious purposes. The Strangers were the non-Puritan passengers who were simply seeking their fortune in the New World. There was also a handful of indentured servants aboard; these were workers who paid for their journey by agreeing to a period of unpaid service.
The Mayflower and the Speedwell left Southampton on August 5th, 1620. As the larger of the two ships, the Mayflower took on the bulk of the passengers, carrying about 100. The Speedwell soon ran into trouble and began to take on too much water, forcing both boats to turn back just three days out. Repairs were made at Dartmouth and the ships set off a second time on August 23rd. No sooner had the vessels ventured back into the open seas and the Speedwell once again ran into problems and the ships limped back to England. After some debate, the colonists decided to leave the Speedwell behind and move the rest of the passengers to the Mayflower, though some colonists dropped out, wary of the conditions a fall voyage with reduced supplies would entail.
On September 16th, the Mayflower left Plymouth with 102 passengers aboard, not including the 25-30 crewmembers. The majority of the passengers were adult men, with 18 adult women and around 30 children. Much of what is known about the Mayflower and its passengers comes from the journal of William Bradford, who made the journey with his wife Dorothy. The couple had left their young son, John, behind, likely intending to send for him once the colony was established. Unfortunately the family reunion never took place as Dorothy drowned in December 1620. Bradford would later serve as governor of Plymouth for 30 years.
Due to depleted supplies and the delayed departure, the colonists endured an unpleasant crossing of the Atlantic. Many fell victim to sea sickness, and matters were made worse by the taunts of one of the crewmembers, an individual Bradford described as a ‘proud and very profane young man’. The young man claimed that most of the passengers would end up being cast overboard before the ship made landfall. In a twist of fate, the young man fell ill and died about halfway across and was buried at sea. Foul weather was another source of torment, requiring the colonists to huddle below deck for days at a time.
Finally, land was sighted after 65 gruelling days at sea. The crew quickly realized that the ship was at the 41st parallel, far from the intended 38th parallel landing site. After some debate, the passengers determined to push on, but, with a storm in sight and some difficult conditions ahead, the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod to decide what to do next.
Supplies were perilously low, but the colonists were a long way from the site that had been allotted by the crown. As well as the legal quandary, the divisions of the passengers were a threat to the survival of the colony. Remember, the Saints and the Strangers had different motivations for making the journey, and the colonists were about as far away from authority as was possible in those days. Without a sense of unified purpose and social structure, the new colony had little chance of surviving the difficult beginning.
In the end, the Mayflower Compact was written as a means of establishing a form of self-government. It’s unclear as to exactly who wrote the piece, but William Brewster, the spiritual leader of the voyage, is most likely the candidate and tends to be given the credit. The text of the compact is incredibly short, around 200 words, so its contents can be boiled down to just a few key points.
The document begins with a profession of Christian faith and loyalty to King James. The compact then pledges that the people will come together in a ‘civil body politic,’ a temporary government to establish laws and a social structure for the good of the colony. This is the full compact in modernized language:
“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, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour 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 another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and 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. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.”
In essence, the Mayflower Compact wasn’t a code of laws but rather a statement of general principles to bind the colonists together. The document represents an early experiment in the concept of government by the consent of the governed. The signatories chose their leader and the rules by which they lived for the good of the colony as a whole.
As time passed, Plymouth was established as a permanent settlement and survived the harsh conditions common to colonial life. Many of the original passengers died within the first year, but the colony as a whole survived and grew to become the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The ideas laid down in the Mayflower Compact would endure for several years and influence future generations, even being regarded as one of the foundations of the United States Constitution.
Okay, before we go, let’s quickly review what we’ve discussed. As the group of Puritan colonists departed from the system of authority and government they had always known, they risked becoming separated and ultimately not surviving the pilgrimage. The brief Mayflower Compact, most likely written by William Brewster, provided the much-needed legal blueprint for the colony at Plymouth. The document helped the colony to survive the difficult early years by establishing a unified sense of purpose. The revolutionary concept of governing from the consent of the governed would later influence American leaders and serve as a base for the United States Constitution.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!