Mayflower Compact’s 400th Anniversary  

On November 21, 1620, the  “Agreement Between the Settlers of New Plymouth” (now called the Mayflower Compact), was signed aboard the Mayflower ship by its 41 male passengers while the ship was anchored in Provincetown Harbor within the hook at the northern tip of Cape Cod.[1]

Among the signers of the Compact were John Carver, the main author of the Compact, its first signer and the subsequent first Governor of the Plymouth Colony; William Bradford, the second signer of the Compact and a subsequent Governor of the Colony; Myles Standish, who became the First Commander of the Colony; and William Brewster, who became Senior Elder of the Colony.

The Compact was the first governing document of Plymouth Colony  for the passengers of the Mayflower, who were separatist Puritans trying to purify the Church of England of certain Roman Catholic practices along with some adventurers and tradesmen. The Puritans were fleeing from religious persecution by King James I of England.

Here is the text of the Compact:

  • “IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great BritainFrance, 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 WITNESSwhereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of EnglandFrance, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.”

This document evidences their determination to establish their own government, while still affirming their allegiance to the Crown of England. Thus, the Compact was based simultaneously upon a majoritarian model and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival.

Here is a commentary on the Compact by John G. Turner, Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University and author of “They Knew they Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty” (Yale Univ. Press,; New Haven, CT.   2020)

Turner’s Commentary[2]

 “In November 1620, the Mayflower completed its voyage across the Atlantic. Before its weary passengers walked on American soil for the first time, 41 men signed their names to a simple agreement. They declared their loyalty to King James and formed themselves into a ‘body politic.’ They promised, among other things, ‘all due submission and obedience’ to the laws and offices they would enact to govern themselves. Then the passengers went ashore, explored Cape Cod and soon established a settlement at Plymouth.”

“For much of American history, the Mayflower Compact—as it came to be called—has been considered a foundational document. John Quincy Adams praised it as the ‘original social compact,’ an agreement that eventually had given birth to a nation. ‘In the cabin of the Mayflower,’ declared the 19th-century historian George Bancroft, ‘humanity recovered its rights, and instituted government on the basis of ‘equal laws’ enacted by all the people for ‘the general good.’ The Pilgrims, as the Mayflower passengers had become known by this point, gained renown for their dual commitment to religious and political liberty.”

“In recent decades, the Pilgrims and their compact have lost some of their luster. Since 1970, Native Americans and their supporters have held a National Day of Mourning in Plymouth each November. They see the Mayflower crossing not as a stroke for liberty but as the commencement of conquest and dispossession. Meanwhile, some Americans train their gaze on other origin stories, such as the arrival of African slaves in Virginia [in 1619].”

“What meaning, then, does the Mayflower Compact have for Americans in 2020? Setting aside the hyperbole of Pilgrim venerators past, it remains a landmark worthy of commemoration.”

“The agreement aboard the Mayflower was terse out of necessity. Pilgrim leaders only drafted it after their ship sailed off course, missing their intended destination somewhere near the mouth of the Hudson River. Nothing authorized the Pilgrims to form a government farther north, in New England, and the uncertainty over this stoked unrest. Some of the passengers made ‘mutinous speeches’ and intended to ‘use their own liberty’ when they left the ship, according to the account of William Bradford, later elected the colony’s second governor. The compact tamped down this brewing mutiny.”

“Given these circumstances, the Mayflower Compact was not a grand statement of political principles. There’s nothing in it like ‘when in the course of human events’ or ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ It was an agreement to work together, not a constitution or bill of rights. The agreement also said little about religion, only that the colonists undertook their work ‘for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country.’”

“Yet while some of the language was mere boilerplate, other portions contained more profound ideas. When the Pilgrims formed their ‘body politic,’ they referred to it as a ‘covenant.’ The notion was congruent with their religious principles. The majority of the Pilgrims were separatists, men and women who had withdrawn from the Church of England. They had then ‘joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate,’ promising to ‘walk in all [God’s] ways…whatsoever it should cost them,’ according to Bradford. These actions were illegal. In the face of persecution, many of the future Mayflower passengers fled their homes and took refuge in the Dutch city of Leiden. For the separatists, it was essential that Christians retained the liberty to choose their own church leaders. John Robinson, their minister in Leiden, explained that their church government was ‘after a sort popular, and democratic.’”

“That also describes the political covenant fashioned aboard the Mayflower. The compact affirmed that those who belonged to the ‘body politic’ held the authority to ‘enact, constitute, and frame…just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices.’ In other words, the legitimacy of laws and political offices rested on the consent of the people. Those laws, moreover, had to be ‘just and equal.’”

“The principles of consent and equity harked back to Magna Carta, but as of the early 1600s most English politicians and philosophers believed that only the propertied elite possessed these bulwarks against arbitrary rule. The Mayflower Compact, by contrast, was shockingly broad. Most of the adult men on the ship signed it, servants alongside their masters. Certainly, we could focus on those excluded, such as the women on board. In the years ahead, most of those who lived in Plymouth Colony—women, Natives, African slaves and many religious dissenters—did not have a say in framing laws or choosing political leaders. By the standards of its day, though, the compact was radically inclusive; the colony’s leaders felt compelled to assure their investors that they hadn’t given women and children the right to vote.”

“After signing the compact, the passengers put its principles into practice. They chose John Carver as their governor ‘for that year.’ The election was a stark contrast with the politics of other early English colonies. Virginia, for instance, had a representative assembly, but company officers back in England appointed the colony’s governor and council.”

“Along with nearly half of the Pilgrims, Carver died during the colony’s first winter. The survivors selected Bradford as his replacement. Thereafter, they held annual elections for governor and other high offices.”

“The compact remained important to the settlers of Plymouth Colony, or at least to those men with voting rights. When they assembled 16 years later to revise the colony’s laws, they began by having the compact read aloud. They affirmed that laws and taxes could only be imposed on them ‘by consent according to the free liberties of the state and kingdom of England.’ Accordingly, settlers objected when their own magistrates empowered courts to levy certain taxes. They objected when a crown-appointed governor of a reorganized New England imposed taxes on them without their consent. Later generations of Americans would distill these complaints into the clarion cry of ‘no taxation without representation.’”

“The Pilgrims . . . contributions merit a more serious examination. Despite its brevity, and despite the blind spots of those who signed it, the Mayflower Compact established a government that lasted for 70 years. That was no mean feat by 17th-century standards.”

“The basic principles of the Mayflower Compact still resonate with the expanded American body politic of the 21st century. Men and women owe their obedience to laws and leaders, but only when they fairly participate in their formation and election. As Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ in 1963, ‘An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote.’ Many of our political arguments—over the Electoral College, redistricting, the Supreme Court—hinge on exactly what constitutes democratic consent.”

“The Mayflower Pilgrims set a powerful example. But forget about their idea of annual elections. Given the anxieties and rancor that accompany American presidential campaigns, we can leave that particular 17th-century practice to the history books.

==========================

[1] Mayflower Compact, Wikipedia; Puritans, Wikipedia; Jacoby, How the Mayflower compact sowed the seeds of American Democracy, Boston Globe (Nov. 12, 2017); Shribman, Review: The Pilgrims’ Progress, W.S.J. (Nov. 21, 2017); Wood, America wasn’t founded on slavery in 1619—but on Pilgrims’ ideals written in 1620, N.Y. Post (Nov. 7, 2020); Freeman, ‘The Foundation Stone of American Democracy,’ W.S.J. (Nov. 12, 2000); Wood, Pilgrims’ protest: Mayflower descendants defend their ancestors—and the history of America, N.Y. Post (Nov. 21, 2020); Anderson, 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact signing is today, Boston Globe (Nov. 21, 2020).

[2] Turner, The Mayflower Compact 400 Years Later, W.S.J. (Nov. 21, 2020.

 

 

 

 

Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom

Aeschylus
Aeschylus

The chorus in Agamemnon, a famous play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus (circa 525/524 BC—circa 456-455 BC) makes the following statement (in English translation):

  • “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

I encountered this statement in the excellent, fascinating contemporary novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, about which I will comment in future posts. The statement supposedly was a favorite saying of the novel’s Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister in southern Minnesota in the 1960’s. The author Krueger has said that he has liked this quotation and always wanted to use it in one of his novels, and so he did by putting it into the mouth of Rev. Drum.

For me, the use of this quotation by Rev. Drum does not ring true to his character. I could not accept that a Methodist minister wanting to impart wisdom to his two sons in the U.S. in the 1960’s would use the words of a pre-Christian playwright, rather than words of Scripture.

When I posed this problem to Mr. Krueger, he said that as the novel explains, Rev. Drum originally was going to be a lawyer and, as the novel did not explicate, he had had a broad pre-law education, which exposed him to Aeschylus. This response does not satisfy me, a retired lawyer who had a broad pre-law education.

I also am troubled by the English translation’s reference to the “awful” grace of God. For me, the word “awful” is strongly negative with “horrible” as a synonym. When Krueger was responding to my question, he referred to an alternate meaning of “awful” as “full of awe.” In the novel towards its end after many horrible deaths, however, Rev. Drum repeats the quotation to his older son Frank, who asks skeptically, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) Again this response does not satisfy me as one coming from an individual supposedly knowledgeable about Aeschylus.

In my investigations of this quandary I discovered that the quotation was used in 1968 by U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy referred to his own grief at the 1963 murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert then said, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy went on to say that night in Indianapolis, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” (The quotation from Aeschylus was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy following his own assassination.)

I certainly recalled that Robert Kennedy made an emotional and moving extemporaneous statement on the night of Rev. King’s assassination, but I did not remember the specifics. Learning the specifics helps me understand why novelist Krueger wanted to use the Aeschylus quotation in a novel, but, in my view, does not justify putting those words into Rev. Drum’s mouth seven years before the King assassination.

Moreover, the English translation is poetical and sounds profound, but is misleading on a simple analysis, in my judgment. First, is suffering a necessary condition for obtaining wisdom or without suffering is wisdom impossible? “No” is the obvious answer for me. Second, is suffering a sufficient condition for wisdom or is wisdom always a consequence of suffering? Again, “No” is the obvious answer to this question.

In my opinion, suffering sometimes (but not always) provides an opportunity to gain wisdom that sometimes (but not always) produces wisdom. That opens for me the broader and more important question of how does one learn from suffering or pain in one’s life.

My cursory research about Aeschylus reveals that he “was a deep, religious thinker. Few poets have ever presented evil in such stark and tragic terms, yet he had an exalted view of Zeus, whom he celebrated with a grand simplicity reminiscent of the Psalms, and a faith in progress or the healing power of time.” (Emphasis added.)

This source recognizes what I believe to be the polytheistic belief system of the ancient Greeks and casts doubt, in my opinion, on any attempt in our time to use this Aeschylus quotation to elucidate the Christian perspective of a Methodist pastor or anyone else.

Agamemnon mask
Agamemnon mask

Agamemnon is the first play in the trilogy The Oresteia, telling the bloody story of the family of Agamemnon, King of Argos. It begins with the triumphant return to Mycenae[1] of King Agamemnon from his victory in the Trojan War, as told by the town’s people (the chorus) and his wife, Clytemnestra. She was angry with the King because of his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to assuage the Gods to stop a storm hindering the Greek fleet in the war and also because of his keeping a Trojan prophetess Cassandra as his mistress. Cassandra foretells of the murder of Agamemnon, and of herself, to the assembled townsfolk, who are horrified. The play ends with a prediction of the return of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who will seek to avenge his father.

I earnestly seek responses from those who know the ancient Greek language and who can shed light on the previous English translation of the Aeschylus quotation by Edith Hamilton.[2] I also welcome comments from those who are knowledgeable about Aeschylus more generally and about Agamemnon specifically.

Provide new insights. Correct my errors.


[1] Mycenae is now an archeological site in Greece, located about 56 miles southwest of Athens in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese. Argos is 7 miles to the south; Corinth, 30 miles to the north. From the hill on which the palace was located, one can see the Saronic Gulf. In the second millennium B.C., Mycenae was one of the major centers of Greek civilization, a military stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece. A number of years ago I visited the impressive site.

Mycenae Lions Gate
Mycenae Lions Gate

[2] Here are two other English translations that I have found. First, Ian Johnston in 2002: “Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise, has established his fixed law– wisdom comes through suffering. Trouble, with its memories of pain, drips in our hearts as we try to sleep, so men against their will learn to practice moderation. Favours come to us from gods seated on their solemn thrones—such grace is harsh and violent.” Second, Anne Carson in 2009: “Yet there drips in sleep before my heart a grief remembering pain. Good sense comes the hard way. And the grace of the gods (I’m pretty sure) is a grace that comes by violence.”