Chronicles of America 

The Mayflower Compact

The coast of New England was no unknown shore. During the years from 1607 to 1620, while settlers were founding permanent colonies at Jamestown and in Bermuda, explorers and fishermen, both English and French, had skirted its headlands and penetrated its harbors. In 1614, John Smith, the famous Virginia pioneer, who had left the service of the London Company and was in the employ of certain London merchants, had explored the northern coast in an open boat and had given the region its name. These many voyages and ventures at trading and fishing served to arouse enthusiasm in England for a world of good rivers and harbors, rich soil, and wonderful fishing, and to spread widely a knowledge of the coasts from Newfoundland to the Hudson River. Of this knowledge the Pilgrims reaped the benefit, and the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, against whom any charge of treachery may be dismissed, guided them, it is true, to a region unoccupied by Englishmen but not to one unknown or poorly esteemed. The miseries that confronted the Pilgrims during their first year in Plymouth colony were not due to the inhospitality of the region, but to the time of year when they landed upon it; and insufficiently provisioned as they were before they left England, it is little wonder that suffering and death should have accompanied their first experience with a New England winter.

This little group of men and women landed on territory that had been granted to the New England Council and they themselves had neither patent for their land nor royal authority to set up a government. But some form of government was absolutely necessary. Before starting from Southampton, they had followed Robinson's instructions to choose a governor and assistants for each ship "to order the people by the way "; and now that they were at the end of their long voyage, the men of the company met in the cabin of the Mayflower, and drew up a covenant in accordance with which they combined themselves together into a body politic for their better ordering and preservation. This compact, signed by forty-one members, of whom eleven bore the title of "Mister," was a plantation covenant, the political counterpart of the church covenant which bound together every Separatist community. It provided that the people should live together in a peaceable and orderly manner under civil authorities of their own choosing, and was the first of many such covenants entered into by New England towns, not defining a government but binding the settlers to unite politically as they had already done for religious worship. John Carver, who had been chosen governor on the Mayflower, was confirmed as governor of the settlement and given one assistant. After their goods had been set on shore and a few cottages built, the whole body "mette and consulted of lawes and orders, both for their civil and military governmente, still adding therunto as urgent occasion in severall times, and as cases did require."

Of this courageous but sorely stricken community more than half died before the first winter was over. But gradually the people became acclimated, new colonists came out, some from the community at Leyden, in the Fortune, the Anne, the Charity, and the Handmaid, and the numbers steadily increased. The settlers were in the main a homogeneous body, both as to social class and to religious views and purpose. Among them were undesirable members — some were sent out by the English merchants and others came out of their own accord — who played stool-ball on Sunday, committed theft, or set the community by the ears, as did one notorious offender named Lyford. But their number was not great, for most of them remained but a short time, and then went to Virginia or elsewhere, or were shipped back to England by the Pilgrims as incorrigibles. The life of the people was predominantly agricultural, with fishing, salt-making, and trading with the Indians as allied interests. The partners in England sent overseas cattle, stock, and laborers, and, as their profits depended on the success of the settlement, did what they could to encourage its development. The position of the Pilgrims was that of sharers and partners with the merchants, from whom they received directions but not commands.

But under the agreement of 1620 with their partners in London, which remained in force for seven years, the Plymouth people could neither divide their land nor dispose of the products of their labor, and so burdensome became this arrangement that in 1623 temporary assignments of land were made which in 1624 became permanent. As Bradford said, and his comment is full of wisdom :

The experience that was had in this commone course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in communitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God. For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and service did repine that they should spend their time and streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails and cloaths, than he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, etc., with the meaner and yonger sorte, thought it some indignitie and disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, etc., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it.

Source: History of Plimouth Plantation, by William Bradford


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