- Historic Sites
The Therapy Of Distance
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
If the Pilgrim Fathers had been closer to home or more accurate in their navigation or luckier in their weather, it is most unlikely that there ever would have been any need for a Mayflower Compact. That document which Bradford called “the first foundation of their governmente in this place” was to be the primary document of self-government in the British colonies in North America.
The legal right of these English separatists to settle in the New World came from a patent that they had received from the Virginia Company of London, who authorized them to establish “a particular plantation” wherever they wished within the domain of the company. The Pilgrims had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River, which was still well within the Virginia Company’s northern boundaries. If they had landed there, their patent from the Virginia Company would have sufficed, and they would have had no need for a new instrument of government.
But Cape God, where the Pilgrims actually found themselves, was too far north and so outside the Virginia Company’s domain. By settling at Plymouth, across the bay from their first landfall, they put themselves in a state of nature. Their patent was not valid there. They were now within the jurisdiction of the Northern Virginia Company (at that time being reorganized into the Council for New England), from whom they had no patent. They would have to create their own government. This they did with the Mayflower Compact, written on board their vessel and signed on November 11, 1620, by forty-one men, including every head of a family, every adult bachelor, and most of the menservants. The only males who did not affix their names were two sailors who had signed on the voyage for a single year, and the other passengers who happened to be under the legal age of discretion.
The accident of misnavigation, as Bradford reported, had been noticed by some of the more legalistic and libertarian Mayflower passengers and became an urgent reason for hastily creating some document of selfgovernment. The compact they wrote so quickly was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them on the ship; Thate when they came a shore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them, the patente they had being for Virginia, and not for New-england, which belonged to an other Government, with which the Virginia Company had nothing to doe.”
The government that the Mayflower colonists created by their compact was, according to Bradford, “as firme as any patent, and in some respects more sure.” They wrote a new chapter in the history of self-government. For in other places the roots of civil government had been buried deep under the debris of time. America laid bare the birth of government where it would be plain for all to see. In 1802, in a celebrated oration given at Plymouth, John Quincy Adams extolled the Mayflower document as “perhaps the only instance, in human history, of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.”
It was appropriate that the occasion for the primeval document of American self-government should have come not from ideology but from a simple fact of life. That was what New England historians have straightfor-wardly called “the missing of the place,” and it obviously was related to the huge distance the Mayflower had traveled. In America need and opportunity upstaged ideology.
In their American remoteness the New Englanders created simple new forms of self-government. The New England town meetings had an uncertain precedent in the vestry meetings of rural England, but American circumstances gave town meetings comprehensive powers and a new vitality. Once again Americans relived the mythic prehistory of government. Tacitus had sketched that prehistory in his account of popular assemblies among the Germanic tribes. It also could be glimpsed in the direct democracy of the Swiss Landsgemeinde (the popular assembly of the self-governing canton), which flourished from the thirteenth till the seventeenth century. Even as the direct democracy of the Swiss cantons was declining, it was being reborn in New England.
From the beginning New England facts transcended Old English forms. The New England town meeting, which met first weekly, then monthly, came to include all the men who had settled the town. At first the meetings seem to have been confined to socalled freemen, those who satisfied the legal requirements for voting in the colony. Soon the towns developed their own sort of freemen—a group larger than those whom the General Court of the colony recognized as grantees of the land. While the town meetings proved to be lively and sometimes acrimonious debating societies, they were more than that. They actually distributed town lands, they levied local taxes, they made crucial decisions on schools, roads, and bridges, and they elected the selectmen, constables, and others to conduct town affairs between the meetings.