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Mayflower Compact

November 21, 2012

“The Mayflower Compact” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (PD-ArtlPD-US-not renewed)

A foundation stone for democracy on this continent, the Mayflower Compact was the first document under which the Plymouth Colony was governed.  The agreement, which established an elected authority all would obey, was signed in 1620 as the Mayflower rode at anchor in Cape Cod Harbor.

For the Sake of Freedom and Equality

The Pilgrims were actually comprised of two groups:  Separatists and non-Separatists.

The Separatists sought religious liberty, specifically the right to separate from the Church of England. They had initially emigrated to the tolerant Netherlands, but found the Dutch culture at odds with their own.

The non-Separatists — like many to follow them — sought economic and social opportunity, and the chance for a better life in America.

In the broadest terms, all risked their lives for the sake of freedom and equality.

Voyage to a New World

After many mishaps and delays, 102 men, women, and children set sail for the New World on a sturdy merchantman – not, unfortunately, designed for passengers. Quarters were dark, dank, over-crowded, uncomfortable, unsanitary, and soon reeked.

During the voyage – which took about two months – they were beset by storms so severe that a main beam cracked.  A “great iron screw” (possibly brought along by the settlers to aid in home construction) served as a support for the beam, and they sailed on.

An infant, Oceanus Hopkins, was born en route. Another, Peregrine White, was shortly after born in the New World.

Because the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, far north of its intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River, the terms of the settlers’ land grant from the London Virginia Company were no longer applicable.  To avoid anarchy, all agreed to abide by majority rule (women and children not being counted toward the total).

In the Presence of God and One Another

This is an excerpt from the Mayflower Compact. The language has been modernized for easier comprehension. The original document, which no longer exists, contained 41 signatures:

“…Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements 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 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, 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…”

History Distorted

It is a testament to free speech – and an outright tragedy – that an online search for Pilgrims, the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth, and related topics will pull up more than historic information.

White supremacists use the story of the Mayflower to argue that our Pilgrim Fathers are “proof” this nation belongs to a single race.

  • As if millions of Native Americans were not already on the continent when the Pilgrims arrived.
  • As if Africans were not brought to the continent against their will before the Pilgrims ever reached Plymouth.
  • As if African Americans had not served their country in the American Revolution, and every war since.
  • As if the question had not been settled once and for all by the deaths of 650,000 in a Civil War.
  • As if any meaningful distinction existed between the races.
  • As if Christ had died only for a select few, determined by skin color.

The Struggle Goes On

When in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow famed contralto, Marian Anderson, a woman of color, to sing to an integrated audience at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Ms. Anderson to sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions.  Her voice resounds still.

Almost four hundred years have passed since the Mayflower Compact was signed. But the struggle for freedom and equality goes on. We now, for instance, recognize the injustices Native Americans suffered.

There are not always remedies for the inequities of history.  Each generation must go forward as best it can, carrying the banner of freedom and equality a little farther.

In this nation, carrying that banner is not optional.  It is both a right and a responsibility.

We owe that much to our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, and all those who died before us to defend this nation.  Call it our part of the Mayflower Compact.


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