The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was signed by King John, son of Henry IV and brother to Richard The Lionheart, in the year 1215. Forced to acknowledge and grant rights to the landed barony of Britannia, John wound up reneging on the Magna Carta some half dozen times before it took hold, and the erosion of rule by Divine Right commenced.
That’s not the Magna Carta I’m talking about.
However, without its writing and enforcement, perhaps we would never have experienced our own.
Ushering in what would become the Age of Enlightenment, with its pinnacle documentary achievement being the Declaration of Independence delivered to another king some 675 years after King John acquiesced, forty-one men off the coast of what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts signed a document, under King James, before setting foot in the New World.
That document, the Mayflower Compact, is 394 years old today.
As a direct descendent of a Mayflower voyager, I take pride in and am grateful for those intrepid travelers. Though not to be excused, their perilous journey across the relatively uncharted North Atlantic and ther hardships endured during their first years on a bounteous but unforgiving landscape is, I have always believed, secondary to the steps they took in extracting themselves from an Absolute Sovereign and relying on themselves while pledging to each other their support and commitment to succeed.
The Mayflower Compact is itself a relatively short document. It governed the men and their families by the consent of those very men, acknowledging the sovereignty of King James though they were settling far north of where their charter had been granted, and submitting to the universal sovereignty of God. Though not separating themselves from the rule of The Crown, it placed Jacobin rule secondary to their own right to rule themselves.
The Mayflower Compact was signed by 41 men and granted majority rule to the settlers, later known as Pilgrims – the ancestors of Congregationalists in New Englad. Because these 41 did not represent a majority, but a plurality (of the total 101 people – not just men), the Compact came into fruition as a secular document, as several men who had come not under the banner of religious freedom but to seek their own fortunes. These men insisted that, because the settlement would be beyond the deed granted by King James, they were free to rule themselves.
It has taken historians, including me in this piece, longer to explain the circumstances and the context than the actual compact itself, which reads:
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, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and 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 of 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.
In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
The date is on the Julian Calendar…The Gregorian Calendar that we use now being ten days ahead, hence our celebration on the 21st.
Three sentences…and two of those are preamble and salutatory. Only one sentence, the second, proclaims how men will rule themselves. In its simplicity, order was brought to the complex question of government that had plagued the Old World, and Ancient, for millennia.
Fathom for yourself the moment of signature as men embark on a journey that established a tradition of self-rule that pervaded the colonies even during British sovereignty. The local communities prior to 1775 were always self-governing and regulating with “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.”
It is under these very pretenses that we continue to govern ourselves locally today – which is why San Francisco can ban Happy Meals and Texans can’t carry wire cutters in their back pockets.
We celebrate The Constitution, and rightfully so, each September. And we celebrate our Veterans on this same day ten days earlier (!) every year. In between, because of their proximity to our lives, lifestyle, and impact on those, we sometimes miss the little things that snowballed into what we have today.
For a moment, men stood on the edge of the world, preparing to set foot in what was quite understandably named The New World.
And before setting foot on that shore, they proclaimed the greatest gift that land would cultivate, such that springing from it would be what would eventually be called American Exceptionalism.
That gift was self-reliance and celebration of the individual, with a government that was subject to the sovereignty of the people meant to encourage and foment that self-reliance and individualism.
To the 41 signers, we thank you.
- John Carver
- William Bradford
- Edward Winslow
- William Brewster
- Isaac Allerton
- Miles Standish
- John Alden
- Samuel Fuller
- Christopher Martin
- William Mullins
- William White*
- Richard Warren
- John Howland
- Stephen Hopkins
- Edward Tilly
- John Tilly
- Francis Cooke
- Thomas Rogers
- Thomas Tinker
- John Ridgdale
- Edward Fuller
- John Turner
- Francis Eaton
- James Chilton
- John Craxton
- John Billington
- Joses Fletcher
- John Goodman
- Digery Priest
- Thomas Williams
- Gilbert Winslow
- Edmund Margeson
- Peter Brown
- Richard Bitteridge
- George Soule
- Richard Clark
- Richard Gardiner
- John Allerton
- Thomas English
- Edward Doten
- Edward Leister
*William White was married to Susanna, who bore William a child, brother to their firstborn Resolved, on board the Mayflower while it lay off the coast. Around the time of the signing of the Mayflower Compact, this child came into the New World, and was named Peregrine.
Family lore has been that it is from Peregrine White that some of my own lineage springs. While not confirmed, it’s a nice thing to think about and wonder.