Another Perspective on the Mayflower Compact and the Pilgrims

A previous post provided a positive view of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact and the Pilgrims who wrote and signed it. A vastly different perspective on these topics has been provided by Joshua Zeitz, an American historian and contributing editor of Politico.[1]

He starts with a positive note. “The Pilgrims wrote and  “signed the Mayflower Compact, which arguably planted the first democratic seeds in New World. The same Pilgrims . . . transported a strain of Christian millennialism to America that influenced the development of political culture throughout the United States.”

However, Zeitz says their Colony of Plymouth “was a small, struggling outpost that never achieved the prosperity or influence of its close cousin, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, settled 10 years later by non-separatist Puritans. . . . Puritanism—both in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay—fell into a state of decline within a generation of each colony’s founding. Ultimately, the political and religious culture the Pilgrims and Puritans built had little to do with the nation we became—it shaped neither the republican revolution against Parliament and Crown in the 18th century nor America’s evolution into a diverse and boisterous democracy in the 19th century.”

“From the start, the Puritan project faced steep challenges. A large number of Mayflower passengers were ‘strangers’—servants or craftsmen who were necessary to the settlement but did not share in the separatists’ religious faith. . . . Local conditions were also trying. . . . Plymouth remained a small and relatively poorer society of fishermen and small farmers.”

Moreover, “by the 1660s large numbers of residents of both colonies were not baptized church members. . . . Whereas upward of 80 percent of Plymouth and Massachusetts settlers belonged to churches in the 1640s, by the 1670s that portion had fallen to as low as 30 percent.” In other words, “[f]ar from laying the foundation of American political and religious culture, the Puritan settlers, separatists and non-separatists alike, built an inward, particular religious community that frayed within three generations of their arrival in the New World.”

Zeitz  concludes by saying that there has been little public note of “this year’s 400th anniversary of the [Mayflower Compact and the] Plymouth landing, in contrast to the [current] spirited debate over [the introduction of slavery in the Virginia colony in] 1619,[2][ and that this contrast] reflects the right priorities. We still grapple with the legacy of slavery in ways both profound and worrying, and the impulse to claim the mantle of ‘true Americans’ hasn’t left our politics. But we can be thankful that the Pilgrim’s world of ‘invisible saints’ and unregenerate sinners, of closed communities and neo-theocracy, has little to do with the America we know, nor has it for a very long time.”

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[1] Zeitz, How America Outgrew the Pilgrims, Politico (Nov. 25, 2020).

[2] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The 1619 Project Commemorates the Arrival of Slavery in the U.S. (Oct. 20, 2019); Prominent Historians and New York Times Officials’ Comments About the 1619 Project (Aug. 12, 2020); Senator Cotton Continues Criticism of the 1619 Project, (Aug. 10, 2020); Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery (Aug. 11, 2020); Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, (Aug. 3, 2020).

 

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.

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[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.

 

 

 

 

President Obama Welcomes New U.S. Citizens with Inspiring Challenge

As noted in prior posts, the final step for someone to become a naturalized U.S. citizen is to attend a ceremony in which the individual takes an oath of allegiance to the United States of America and officially is declared to be a U.S. citizen. This is after such an individual meets the requirements of U.S. law through submission of an application with various aspects of personal information and an interview for vetting that information.[1]

Such a ceremony took place on December 15, 2015, at Washington, D.C.’s Rotunda of the National Archives Museum, where the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are permanently displayed. December 15 also was the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Obama

new citizens

 

 

 

 

On this occasion President Barack Obama provided inspiring words to welcome 31 new U.S. citizens. Above are photographs of the President giving his speech and of some of the new citizens. Here is what Obama said.[2]

“To my fellow Americans, our newest citizens. You are men and women from more than 25 countries, from Brazil to Uganda, from Iraq to the Philippines.  You may come from teeming cities or rural villages.  You don’t look alike.  You don’t worship the same way.  But here, surrounded by the very documents whose values bind us together as one people, you’ve raised your hand and sworn a sacred oath.  I’m proud to be among the first to greet you as “my fellow Americans.”

“What a remarkable journey all of you have made.  And as of today, your story is forever woven into the larger story of this nation. . . . [Y]ou still have a demanding and rewarding task ahead of you — and that is the hard work of active citizenship.  You have rights and you have responsibilities.”

“Just about every nation in the world, to some extent, admits immigrants.  But there’s something unique about America.  We don’t simply welcome new immigrants, we don’t simply welcome new arrivals — we are born of immigrants.  That is who we are.  Immigration is our origin story.  And for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character; it’s our oldest tradition.  It’s who we are.  It’s part of what makes us exceptional.”

“[U]nless your family is Native American, one of the first Americans, all of our families come from someplace else.  The first refugees were the Pilgrims themselves — fleeing religious persecution, crossing the stormy Atlantic to reach a new world where they might live and pray freely.  Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were immigrants.  And in those first decades after independence, English, German, and Scottish immigrants came over, huddled on creaky ships, seeking what Thomas Paine called ‘asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.’”

“Down through the decades, Irish Catholics fleeing hunger, Italians fleeing poverty filled up our cities, rolled up their sleeves, built America.  Chinese laborers jammed in steerage under the decks of steamships, making their way to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad that would transform the West — and our nation.  Wave after wave of men, women, and children — from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, from Asia and Africa — poured into Ellis Island, or Angel Island, their trunks bursting with their most cherished possessions — maybe a photograph of the family they left behind, a family Bible, or a Torah, or a Koran.  A bag in one hand, maybe a child in the other, standing for hours in long lines.  New York and cities across America were transformed into a sort of global fashion show.  You had Dutch lace caps and the North African fezzes, stodgy tweed suits and colorful Caribbean dresses.”

“And perhaps, like some of you, these new arrivals might have had some moments of doubt, wondering if they had made a mistake in leaving everything and everyone they ever knew behind.  So life in America was not always easy.  It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants.  Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.  There was discrimination and hardship and poverty.  But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them.  And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

“Just as so many have come here in search of a dream, others sought shelter from nightmares.  Survivors of the Holocaust.  Soviet Refuseniks.  Refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.  Iraqis and Afghans fleeing war.  Mexicans, Cubans, Iranians leaving behind deadly revolutions.  Central American teenagers running from gang violence.  The Lost Boys of Sudan escaping civil war.  They’re people like Fulbert Florent Akoula from the Republic of Congo, who was granted asylum when his family was threatened by political violence.  And today, Fulbert is here, a proud American.”

“We can never say it often or loudly enough:  Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America.  Immigrants like you are more likely to start your own business.  Many of the Fortune 500 companies in this country were founded by immigrants or their children.  Many of the tech startups in Silicon Valley have at least one immigrant founder.”

“Immigrants are the teachers who inspire our children, and they’re the doctors who keep us healthy.  They’re the engineers who design our skylines, and the artists and the entertainers who touch our hearts.  Immigrants are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who protect us, often risking their lives for an America that isn’t even their own yet.  As an Iraqi, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Naib was the target of death threats for working with American forces.  He stood by his American comrades, and came to the U.S. as a refugee.  And today, we stand by him.  And we are proud to welcome Mohammed as a citizen of the country that he already helped to defend.”

“We celebrate this history, this heritage, as an immigrant nation.  And we are strong enough to acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that we haven’t always lived up to our own ideals.  We haven’t always lived up to these documents.”

From the start, Africans were brought here in chains against their will, and then toiled under the whip.  They also built America.  A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, “No Irish Need Apply.”  Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s, when JFK . . . [ran for office], he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.”

“Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes, and were, for a time, even banned from entering America.  During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese-American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps.  We succumbed to fear.  We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values.  We betrayed these documents.  It’s happened before.”

“And the biggest irony of course is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants.  How quickly we forget.  One generation passes, two generation passes, and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from.  And we suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them,’ not remembering we used to be ‘them.’”

“On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again.  We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms — whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farm worker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.  We are Americans.  Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do -– especially when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s not convenient.  That’s when it counts.  That’s when it matters — not when things are easy, but when things are hard.”

“The truth is, being an American is hard.  Being part of a democratic government is hard.  Being a citizen is hard.  It is a challenge.  It’s supposed to be.  There’s no respite from our ideals.  All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves — not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.  When it’s tough.  When we’re afraid.  The tension throughout our history between welcoming or rejecting the stranger, it’s about more than just immigration.  It’s about the meaning of America, what kind of country do we want to be.  It’s about the capacity of each generation to honor the creed as old as our founding:  “E Pluribus Unum” — that out of many, we are one.”

“Scripture tells us, ‘For we are strangers before you, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.’ In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago.  In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.  In these new Americans, we see our own American stories — our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins who packed up what they could and scraped together what they had.  And their paperwork wasn’t always in order.  And they set out for a place that was more than just a piece of land, but an idea.”

“America:  A place where we can be a part of something bigger.  A place where we can contribute our talents and fulfill our ambitions and secure new opportunity for ourselves and for others.  A place where we can retain pride in our heritage, but where we recognize that we have a common creed, a loyalty to these documents, a loyalty to our democracy; where we can criticize our government, but understand that we love it; where we agree to live together even when we don’t agree with each other; where we work through the democratic process, and not through violence or sectarianism to resolve disputes; where we live side by side as neighbors; and where our children know themselves to be a part of this nation, no longer strangers, but the bedrock of this nation, the essence of this nation.”

“More than 60 years ago, at a ceremony like this one, Senator John F. Kennedy said, ‘No form of government requires more of its citizens than does the American democracy.’  Our system of self-government depends on ordinary citizens doing the hard, frustrating but always essential work of citizenship — of being informed.  Of understanding that the government isn’t some distant thing, but is you.  Of speaking out when something is not right.  Of helping fellow citizens when they need a hand.  Of coming together to shape our country’s course.”

And that work gives purpose to every generation.  It belongs to me.  It belongs to the judge.  It belongs to you.  It belongs to you, all of us, as citizens.  To follow our laws, yes, but also to engage with your communities and to speak up for what you believe in.  And to vote — to not only exercise the rights that are now yours, but to stand up for the rights of others.

“Birtukan Gudeya is here [today] from Ethiopia.  She said, ‘The joy of being an American is the joy of freedom and opportunity.  We have been handed a work in progress, one that can evolve for the good of all Americans.’”

“That is what makes America great — not just the words on these founding documents, as precious and valuable as they are, but the progress that they’ve inspired.  If you ever wonder whether America is big enough to hold multitudes, strong enough to withstand the forces of change, brave enough to live up to our ideals even in times of trial, then look to the generations of ordinary citizens who have proven again and again that we are worthy of that.”

“That’s our great inheritance — what ordinary people have done to build this country and make these words live.  And it’s our generation’s task to follow their example in this journey — to keep building an America where no matter who we are or what we look like, or who we love or what we believe, we can make of our lives what we will.”

“You will not and should not forget your history and your past.  That adds to the richness of American life.  But you are now American.  You’ve got obligations as citizens.  And I’m absolutely confident you will meet them.  You’ll set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is.  It’s not something to take for granted.  It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”

“Thank you.  May God bless you.  May God bless the United States of America.”

And I say, thank you, Mr. President, for a necessary and inspiring message to us all. It echoes some of the points recently made by Minneapolis clergy that were discussed in a recent post.

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[1] Minnesota Welcomes New Citizens (June 8, 2015); Naturalized U.S. Citizens: Important Contributors to U.S. Culture and Economy (June 7, 2015).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Naturalization Ceremony (Dec. 15, 2015); National Archives, Press Release: President Obama to Deliver Keynote Address at National Archives Naturalization Ceremony on December 15 (Dec.11, 2015); Harris & Goodstein, Obama Counters Anti-Muslim Talk by Welcoming New Citizens, N.Y. Times (Dec. 15, 2015).