Morison’s quote does not diminish the importance of early documents such as The Mayflower Compact. It only puts it in context of part of a larger process that began with the English settlement of North America. The compact did not create a plan for Democracy. It did, however, establish a theoretical framework that would grow over the succeeding centuries.
In 1620 the Pilgrims created a document of self-governance. It was meant to foster a better society, if only within their small colony. It was a combination of religious ideals and ideals of freedom.
The Mayflower Compact was not a constitution. It did, however, implant ideas that would be central to the creation of a new and prosperous nation
When the Pilgrims sailed for North America, nothing was assured. They were taking a tremendous risk with their lives. Past settlements had been decimated by weather, disease and Indian attacks.
Despite the hardships, the settlers saw the new world as a great opportunity. Many were fleeing from religious persecution in Europe. While they remained loyal to the King of England, the fact was that the new settlers were far from his direct control.
Some on board the Mayflower saw this as a chance to form a better and more just government. The Mayflower had landed far north of Virginia, its original destination. The settlers knew they were beyond the control of the Virginia Company. They would have to make do on their own.
Knowing that past settlements had failed because of a lack of coherent government, the settlers took steps to remedy the problem. In 1620, they wrote the Mayflower compact. It was a basic theory of government. The settlers past experiences with religion and various forms of persecution influenced the document.
The theory of government stated in the Mayflower Compact would, in time, become the prevailing model for a democratic society. The compact begins by paying homage to the King, but goes on to spell out the ideas of freedom that form the bedrock of American culture.
The signers of the Mayflower compact were Puritan separatists. For pragmatic reasons they recognized the King of England. They were primarily concerned, however, with staying in the good graces of God. They brought with them a unique combination of experiences and motives.
The Puritans wanted a society more in accordance with their religion. However, they also had experienced the pain of religious persecution. They innately understood the danger of an all-powerful government. While they were firm in their religious beliefs, they wanted to limit how much those beliefs were written into future laws.
The result was a local government based on social contract. It was pragmatic, given the small size of the colony. Everyone had to work together for survival. It was also idealistic in its aims.
The social contract was not a new idea, but the settlement of America gave the first opportunity to use it on a large scale. The social contract was necessary to encourage further settlements that could survive away from a central government. The Mayflower Compact created a theoretical template to do this.
The Pilgrims called their creation a “civil body politik” (Dahl, 2000). Its purpose was to enact just laws that would benefit the colony as a whole. The Plymouth colony eventually succeeded. Other colonies adopted the ideas of the Mayflower Compact, and the social contract became the primary form of government in America.
The Lasting Impact
Here was a unanimous and personal assent by all the
individuals of the community to the association by
which they became a nation.
John Adams, 1802
(from The Pilgrim Hall Museum, 1998)
The Mayflower Compact started a process by which democracy took root in America. Success breeds success. The Plymouth colony provided an example that people can thrive by essentially ruling themselves.
The feeling that the colonists didn’t need an all-powerful king set in over the first hundred years of European colonization. The eventual products of this feeling were the Declaration of Independence and the new United States Constitution.
The society that sprung from the Mayflower Compact made room for the wide variety of people that would come to America in future years. Freedom encouraged ever more immigration, and democracy was strengthened.
The Mayflower Compact itself was not a blueprint for democracy. It did, however, plant the seeds of freedom with self-restraint. That idea is central to American democracy.
Dahl, Robert A. (2000). On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Eldredge, Laurence H. (1968). Men, laws and government: some reflections on the
Mayflower Compact. Philadelphia: Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Pilgrim Hall Museum. (1998). Later Significance of the Mayflower Compact. Retrieved
2/6/2006 from: http://www.pilgrimhall.org/compcon.htm
The Society of Mayflower Descendents. (2002). The Mayflower Compact. Retrieved
2/6/2006 from: http://www.ctmayflower.org/mayflower_compact.php
Wishing, Lee. (2004). Thankful for a Fourth Grade Play. Retrieved 2/6/2006 from:
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