December 20, 1620: Mayflower passengers finally disembark at Plymouth, after agreeing to the Mayflower Compact

Item from The Associated Press‘s “Today in History” feature, for December 21:  “1620 – Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower went ashore for the first time at present-day Plymouth, Mass.”  Why in December?  The arrived at the place almost a month earlier, but because of delays in getting out of England due to the leaky second boat (which didn’t make the trip), and difficulties encountered en route, when the group anchored, they first had to come to an agreement how to govern the colony, so far out of the territory of the charter they had been granted, as explained below.  Originally, a version of this desultory ran here, on July 26, 2006.

Credit: Sarony & Major.

From the Library of Congress, one of the few illustrations of the event that makes it clear it was near winter: The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, December 1620 Credit: Sarony & Major. “The landing of the Pilgrims, on Plymouth Rock, Dec. 11th 1620.” c1846. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars features a set of comments on an interview right-right-wing pundit John Lofton did with Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court who lost his job when he illegally tried to force his religion on the court and on Alabama. In 2006 Moore ran for governor of Alabama, losing in the primary election.

One of the grandest canards in current thought about U.S. history is that the Mayflower Compact set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. Lofton and Moore banter about it as if it were well-established fact — or as if, as I suspect, neither of them has looked at the thing in a long time, and that neither of them has ever diagrammed the operative sentence in the thing.

The Mayflower Compact was an agreement between the people in two religiously disparate groups, that among them they would fairly establish a governing body to fairly make laws, and that they would abide by those laws. Quite the opposite of a theocracy, this was the first time Europeans set up in the New World a government by consent of the governed.

That is something quite different from a theocracy.

I think people get confused by the run-on sentences, and the flattering, intended-to-be-flowery language in the clauses prefacing the meat of the document.

First, a very brief history: There were two groups aboard the ship in 1620, about 70 artisans and craftsman along to provide the real work to make sure the colony made money, and about 30 religious refugees. The London Company (accurately) thought the religious refugees lacking in key skills, like trapping, hunting and hide tanning, and barrel-making (barrels were needed to ship goods to England). So the London Company had insisted the craftsman go along, to make sure somebody knew how to harvest stuff and ship it back.

The London Company had a charter to establish a colony in Virginia. Because of delays with leaky ships and uncooperative winds, the Mayflower got to America late, and much farther north. The Mayflower landed well outside the territory the company was chartered to colonize, and the 70 craftsmen announced they were striking out on their own. Bradford realized his group would freeze, or starve, or both, and at gunpoint he kept both groups aboard ship to work out a compromise.

Here is the full text, from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law site:

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 England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the 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 Politick, 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 hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

See what I mean? It’s loaded with clauses that tend to obscure what is going on. Starting out with the standard contract language of the day, “In the name of God, Amen,” it loses modern readers. We tend to think that with so many mentions of God without a “damn” following, it must be a religious document. But it’s not.

Here’s the meat the the document, the money quote:

We, whose names are underwritten . . . 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 Politick, 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.

Got that? They promised to form a government, enact fair laws, and obey those laws — government by consent of the governed, by mutual compact, not by divine right.

Just because God is mentioned in the document doesn’t change its nature. It’s a secular compact, an agreement between men, outside the stricture of any church, outside any particular belief.

As we noted over at Ed Brayton’s site, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, many New England settlements and towns became little theocracies. But it wasn’t the Mayflower Compact which set that up, or encouraged it.



7 Responses to December 20, 1620: Mayflower passengers finally disembark at Plymouth, after agreeing to the Mayflower Compact

  1. Black Flag® says:

    They were rich enough to get a ship and supplies and sail across and ocean


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Does that obtain for the Plymouth colony, BF? Who were the rich people, and how much more did they produce, of what, than they consumed?


  3. Black Flag® says:

    There’s where your ignorance betrays you.

    Rich people don’t cause poor people to starve.

    Rich people are rich generally because they know how to produce more than they consume.

    Socialism is a horrific disease for it places the onus on YOUR wants upon ANOTHER to provide. You, yourself, are clueless how to produce for yourself and rely on those around you to do so.

    The end -as all Socialist experiments end in history – in mass starvation.


  4. Kirien says:

    Well you have to understand, Ed, BF thinks it was socialism because he think the rich people at plymouth should have gotten 99.999999% of the food and that everyone else were just lazy slackers so they should have had the sense to off and die of starvation.


  5. Black Flag® says:

    In his ‘History of Plymouth Plantation,’ the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years, because they refused to work in the fields. They preferred instead to steal food. He says the colony was riddled with “corruption,” and with “confusion and discontent.” The crops were small because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.”

    In the harvest feasts of 1621 and 1622, “all had their hungry bellies filled,” but only briefly. The prevailing condition during those years was not the abundance the official story claims, it was famine and death. The first “Thanksgiving” was not so much a celebration as it was the last meal of condemned men.

    But in subsequent years something changes. The harvest of 1623 was different. Suddenly, “instead of famine now God gave them plenty,” Bradford wrote, “and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.” Thereafter, he wrote, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.” In fact, in 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn.

    After the poor harvest of 1622, writes Bradford, “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop.” They began to question their form of economic organization.

    This had required that “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.” A person was to put into the common stock all he could, and take out only what he needed.

    This “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was an early form of socialism, and it is why the Pilgrims were starving. Bradford writes that “young men that are most able and fit for labor and service” complained about being forced to “spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children.” Also, “the strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak.” So the young and strong refused to work and the total amount of food produced was never adequate.

    To rectify this situation, in 1623 Bradford abolished socialism. He gave each household a parcel of land and told them they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit. In other words, he replaced socialism with a free market, and that was the end of famines.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    History might shed some different light on your claims, BF.

    1. When you get off the boat on December 20, the harvest for the year won’t be bountiful. It wasn’t socialism that hurt the Plymouth colony so badly that first year, but timing.

    2. Socialism wasn’t enforced. The colony was created under a charter with a private company to farm or mine to get goods back to England for sale. It was fascism at worst — but even that would be a difficult case to make. Most of the people who landed were craftsmen, put there to ply their crafts and make money at it, in the New World. The London Company expected — accurately — to find no coopers, or barrelmakers, in Virginia (nor Massachusetts, but we digress). So they sent barrelmakers along. In that day, transcontinental goods were shipped in barrels. No barrels, no shipping; no shipping, no trade, and no profit.

    You seem unaware that this was a profit-making enterprise, as much as it was not a theocracy.

    3. It wasn’t their own doing that they survived; see this article from the 1903 William and Mary Quarterly, for example, claiming that a shipment of food from farther south, from what we now call Virginia, provided the food relief to get the Plymouth colony through to harvest in 1622 — and, if you read it, you’ll see they used a rather socialist system to distribute the food, to be sure everybody got their fair share:

    How the Planters from Virginia Saved the Plymouth Colony,
    The William and Mary Quarterly
    Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jul., 1903) , pp. 52-54

    Published by: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
    Stable URL:

    In fact, while mislabeling the episode as ‘private enteprise trumps socialism,’ even the hack historian Tom Bethell at the far-right-wing-never-give-an-inch-to-liberals-or-truth Hoover Institution, notes that it was the corporate drive for profits that threatened the Plymouth plantation — free market money and power concentration created the problem, including the “communal” arrangements. See Bethell’s piece here: “How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims.” This is the Tom Bethell who is a die-hard creationist, anti-science fan of DDT, and who entertains any number of other distortions of history, science, law and other parts of reality, in order to sustain his check from the sachems of Hoover.

    The Plymouth colony didn’t need private property so much as they needed food and information on how to grow food in New England. Private enterprise didn’t provide that; charity provided some of it.

    You highlight one of the issues the religionists tend to leave out: If God was looking out for this colonists, He did a bad job of it.

    Mae West’s remarks about another institution are probably appropriate here: “They say marriage is a great institution. But, honey, I ain’t ready for no institution.” Substitute “Hoover” for “marriage,” she was right.


  7. Black Flag® says:

    Yeah, and the rest of the story, Ed.

    Under such an arrangement, Socialism was enforced upon the party – resulting in a devastating lack of harvest and goods necessary to survive the winter.

    They mostly starved to death – some eating the remains of their dead children.

    The next year, such Socialism was abandoned and the result – bountiful harvest and a Thanksgiving.


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