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The Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact was a signed written agreement. It was the first governing document in what are now the United States and also the first step in a long process that eventually led to the writing of the U.S. Constitution nearly 200 years later. This agreement was signed on November 11th 1620, by all 41 men on board a vessel named the Mayflower before landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Women were not allowed to sign the document because they had no legal rights at the time. The original copy of the Mayflower Compact has been lost, but fortunately William Bradford, the second signer of the Mayflower Compact, included a transcription of the document in his book Of Plymouth Plantation. The Mayflower Compact was meant to keep peace among colonists. The recipients of the document were all the settlers of the Plymouth Colony.

Pilgrims were very religious people that committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. All of their actions were motivated by God that was present in all aspects of their lives. Therefore, when they proceeded to write the agreement, they made it in name of God. Mayflower Compact was a social contract made by people in presence of God in which the settlers agreed to respect the rules of the government. They joined themselves into what they called a Civil Body Politic for the purpose of forming a government to establish order and for their own survival. All that signed agreed to form just and equal laws to meet the general good and thus face the difficulties and dangers that were awaiting them. This agreement was signed to make possible to live together in peace and harmony. It represented a promise to live and work together for the good of all and help each other.

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was the official Church of England as in many other countries. However, in 1534, King Henry VIII proceeded to change this. He decided he wanted to divorce his wife as she did not give him a son. He wanted to marry another woman, but the church refused to grant the divorce. Therefore he put himself in charge of the Church of England. He made many changes but kept many of the catholic ceremonies the same. Many people wanted their church to be simpler, more humble and more “pure”. Because of this they were called Puritans. They broke away from the Church of England and decided to form their own church and created their own religious rules and traditions. They delivered themselves to a life based on the Bible.

In 1603 James I became King of England. He was much less permissive than Henry VIII and his officials began to persecute the Puritans imprisoning them. The separatist fled in small groups to Netherlands where they could enjoy religious freedom. However they never felt at home there as the Dutch culture and language were perceived as strange and difficult to understand or learn. Most of the separatists were not only poor but unhappy, as their children spoke more Dutch than English. They began to believe that if they remained there they would face eventual extinction. Also, forthcoming conflict and eventual war between the Netherlands and Spain meant further economical difficulties and danger in the country.

In 1617 the congregation voted to leave Netherlands and go to North America. One of the leaders of the congregation was William Bradford; he was the first to call himself and his fellow followers Pilgrims. The decision to leave Europe was not easy. Stories had come back from America about failed colonies. There were fears that the native people would be violent, that there would be no source of food or water and the travel by sea was dangerous. But Virginia was an attractive destination because the presence of the older colony offered better security and trade opportunities.

Through the friendship of Sir Edwin Sandys, the treasurer of the London Company, they purchased a little vessel known as the Speedwell and hired another which was the Mayflower. In July 1620, Pilgrims returned briefly to England on-board of the Speedwell to join to the bigger Mayflower. After three years of negotiations, planning and preparations a grant was secured from the Virginia Company to settle in the Hudson Valley and in September 5th 1620, the ships set sail from Southampton, England. The date is Old Style as the Gregorian calendar had not yet been accepted by England.
The ships had to return to port twice to repair the Speedwell because the vessel had developed a leak. Finally, the Speedwell's captain and many of the crew transferred to the Mayflower and it set out alone. They set sail in September 6, captained by Christopher Johns and with 102 passengers on board. The Mayflower was finally on way to America. Not all of the passengers that travelled sought religion freedom. Some of them made the trip in search of economic opportunity and some were farm workers who desired land of their own. Pilgrims called them “Strangers”.

Mayflower was an old vessel that for years had carried wine between France and England. It had never faced the dangers of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was already late in sailing season. Initially the trip went smoothly, but later they were met with strong winds and storms. In one of these storms, when they were more than half the way to their destination, the vessel’s main beam cracked. Fortunately, they achieved to repair the ship sufficiently to continue.

There were 102 passengers, cramped together with provisions and animals such as pigs, chickens, and goats squashed in spaces just 5 feet high which were dark, airless and damp. These cramped conditions along with the movement of the ship in storms caused many of the passengers to become sick and ill. The food on board was heavily salted for better preservation, however this also caused dehydration. Finding clear, clean water to drink was a big problem in England. By the time they left England, most of the rivers, streams and lakes were polluted with human waste. The main drink available was watered down beer.

During the journey two people died and one child was born. He was named Oceanus. Another child was born while the ship was anchored near Cape Cod, in what is now Massachusetts. She was named Peregrine which means "one who has made a journey”.

The Mayflower anchored on November 10th 1620, at Cape Cod, far north of its original destination. The Virginia Company’s land grant stated that the settlement had to be built near the Hudson River. Legally, the Pilgrims had not right to settle in what is today Massachusetts. But the Pilgrims did not have enough food and water, and many were sick. They decided to land at the best place they could find. But they worried that if they established a colony without legal authority; many of the passengers would leave the group, strike on their own and ignore the contract with the investors. This would weaken the new colony. Before landing at Plymouth, therefore, they wrote out an agreement that became known as the Mayflower Compact. Thirty-seven of the signers were Pilgrims and the other four men were Strangers. The agreement established a temporary government, which they called a Body Civil Politic, of the Plymouth Colony. They used their own church as a model for the new government. John Carver was chosen as the colony’s first governor.

It was winter and their chances of surviving were not high. Nearly all became ill and during the first terrible winter of 1620-21, half of the colonists died including John Carver, the first governor of the colony. But the Pilgrims were determined to succeed. The fifty survivors built houses, learned how to fish and hunt. The local Amerindians, the Wampanoag and the Pequamid, gave them seed corn and showed them how to plant it. William Bradford was chosen to succeed John Carven as Governor. Born in 1590, William Bradford was one of the founders of Plymouth colony in 1620 and a signer of the Mayflower Compact. He served as the colony's governor for more than thirty years, and wrote "Of Plymouth Plantation," one of the first histories of European settlement in the New World, before his death in 1657.

In April 1621, the Mayflower sailed away back to England. Not one of the survivors chose to leave with the ship. It was the colony’s strongest expression of their bond. This and the aid of the Wampanoag signalled new hope. They had recovered their health and planted native corn more suitable to the climate than their English seed. By autumn they had fitted their houses against winter. So the Governor called for a celebration of their harvest, a Thanksgiving shared with their Wampanoag friends. The feast was celebrated to give thank to God for helping them survive the brutal winter in the hard American Wilderness. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days providing enough food for 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The feast consisted of fowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. There was a large quantity of wild turkeys, which probably gave rise to the American tradition of turkey at Thanksgiving. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Other Puritans followed the Pilgrims to America. Ten years later almost a thousand colonists settled nearby in what is today Boston. These people left England to escape the rule of a new king, Charles I, which was even less tolerant than his father James had been of people who disagreed with his policies in religion and government. The population of Boston grew quickly. Many years later, in 1691, it combined with the Plymouth Colony under the name of Massachusetts.

Since those days of hardship, Plymouth has grown and flourished. Today it is a very attractive mixture of the old and the modern. The town is fiercely proud of its links to England. Plymouth now has around 52 000 inhabitants. The town has industries producing metal goods, textiles, cordage and processed foods and it is also a fishing centre and summer resort.

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