The Mayflower is “indissolubly linked with the fundamentals of American democratic institutions. She was the wave-rocked cradle of our liberties.” (Henry B. Culver, Naval Historian, 1924)
The Pilgrims established a government of sorts under the Mayflower Compact of 1620, which enshrined the notion of the consent of the governed.
It agreed to pass “just and equal laws for the good of the Colony”. The first experiment in New World self-government, some scholars even see it as a kind of American Magna Carta, a template for the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. (Bryant, BBC)
The legacy of the pilgrims is foundational. The work ethic. The fact Americans don’t take much annual holiday. Notions of self-reliance and attitudes towards government welfare. Laws that prohibit young adults from drinking in bars until the age of 21. A certain prudishness. The religiosity.
Americans continue to expect their presidents to be men of faith. In fact, no occupant of the White House has openly identified as an atheist.
Also the profit motive was strong among the settlers, and with it the belief that prosperity was a divine reward for following God’s path – a forerunner of the gospel of prosperity preached by modern-day television evangelists. (Bryant, BBC)
Julia Ernst noted, the crux of the Mayflower Compact was to establish a common agreement among all the people in the colony, “mutually” and “in the presence of one another,” to “Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic.” This is the beginning of a democratic form of governance established by the people and for the people under the principle of majority rule.
It is a foundational document – not a set of specific rules, but a charter creating the polity (the public relationships among the members of that community) and the government to institute and maintain order in that society.
They agreed to “Covenant” with each other – to enter into a formal and fundamentally sacred reciprocal promise with every other member of the community.
This form of agreement reflected the earnest solemnity of the covenant theological system and the covenant political system with which most of them were probably accustomed. The Separatists utilized covenants in their religious beliefs and practices, as mentioned previously.
Not only did they make a formal promise to each other through the “Covenant,” but they also pledged themselves to “Combine” with each other – to work together as one unit for the common good of all members of the diverse community, both Saints and Strangers.
The Mayflower Compact was not so named until 1793 – it was originally called the Plymouth Combination, reflecting the coming together of all individual members into one cohesive, collective, egalitarian unit.
The Mayflower Compact does not contain all the elements of a written constitution, such as fleshing out the form in which the new government will take shape. However, it forms the basis for such a government through their agreement “to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time.”
Thus, the Mayflower Compact was in effect a pre-constitutional agreement, as it expressly envisions that the members of the civil society will jointly create “Constitutions and Offices.”
“The Mayflower Compact reaffirmed one of the fundamental ideas of the Magna Carta; namely, that no political society could flourish without respect for the rule of law,” said Kim Holmes, executive vice president of The Heritage Foundation.
Body of Liberties
Next, in 1630, the Puritans used the royal charter establishing the Massachusetts Bay Company to create a government in which “freemen” – white males who owned property and paid taxes and thus could take on the responsibility of governing – elected a governor and a single legislative body called the Great and General Court, made up of assistants and deputies.
Conflicts arose over the arbitrariness of the assistants, and in 1641 the legislature created the Body of Liberties. This document was a statement of principles for governance that protected individual liberties and was the basis for the guarantees later expressed in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.
The Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first attempt in the colonies to restrain the power of the elected representatives by appealing to a fundamental document that lists the rights and duties of the people. The document, drafted and debated over several years, combined the early American covenanting tradition of the Mayflower Compact with an appeal to the common law tradition that crossed the Atlantic from Britain.
In 1644 this single body became an entity made up of two chambers: the House of Assistants (later the Senate) and the House of Deputies (later the House of Representatives). This set the precedent of bicameralism for most governmental legislatures in the United States, including the eventual federal legislature. (Britannica)
At first the right to vote was limited to the “chosen” – those whose religious background was thought to ensure salvation – but, after the original charter was revoked and a new one established in 1691, the franchise was extended to property owners and taxpayers. (Eventually, amendments granted all men and women the right to vote and hold office.)
The Body of Liberties is the first legal code established by European colonists in New England and was composed of a list of liberties, rather than restrictions, and intended for use as guidance for the General Court of the time.
This document is considered by many as the precursor to the General Laws of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Constitution. It incorporates rights that were later judged to be ahead of their time, with some of these rights eventually appearing in the Bill of Rights. Scholars do not agree as to whether these liberties were ever adopted, adopted provisionally or approved of by the General Court.
On December 10, 1641, the General Court established the hundred laws which were called the Body of Liberties. They “had been revised and altered by the [General] Court, and sent forth into every town to be further considered of, and now again in this [General] Court they were revised, amended, and presented.” (Mass-gov)
Click the following link to a general summary about the Body of Liberties: