When 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?