by Janet M. Kelly
Do you remember your worst road-trip nightmare? Kids are fighting or arguing in the back seat. The car breaks down. The hotel lost your reservation. Someone asks, “What do you want for dinner?” “Hamburgers!” “Pizza!” “Sushi!” AGHHHH! Can’t anyone agree?
Imagine 102 men, women, and children crammed into the hold of a leaking ship: cold, starving, quarrelsome, and covered with body lice. No baths. Just plain worn out. 102 personalities as different as these two men:
Steven Hopkins was a “Stranger” as were over half of the Mayflower passengers. Called “Strangers” by the religious “Saints,” they were a mixed bag of farmers, shop keepers, one soldier, several criminals, indentured servants, and many “rough characters.” Steven had been convicted of mutiny in 1610 and sentenced to death while stranded in Bermuda. After much tearful pleading, his sentence was commuted and he was sent back to England where he became an Ale House Keeper. He was rough, stubborn and willful. Physically strong, he had learned survival skills in Bermuda, and no one could tell him what to do. He and the other “Strangers” were going to the New World for economic opportunities or a fresh start in life.
William Bradford, along with 41 of the 102 passengers, were called “Separatists” or “Saints” because they were traveling to the New World for religious freedom from the restrictions imposed by King James I’s and his Church of England. Bradford was well educated and devout, but he was also physically weakened by childhood illness. Orphaned at seven, he lived with his wealthy grandparents and later with a wealthy uncle. He read from their extensive libraries with focus on Scripture. As a young man, he joined “The Separatists” on their quest for religious freedom. He was not wealthy monetarily, but possessed great wisdom and knowledge.
Saints and Strangers Sign an Agreement in England:
These two vastly different groups of Mayflower passengers, before leaving England, signed an agreement with the Virginia Company to repay their voyage debt by working for 7 years, sending furs and lumber to England.
Mutiny on the Mayflower:
The Mayflower had been blown off course during the violent winter storms that plagued the last half of their 66-day journey. They landed in a wilderness 250 miles north of their intended Virginia Colony destination.
Before anyone set foot on land, discord immediately arose among the passengers.
- The crew wanted to quickly unload the passengers and sail back to England before the winter storms grew worse.
- The “Strangers” argued that the Virginia Company contract was void. The Mayflower had landed outside Virginia Company territory so their company contract was void. They were defiant and refused to recognize any rules since there was no official government over them.
- The “Saints” realized the Mayflower was outside English rules or protections, and something had to be done quickly or it would mean every man, woman, and child for themselves. They set out to create temporary laws for self-governance based on majority rule.
The Mayflower Compact:
The “Saints” knew it would take everyone working together to succeed in the wilderness. Their very lives depended on it. They wrote an agreement establishing that:
- Colonists would remain loyal to King James I, despite the need for self-governance.
- Colonists themselves would create and enact laws and rules for the good of the colony and abide by those laws.
- Colonists would create one society and work together to further it.
- Colonists would live in accordance to the Christian Faith.
Rights for the Common Man
The Mayflower Compact was based on justice and ignored class, wealth and status. It gave an equal voice to each man. It framed a “Civil Body Politic” based on self government, common rules, and peaceful deliberation. Forty-one adult males signed the document, along with two indentured servants, and promised “all due submission and obedience” to the “just and equal laws” outlined in the Mayflower Compact. Thus, The Plymouth Colony was founded on self-governance, equal rights despite wealth, class or status, and majority rule. It was the first written “Civil Body-Politic” in the New World. Would it last?
A few Tidbits
1. The Mayflower Compact was the first document agreeing to government of the people, by the people, and for the people in the New World. It is arguably a blueprint for the American Democracy our country was founded on.
2. As was customary at the time, women were not part of the writing or signing of the Mayflower Compact.
3. The colonists selected their own leaders. Several men had proved themselves through their own actions by “tireless service, fetching wood and making fires, preparing food for the sick, washing infected clothing, and doing so willingly and cheerfully.” Their self-less dedication to the other “Saints and Strangers” demonstrated that they had earned a leadership position. One of those leaders was the frail but dedicated William Bradford.
4. William Bradford wrote an accounting of what happened in Plymouth. Of Plymouth Plantation is one of the most important sources of primary information about the voyage and lives of the “Saints” and “Strangers.”