The Mayflower Compact

Signing the Mayflower compact croppedWhen one is associated with the Mayflower Society and other Pilgrim groups, it is almost inevitable that eventually one will be called upon to read the Mayflower Compact in public, and it was my duty to do so at the annual meeting of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts this year. The Mayflower Compact was written 394 years ago by a group of “forefathers” who found themselves sitting in a cold, wet ship in November in Cape Cod Bay. (They had thought they were going to land somewhere near the Hudson River, in what they called “Northern Virginia.”) It probably wasn’t much warmer on the Hudson, but the bigger problem was that they had landed outside the bounds of their grant from King James. Anarchy was a possibility as the Mayflower passengers began to argue about who had authority over whom.

Being pragmatic Englishmen, however, they sat down and drew up a very simple contract stating that their mutual purpose was to plant a colony in the name of King James and that they all agreed to make and abide by their own rules as a community. It was signed by 41 adult males. That contract has become known as the Mayflower Compact and is a symbol today not only of the Pilgrim settlement of New England, but of the rule of law in America.

But reading it out loud is akin to singing the Star-Spangled Banner without music.  It just wasn’t written as oratory.

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, Great by the Grace of God, of  Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. 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 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 do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, 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.

I’ve often wondered whether, if they had let the Pilgrim “foremothers” clean it up before publication, would it have read better?

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

15 thoughts on “The Mayflower Compact

    1. My own forefather, a stranger, left my foremother behind until he could establish roots in the New World (she, Elizabeth Warren came over in 1623 with her daughters). As a stranger. I can only assume that Richard Warren was rather “Pissed” to learn that he had been “had” by the Saints— those C of E dissenters that he had steer to Virginia only to learn that he had landed by the falsifying of documents , instead, in no – mans land. “The Mayflower Compact” was needed to stem the ongoing rebellion that pitted Saint against Stranger….. signed by all males, for sure. If the women had held any real power they definitely would have insisted that they head southward !

      1. I always am awed by the courage the Mayflower passengers had, including my 7th great grandfather Edward Doty.
        Kenneth Doty Brown.

        1. Nice to hear from a cousin! I’ve just recently learned I am also from Edward
          Doty’s line …he’s 8th great grandfather to me. Now, that’s a challenge to one of those relative charts!

      2. Viola — our ancestress Elizabeth Warren was a lady who likely could have managed the whole thing. Of course, there are the rumors that Capt. Jones intentionally landed them in Cape Cod, but with being blown off course with a hurricane and not being able to navigate the shoals off Long Island to sail south, they mostly believed that God put them where he wanted them. And once Spring came, they agreed.

      3. I have not seen Richard Warren described as a “stranger”. Can you enlighten me regarding my ancestor? I would appreciate your reply.

  1. I have two relatives that were there, Richard Warren and John Howland
    I cannot imagine leaving everything behind and then enduring the hardships of the new cou try.

  2. Alicia, once again your clever, knowledgable, and humorous take on colonial history is most
    enjoyable reading. I’m Happily Giving-my-Thanks to all of you at NEHGS!

  3. Hello cousins. I’m just getting started with serious research, but it looks like Richard Warren and his daughter Elizabeth were my ancestors.

    And yes, had they listened to the women back then, they not only would have arrived where they were planning, they would not have planned to arrive in November!

  4. Hello, cousin! I descend directly from Richard Warren also; I’ve proven descent from Francis Cooke and his son John (who married Warren’s daughter Sarah) so proving the Warren line is a slam dunk. Also descend though George Soule (proven) and William, Susanna, and Peregrine White (proving them is the next project), and have lines of descent through John Howland’s brothers Arthur and Henry. Knew nothing of this until about three years ago!

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