Of the Mayflower Compact


Upon dropping anchor off Cape Cod in 1620, the men on board the Mayflower convened to draft a compact that would be bound by law and create a government. The immediate cause of the compact was the fear of non Separatists (called Strangers) on board the ship. These individuals were financial backers of the new colonial experiment, and it was feared that they would defy the Separatists if they landed in an area other than what had been given to them by the London Company. The Mayflower Compact is more vital than some may wish to admit. Unlike their Puritan neighbors in Boston Harbor, the Pilgrims were separatists. The Pilgrims wanted a complete separate between the English Church and the Roman Church; the Church of England still held very many vestiges of the Roman Church until well after the separation took place. And because the Church of England was lead by the King, the Pilgrims not only viewed the Church to be utterly corrupt but also the state.   Upon examining the Mayflower Compact, we may better understand the American Revolution a century later.

It should be pointed out that the first words of the compact are “In the name of God”, as Willmoore Kendall suggests, “The one God is called to witness the compact that is about to be made. And we may safely assume that none of the signers of this oath is taking the matter lightly. Any subsequent violation of this oath will be no mere breaking a promise but an offense against God…” The Pilgrims acknowledge God first and never exclaim the name of the King for who they make this compact. The Pilgrims have acknowledge that their right to compact is granted to them by God by their pronouncement of “In the Name of God” with the Hebrew word “Amen” meaning “Let it be done” following. This is an important step because they are acknowledging that their authority does not come from the King, but rather it comes from God. As Willmoore Kendall once more explains, “In Western Civilization basic symbolizations tend to be variants of the original symbolization of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition: variants, this is to say, of the tale according to which a founder, Moses, leads the people out of the realm of darkness, Egypt, into the desert…” And as we can see from this, the Pilgrims are fleeing their own Egypt for the safety of Plymouth. Like the Israelites, the Pilgrims are not acknowledging the authority to constitute government stemming not from the King, but from God.

The primary purpose of the mission is laid out in the first sentence of the compact, “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.” This is not uncommon, all colonies whether English, French or Spanish at this point were founded for, at least in name, the Glory of God and the Faith as well as for monarch and country. The French were less shy about also seeking riches in the Americas. So it is not unusual that the Separatists, who still viewed themselves as Englishmen, to acknowledge that their colony was founded to help God, the Church, King and Country. As such, the main purposes of this document are to demonstrate that the colony wants to promote God, religion, King, and country. It is interesting to point out that the Pilgrims list Faith and Church in front of Politics and State. By omitting the King’s name at the front of the document, and now here placing him subordinate to God and the Church, have inadvertedly stripped him of his power over them. The Mayflower Compact is forced to still recognize King James as their sovereign due to the large number of Strangers on board the ship. However, it is still significant that the King is subordinated under God. Like the Declaration will do a century later, they are displacing the King’s authority by acknowledge God’s authority as their means of receiving government. Like Moses and the other ancients before them, this society and body politic will simply be a divinely ordained society. As such, because its purposes are firstly divine, the citizens cannot revolt. Like the ancient regimes who were thought to be formed in the likeness of the gods, so too is the Plymouth society.

While the Pilgrims acknowledge the sovereignty of the King they still believed him unable to fulfill their perceived end of society: salvation. The Pilgrims maintained some hope that King James, a Presbyterian, would affect the changes they believed necessary in the Church of England. However, they were prepared for a total separation if James proved to be incapable of doing what they hoped. In addition to this explanation, it cannot be forgotten that the Pilgrims were far more willing to admit a strict alliance between Church and State. The English Monarchs for some time up to that point had declared their legitimacy was a by product of Divine Right and the Pilgrims whole hardheartedly supported that belief. Therefore, the King was subordinated beneath God as a way of rebellion against the still very Catholic monarchy. There cannot be too much emphasis placed on the desired separation from England by the Pilgrims, though the Compact is clear that the Pilgrims had by some right to govern themselves.

The next sentence of the Mayflower Compact is what might be of more use for our purposes.  The passengers “covenant and combine” themselves into a “body politic.” For those less aware, a body politic is a government strictly speaking. There are some who will argue that the passengers were hoping to only erect a temporary government for themselves, but this cannot be assumed just looking at the Compact. The colonists were erecting for themselves a government and it is rarely for a short time that people do such things. These words and what follows are almost entirely the same as the words which end the Declaration of Independence. This alone helps draw the connection between the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and the Mayflower Compact. Because the Pilgrims were persecuted by their own king in their home country, they were forced to flee to a distant and alien land to erect a new government more suited for their ends. As a result, by erecting this government, they were acknowledge not only had the King’s government infringed on their rights, but that the King was no longer able to provide them with the essential needs government is instituted for the begin with. As was pointed out with Aristotle and John Locke, these reasons alone are cause for a revolution in the government.

Yet, if this is not enough to sway you in this favor then the next sentence should be enough, “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.” The Pilgrims were no fools, they recognized that the government of England would not be able to properly govern the colony three thousand miles away. As a result, this new government established by the Pilgrims was given the power to legislate. If nothing else, the simple power of legislation is itself the power of government. And further, had the Pilgrims not entered into a body politic they would have properly been living in a state of nature with no impartial judge to settle their quarrels. As such, the Pilgrims not only enter into a civil government, but they also give it power to erect laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and officers of the colony. Under English law only the King has the authority to appoint officers, and only the parliament by virtue of its power from the King has the authority to erect laws, ordinances and acts. But the Pilgrims go yet still one step further by pledging their submission and obedience to this newly established regime.

The final nail in the coffin is that after signing this document, the Pilgrim men elected John Carver the first governor of the colony of Plymouth. His authority does not stem from good King James, but rather from the authority of the citizens of the colony. Had they merely been given their government, as had Jamestown, this would not been an issue. However, the Mayflower Compact was designed and instituted by the Pilgrims themselves, not by the London Company or the King. The Pilgrims, whether purposely or not, had erected a rival government to the authority of the King. They had no right to establish for themselves a government, or to elect a governor. They had given themselves authority equal to that of the British Parliament back in London. Ultimately, the Mayflower Compact can be seen as the first movement of the American Revolution. The Pilgrims had be confronted by an unjust government and fled to establish a new government. The tradition of self government in the Massachusetts colony began at Plymouth with the signing of the Mayflower Compact. By the end of the French and Indian War when the British government began taking a better look at her colonies in America, the people of Massachusetts and other colonies had a long history of self government. While the people of Plymouth may have called themselves British subjects, they had unconsciously recognized that they were no longer subjects of the crown of Great Britain by erecting their own government in its place.

Comments on John Adams letter to Samuel Adams from 18 Oct. 1790


As the American Constitution of 1787 went into effect focus shifted from how to create a new political order to how to preserve it. John Adams, the Second President of the United States, in the autumn of 1790 wrote to his cousin Samuel with his thoughts on how to preserve the American political system. Adams presents three main principles to preserve the American system of government.

The first problem presented by Adams for the new republic was the competing notions of the commerce of luxury and the commerce of economics, called by Adams, “hay, wood and stubble” in reference to Montesquieu. How is it that this government will be able to escape the problem of Europe? Adams suggests that the “prevalence of knowledge and benevolence” are the necessary elements in this endeavor. It is curious that Adams suggests benevolence as a cure for the problem of the commerce of luxury, as benevolence calls to mind piety. For the ancients, piety was one of the main elements needed to moderate the soul. Curiously, Adams is suggesting that piety is necessary in this new republic in order to temper the collective soul of America. Secondly, Adams is calling for a knowledgeable people in America. In fact in his essay Thoughts on Government, Adams calls for liberal education specifically of the lower classes. Once again in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Adams states, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”[1] Adams places an emphasis on education as a means of preserving liberty. Knowledge and piety, through the manner of benevolence, are necessary for the preservation of the commerce of economics: or prevention against tyranny.

Adams adds a third element for the preservation of this new regime, namely virtue. Adams contrasts knowledge, virtue and benevolence with ignorance, error and vice. He states, “If there were no ignorance, error, or vice, there would be neither principles nor systems of civil or political government.” Of course this hearkens to the Federalist Papers statement, “If men were angels there would be no need for government.” Knowledge, virtue and benevolence must be implemented by the government in order to over come human nature. The best regime to instill these qualities in people and to preserve liberty is discussed next by John Adams.

Republicanism stands as the best method to preserve liberty within the body politic for John Adams. Adams defines republic as, “a government in which the people have collectively, or by representation, an essential share in the sovereignty.” However, Adams does not wish for our country to have a republican form of Poland, Venice, Holland or Bern as he calls them no different, “than the monarchical form in France before the late revolution.” In order to understand what Adams means by this, it is prudent to explain these examples. Poland between 1569 and1795 was a Commonwealth comprised of a single house parliament composed of nobility. Any member of the parliament could abolish it or veto any law it passed. As a fundamental principle, Adams professed that there should be a bi-cameral system of the legislator. Poland violated this principle, making it no better than an absolute monarchy like in France. The Venetian Republic was comprised of an executive and legislative branch of government, with the nobility comprising the legislative assembly. The Venetian Republic was very close to the model of the Roman Republic, which was based on the Commerce of Luxury. Once again, the Venetian Republic violated to the principle of a two house legislator. Holland was a confederate regime with a weak central government and independent states. Once again, the nobility was in charge of government affairs in the Dutch Republic. The system of Bern, which is the capital of Switzerland today, was originally a Dutch style Confederation of independent states. For Adams these regimes lacked the fundamental principles by which a Republic can stand. How Adams envisions the composition of a Republic is left off for later in the letter. Rather, he states, “For, after a fair of trial of its miseries, the simple monarchial for will ever be, as it is has ever been, preferred to it by mankind.” Simply put, republican government is apt to suffer miseries and will eventually dissolve into a simple monarchy. Adams rightly points out that monarchy has always been the preferred method of government by mankind.

In an attempt to explain why it is that monarchy has been preferred over republic, Adams describes the English situation. Adams declares, “They [the English] have succeeded to such a degree, that, with a vast majority of that nation, a republican is as unamiable as a witch, a blasphemer, a rebel, or a tyrant.” Witch and blasphemer are affronts against God, while rebel and tyrant are analogous for affronts against liberty. The most blatant charges against republic is that it produces impious citizens, and that it destroys liberty. For the ancients the regime imitated the divine, and the divine were governed by monarchy: for Christianity the king was divinely ordained by God to rule and so it appears monarchy is the divinely appointed regime. In republics, because it is not the divine regime, the people will tend away from religion and so a good republic will instill a sense of piety within the people.

Secondly, the people are the worst protectors of their own liberty: Thus a regime based on the power of the people would appear as the most unable to protect liberty. How republic can maintain liberty is discussed later by Adams through the implementation of two exterior checks. For now Adams argues that government must cultivate knowledge and benevolence as a method of maintaining liberty and piety within the people. Virtue is a product of knowledge and benevolence and so the republic which instills knowledge and benevolence will produce virtuous citizens. But this is not enough, Adams argues if we wish for the American people not to, “renounce, detest and execrate” the word republic as the English, then there must be “explanations, restrictions and limitations” placed on republic. Adams has provided the explanation of republic and how to combat the problem of the people: Adams is aware that benevolence, virtue and knowledge will not be enough to maintain republican form. Human nature is too powerful to be overcome by these qualities alone, and so needs physical barriers to prevent human nature from destroying liberty.

The first obstacle to self government is human nature, which Adams describes as, “the ocean, its tides and storms.” Adams defines these tides and storms as, “Human appetites, passions, prejudices, and self love.” In order to conquer them, human means are the least helpful. And so religion and education are unable to temper human nature. Religion as Adams states is dependent upon the idea of the Messiah returning and ruling over the world. As this event is still in the future, it cannot be used as the only means against human nature. Universal education, a principle of government for John Adams, is not accepted by the governments of Europe and so knowledge via education cannot depended upon. The people cannot depend on themselves for the preservation of “safety, liberty and security.” Instead the two methods will stand together as “dikes” against “the ocean, its tides and storms” with other natural barriers. These natural barriers were established as a means of preserving liberty.

The first of these barriers Adams wishes to place on society is the development of nobility out of the natural aristocracy. He asserts that “prejudice, passion and private interest” are the roots of the destruction of liberty. These three elements counter public principles, motives and arguments. The nobility when placed without a check has contrived to destroy stability and liberty through summa imperii. However, Adams counters, “So have the plebeians; so have the people; so have kings; so has human nature…” But the nobility, Adams asserts, has also been the greatest protector of liberty. The people and king have only attempted to destroy liberty when given the chance, and so there must be a check on them in the form of the nobility. Adams makes it clear to his cousin that he does not imply to mean hereditary conventional nobility, rather a “natural and actual aristocracy among mankind”: We cannot deny the existence of natural aristocracy. The people, “only serve to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud and the spirit of party. It would be true, but it would not be more egregiously false, to say that the people have waged everlasting war against the rights of men.” But the nobility, they have been the ones to protect liberty in Europe; it was the noble class who gave England it’s celebrated Magna Carta, not the people nor the king.

Love of liberty according to Samuel Adams “‘is interwoven in the soul of man’”. John takes the opportunity to elaborate on his cousin’s observation. In Jean la Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb, Adams finds that the wolf is a lover of liberty much like man. Together he finds that man and the wolf must be solitary creatures in order to enjoy this love of liberty. Only when man becomes “rational, generous, or social” through enlightenment of “experience, reflection, education, civil, and political institutions” that he can live outside of solitude. The wolf in the story chooses to live alone, lean and hungry because he sees that dogs who live sleek and plump must live under restraint. Like the dog, some men in the past have chosen, “ease, slumber and good cheer to liberty.” The people, as a result, cannot be depended upon alone to preserve liberty: neither can a simple love of liberty within the people be depended upon: The people will quickly forsake their liberty for simple monarchy. So we must introduce political institutions that will fight against tyranny. Yet, in those institutions those without money will always attempt to destroy those with money. In reference back to Aristotle’s Politics, where the democrat fights the oligarch, the poor will desire to destroy the wealthy. But the wealthy will only put up with this for so long when, as in they did in Rome, will tire of the poor. The people and nobility must be checked against each other so as not to allow either to become complacent. For Adams this would be found in a bicameral legislature with one house being for the nobility and the second house for the people. By making the people members of the government, you allow them to be responsible for the preservation of their own liberty. But the people will contrive to destroy that liberty and so the nobility must stand as a vanguard against the destruction of liberty and so they must be placed against the people in the legislature. The people and nobility must stand against each other to prevent either from destroying liberty. The only preservation of liberty is found in a bicameral legislature.

For all the good nobility can and has done for the preservation of liberty, Adams is not blind to how much nobility has contrived to destroy liberty as well. The people according to Adams “pretended to nothing but to be villains, vassals, and retainers to the king or the nobles.” The nobles themselves were not truly free either according to Adams, “because all was determined by a majority of their votes, or by arms, not by law.” This leads to the second problem in the preservation of liberty, family popularity. He asserts that the overthrow of monarchs by the nobility was for little more than to support ambition and family pride. Pride itself is identified as the concomitant of “riches, of knowledge, of genius, of talents, of beauty, of strength, of virtue, and even of piety.” Pride must be brought under check, but Adams rightly points out that family pride would have been nothing if family popularity had not been established. People attach themselves to popular families and as such causes the person to feel a great sense of pride, e.g. the people who attached themselves to the Kennedy family in the 20th century. But this problem according to Adams will always exist, “As long as gratitude or interest, ambition or avarice, love, hope or fear, shall be human motives of action, so long will numbers attach themselves to particular families.” This similar situation existed in ancient Rome, when plebeians would often attach themselves to patrician families in order to serve their ambition to power.

Popularity must be guarded against so as not to allow a single man or family too much power within society to risk the destruction of liberty. The power behind popularity of this kind according to Adams “will be employed to mortify enemies, gratify friends, procure votes, emoluments and power.” Therefore, to check the power of popularity Adams suggests placing “two watches upon them” namely a king and the people. Yet the problem with family popularity is its ability to create factions. Party and mobbish spirits can be traced to popular families. Adams quotes Tarquin, “In nove populo, ubi omnis repentina atque ex virtute nobilitas fit, futurum locum forti ac strenuo viro.” This stands in contrast to the traditional well born of societies where in America the nobility stems from a sudden out growth from the individual virtue. But still Adams fears that popularity of one family will cause other families to become envious. Those who would acquire their position by real merit will be overshadowed by the families: And so how can the family popularity be overcome? The nobles are necessary in society for the preservation of liberty, but the people will become pawns in the ever ambitious attitudes of the nobles.

Adams proposes that there be an arbitrator between the nobles and the people: What this arbitrator might be is not entirely clear. One could suggest that it might be law itself, as Adams points out previously that the nobles are not truly free without law. However, law only protects noble from noble so as not to cause majority tyranny. The King has already been suggested as being placed on the other side of the nobles opposite the people. But we already know from the need of a bicameral legislature that the King cannot properly be this arbitrator. As Adams has already expressed the need for independent legislature and executive, the only branch left is the judicial. To preserve liberty we must have nobility, but that nobility in order to not destroy itself must be restrained by law. The people must be restrained by the nobility, as ought the king. But how are the people to be protected from the nobility except to make them subject to the same law. And by making the people subject to the same law allow for an independent arbitrator to be established to maintain justice and prevent the creation of a conventional aristocracy.

John Adams presents for his cousin Sam and for us readers the need for a defect in society. This defect will serve to cause people to continuously pay attention to the matters of government. The rule of law, bicameral legislature, an executive and independent judiciary are all methods to preserve liberty and together they must promote knowledge, virtue and benevolence within the people. The rule of law will restrict and set free the nobility. A bicameral legislature and executive will place the people, nobility and king against either other and allow none to seize too much power and destroy liberty: The people cannot be trusted to maintain their own liberty and so there must be a nobility. Together the nobility and people will check each other in the bicameral legislature. Because the nobility cannot be trusted, there must be something superior to them and the people to check it’s authority. The executive, or king, is placed above the nobility in the upper house of the legislature and the people are placed in the lower house. Finally the arbitrator between the people and the nobility will be the judicial, who will have the authority to maintain the rule of law. The nobility will naturally attempt to seize power for itself through popularity of families, so in order to prevent this there must be a guardian of the law which was established to free the nobility.


[1] Massachusetts Constitution Part The Second, Chapter V, Section II

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