For the 102 English people aboard the Mayflower, this month four centuries ago was unforgettable.
After 65 days on a perilous journey at sea, they sighted land (Cape Cod) on Nov. 9, 1620. They dropped anchor on Nov. 11.
In between, they produced a document to establish what historian Rebecca Fraser describes as “the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch.”
That 200-word statement was the Mayflower Compact. Its quadricentennial should be appreciated by freedom-lovers everywhere.
The Compact had nothing directly to do with the State. It was a private contract between the men among the Pilgrims and the men among the other half of the passengers, called “strangers” because they were placed there by the English sponsors to provide skills to help the new colony succeed.
During the voyage, tensions between the Pilgrims and the strangers grew. When storms blew the ship off course and it became obvious they would land well north of Virginia, the strangers nearly mutinied. They argued that the wrong destination voided their agreement to assist the colony.
With survival in the balance, the passengers did the adult and civil thing. They made a promise to each other to form a government of consent. Its laws would bind them without religious or political discrimination.
True to the customs of the day, women could not sign such a legal document, but no evidence suggests that if they could, they would have rejected it. No one on the ship was compelled to sign, and the remaining few who chose not to were either too ill to do so or were sailors intending to return to England.
Historian Nathaniel Philbrick says the Compact “ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as a seminal American text.”
The passengers elected a Governor and then went ashore on Nov. 11. A month later, they sailed west to set up their permanent home, which they named Plymouth. Fortuitously, if not miraculously, friendly Native Americans whose names we should honor — Massasoit and Squanto in particular — helped the colony get through rough times. And the colonists learned an important lesson in economics when they rejected the starvation policy of communal socialism and embraced private property.
I love this story because it is so quintessentially American, so sublimely pro-liberty. Why? Let me summarize:
The Pilgrims fled religious persecution at the hands of a government. They made a deal with capitalist investors to privately finance a new settlement across the ocean. Half of the passengers on their ship did not share their religious views, but they put their differences aside to establish a secular self-government. Then they made a peace treaty with the local tribes that lasted half a century. They succeeded and prospered through private property and personal initiative.
The great American experiment in self-government began not in 1776 but in 1620. We are still on that same voyage and though occasional storms set us back, we remain committed to the ideal. That is what it really means to be an American. We have much to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving.
(For a list of recommended readings, email me at email@example.com).
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .