On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower arrived on the eastern coast of North America. She had weathered the slings and arrows of maritime misfortune for almost ten weeks at that point, but the passengers thought the discomfort of crossing a small price to pay for passage to the Promised Land. After all, these were radical Protestants, and to them a land undefiled by any previous association with the Catholic Church was more to be desired than Canaan itself, with all its rivers of milk and honey.
And so the settlers settled and gave thanks with the natives and worked and lived and died. Though centuries have passed since the last Mayflower pilgrim was entrusted to the earth in a makeshift Massachusetts cemetery, the symbolic freight of the ship and its voyage has only grown. It’s safe to say no other passage from the Old World to the New — with the possible exception of the Titanic — is likely to be commemorated in a column such as this one 400 years later.
There’s good reason for the Mayflower’s staying power in the American psyche, but it may not be immediately obvious. It wasn’t the first ship to alight in the New World (we have Columbus Day to remind us of that). Nor was it the first ship to carry English passengers to America: Virginia had been granted a royal charter and settled decades earlier. The Mayflower pilgrims have no claim to uncharted waters or undiscovered countries. Their pathbreaking endeavor wasn’t geographic at all. It was political and, more specifically, constitutional.
The ship had set out for Virginia but ended up landing on Cape Cod instead, which was beyond the legal domain of the Virginia Company. To head off lawlessness and anarchy, the passengers and crew of the ship quickly came together to draft and undersign the Mayflower Compact, which functioned as a governing document for the community. Its purpose was to establish “a civil body politic,” in order to make “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices” for the new colony.
This compact, more than anything else, is what cemented the place of the Mayflower pilgrims in the annals of American folklore. Other settlers had been governed by written charters before, but those had always been granted by a king or a queen across the water. The Mayflower Compact, by way of contrast, was a written constitution framed by the people and for the people. The temptation to view the document as an historical overture, sounding notes and themes that would be played again in the old courthouse in Philadelphia, was irresistible for latter-day Americans looking back on it from a post-Revolutionary perspective.
After the Constitution was ratified in 1787, the Mayflower Compact came to be understood as a kind of colonial prototype for our current governing document. Similar to the first Christians, who interpreted prophets like Moses and Jonah as prefigurements of Christ, Americans have traditionally read the Mayflower Compact as a document that presages the full flowering of American liberty.
John Quincy Adams called it the “first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.”
Later in the 19th century, historian George Bancroft claimed that in “the cabin of the Mayflower . . . humanity recovered its rights, and instituted government on the basis of ‘equal laws’ for ‘the general good.’”
But perhaps the most salient expression of Mayflower mythology came from Calvin Coolidge, who spoke at the 300th anniversary ceremony a century ago:
The compact which they signed was an event of the greatest importance. It was the foundation of liberty based on law and order, and that tradition has been steadily upheld. They drew up a form of government which has been designated as the first real constitution of modern times.
The Mayflower Compact has endured in our national memory for so long because it inaugurated a project on these shores that we’re still engaged in today: the project of free government under a written constitution.
Until the American Revolution, most free countries in the world preferred an unwritten constitution of customs and norms established over time. This model allowed almost all matters of public concern to be hammered out by the rough-and-tumble process of electoral politics. The British constitution still functions this way today. The Founding Fathers, however, established a government framed by a written constitution. A supreme law exists in this land, around 7,200 words long, that governs and restricts the actions of civil magistrates.
In his brilliant book on the subject, Greg Weiner called the American constitution “Madison’s metronome.” It was written and ratified to regulate the convulsive political passions of the early republic and channel them into sustainable and productive thoroughfares that would steady the more erratic political rhythms of the Union. In this respect, it served as a more refined and civilized successor to the Mayflower Compact of the previous century.
The Mayflower pilgrims confronted more elemental threats than the framers of the Constitution: Starvation, exposure, disease, and the animal enmity these things bring out in people were the chief obstacles to their continued survival. Still, faithfulness to their governing covenant saw the pilgrims through these threats and helped them to keep the political beat of ordered liberty throughout the riotous years of early colonial life. It provided a prototypical structure and rhythm for liberty in America, saving it from an early death in the Hobbesian wilderness of the New World. The traditions of self-government inaugurated in the Mayflower Compact serve to remind us that freedom and form make happy bedfellows and that we owe the fruit of their union in the shape of our Constitution to the brave men and women of ages past.