The Mayflower Compact: The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America


Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899

When the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620, they initially intended to sail to the colony of Virginia.  However, they found themselves north of their destination and outside of England’s colonial jurisdiction and charter.  In response, they together signed the Mayflower Compact to serve as a charter for founding their new colony of Plymouth.

The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was quite unique and revolutionary.  Most charters at the time were between a king and his inferior subjects.  But the Pilgrims’ pact was among equals who recognized God as their High Authority to sanction their agreement.  They saw God as their king.  The Pilgrims and Puritans derived this idea from the Bible, often citing Isaiah 33:22 which says that “God is our Judge, Lawgiver, and King.”  As such, the Pilgrims’ compact was a strikingly new, democratic initiative that enacted the principle of self-government among equals.  It created a civil self-government to govern their new colony by the people.  At that time, self-governments did not exist anywhere else in the world.

The Mayflower Compact states, 

We whose names are underwritten…do solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue here enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices…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 Mayflower Compact was the Pilgrims’ first self-governing act in America.  It initiated the principle and value of self-government that would endure and later become a key founding principle of the United States of America.

From AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  
The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.  Third edition (2020) is available!

Related articles/videos:
1.  An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Ancient Israelites
4.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as a Covenant
5:  The Pilgrims and Private Property:  What the Pilgrims Might Have Thought About Communism and Socialism
6.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
7.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims

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Middle & High School Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 2, Part 2, Activity 3:  Principles of the Mayflower Compact, pp. 80, 331-334.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Mayflower Compact

Purpose/Objective: Students learn about the Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact and its application of covenants, popular sovereignty, and self-government.

Suggested Reading: Chapter 2 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text. Students read sections 2.2-2.6 and p. 63.  Principles of the Mayflower Compact by Angela E. Kamrath.  New England’s Memorial edited by Nathaniel Morton, pp. 24-26.

Primary Source Reading:  New-England’s Memorial, or a Brief Relation of the Most Memorable and Remarkable Passages of the Providence of God, Manifested to the Planters of New-England in America, edited by Nathaniel Morton.  Mayflower Compact, pp. 24-26.  Google Books.

Activity:  Reading and Questions:
Students read “Principles of the Mayflower Compact” handout and, as desired, relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on handout. (The Miracle book is high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections (not too much) and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class. You may wish to project some text on-screen. Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed. The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text.) After the reading, have students write answers to the questions on the handout. See additional Review Questions in Miracle of America text, Chapter 2, p. 64. Discuss. See “Principles of the Mayflower Compact” handout in “Supporting Resources” section of this course guide, p. 331-334.

High School Activity:  America’s Heritage: An Experiment in Self-Government (HS Edition), Unit 1: The Mayflower Compact, pp. 1-1 to 1-13, MS, HS

High School Activity:  America’s Heritage: An Adventure in Liberty (HS Edition), Mayflower Compact Unit, Activity 1 & 2, pp. 29-33.  MS, HS

To download these and other readings and units, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the member resources page on americanheritage.org.

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