The Mayflower Compact was the first document establishing a government in America, signed on November 21, 1620 to govern the Plymouth Colony (near Cape Cod today). It was most likely composed by William Brewster who had a university education and was written while the Mayflower was still at anchor in the Cape Cod Harbor. Its 400th anniversary was on November 21, 2020.
The Pilgrims had sailed off course arriving much further north in uncharted territory and some passengers argued that since they were outside jurisdiction of the Virginia Company its rules and regulation no longer applied and they threatened to do as they pleased for no one had power to command them. The Mayflower Compact resulted from the fear that some members of the company might leave the group and settle on their own.
They agreed to the first social contract in America, with the settlers consenting to abide by the rules of this Mayflower Compact. It was the first colonial agreement that formed a government by the consent of the governed. This contract proclaimed the allegiance of settlers to the king while establishing a majority form of government. It gave them power to frame and enact laws for the general good of the planned settlement and stayed in force until 1691. It was not a constitution but an adaptation of the usual church covenants in response to a civil problem. It became the foundation of Plymouth government.
The Compact made clear its religious purpose:
- 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.
Donovan, Frank R. The Mayflower Compact, New York, Grosset and Dunlop 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica, Mayflower Compact