The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

Mayflower Compact
Bruce Frohnen - 06/09/11

Arguably the first constitutional document firmly within the American tradition, the Mayflower Compact is principally an oath taken in 1620 by forty-one of the men aboard the ship Mayflower before landing and founding Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. By signing this document, these men bound themselves into a people or body politic, vowing to serve with one another in pursuit of the glory of God, the advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of their king and country. For their better ordering as a people, the signers vowed to work for such “just and equal” laws as were thought necessary for the good of the colony. That is, each would work for laws they thought were just and would seek to apply them equally to all members of the community.

The Mayflower Compact provides no frame of government. It does not set forth what shall constitute a good law. But conservatives in particular see its signing as a seminal event in American constitutional history. The compact is a self-conscious adaptation of a church covenant, by which dissenting Protestants in Great Britain formed their congregations, to the civil requirements of founding a colony. Conservatives emphasize the document’s importance because it shows the deeply religious and communal habits of thought and action at the root of Americans’ conduct from the earliest times in the new world. It begins with the phrase “In the name of God, Amen.” In this way the compact’s signers call on God as a witness and indicate that they have engaged in serious deliberations, for which they are willing to answer to Him. The compact then states the purposes of its signing—the common ends for which the signers have agreed to work. These common ends—God’s glory, the propagation of Christianity, and the service of king and country—are both religious and communal in nature. Moreover, the heart and purpose of the compact is the oath by which the signers bind themselves into a civil body politic; by which they agree to work with one another for their common good in the formation of a civil government and the consideration, promulgation, and enforcement of laws.

The form in which the Mayflower Compact is written—it begins by identifying the signers, and then provides a statement of purpose, an oath creating the body politic, and an indication of what kind of body politic is being created—is followed by numerous later political documents within the American tradition, including the Constitution. The gradual de-emphasis, over many decades, of the role of God as witness could be seen as one marker of the decline of faith’s explicit role within the American political tradition (or perhaps as the inevitable corruption of a once virtuous people). But one also should note that the compact is in a sense more fundamental even than our Constitution, which leaves out any opening reference to God. The compact forms a people, whereas the Constitution merely forms a government—a set of rules for the business of law- and policymaking that assumes the preexistence of a people worthy of that frame of government.

Further Reading
  • Kendall, Willmoore, and George W. Carey. The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1995.
  • Lutz, Donald S. The Origins of American Constitutionalism. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
  • Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1983.
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