The Mayflower Colonists: American Before It Was A Thing
Nobody really knows precisely when the original feast we now call “Thanksgiving” took place between the Pilgrims, other European settlers in their company, and the Wampanoag Indians of the region…
But we know it was a celebration of the struggling Plymouth Colony’s first harvest in the fall of 1621, more or less a year after the Mayflower reached the Massachusetts coast. We also know that this bountiful harvest would not have been possible without the help and guidance of the Wampanoag, and that the festivities marking it were not a regular annual event thereafter.
That’s one of the reasons why its anniversary was not celebrated in much of this country for over 240 years — until President Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863, smack in the middle of the Civil War.
But I digress. This article isn’t intended to be a history lesson about the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday, at least not primarily. My point with this piece is to cast a spotlight on the uniquely American traits that I believe made that original feast of thanks-giving possible in the first place…
And to protest the travesty that these traits — when they’re not being actively suppressed and marginalized — are being lost and forgotten a little bit more in this country, it seems, with every passing year.
That’s a big mistake. Because without these traits, America as we know it would not exist.
The forgotten significance of America’s “first constitution”
Next year will mark the 400th anniversary of the Thanksgiving feast between the Plymouth colonists and their Indian allies — and yes, they were allies, by treaty. You can look it up.
Yet that historic shindig never would’ve happened without another lesser-known occurrence that’s much more important to our nation. And that event happened four centuries ago this month, in 1620…
I’m talking about the signing of the Mayflower Compact.
Some scholars call this document “America’s first constitution,” and rightly so. It was the first written codification of self-government put into action in the New World. The text of the Mayflower Compact itself is remarkably spare — yet it touches on several of the main principles that would eventually come to define this country.
Here is the whole document, minus the signatures:
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
“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 England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.
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 of 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 to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, 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 Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.”
The Mayflower Compact 1620, by J.L.G. Ferris
See? The whole thing is only 203 words.
Yet within them, we see the saplings of some of the foundational timbers that hold up our great republic to this day.
There’s a mutual pledge by a diverse group of individuals — more than half of the Mayflower colonists actually weren’t Pilgrims — to band together into one “civil Body Politick” dedicated to order, survival, the colony’s success, and to one another…
Sounds a little like “We, the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union,” doesn’t it? And the closing words of the Declaration of Independence, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The Compact also stipulates the creation of a system of “just and equal Laws” and other structural elements (including constitutions, ironically) for the protection of everyone in the colony, without prejudice or preference, and by their own free will…
I hear echoes of that in the Constitution’s “establish Justice and ensure domestic Tranquility” clause, in the Declaration’s self-evident truth that all of us are created equally, and in its passage about how governments derive “their Just powers from the consent of the governed.”
But perhaps most importantly — especially now, in the middle of a killer pandemic…
The Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution all contain an unmistakable thread of dedication to the common (or public) good. That’s a crucial part of the American ethos, and it’s never been more important than right now.
We can rely on the government for help, but the ultimate responsibility to “promote the general Welfare” in times of crisis depends on us, as individuals, to put the interests of our country, and our countrymen, ahead of our own.
Again, though, I digress…
I was about to make a point about that “American ethos,” and how it’s apparent in the Mayflower Compact — even though that document was written by loyal British subjects, and long before there was such a thing as America.
The American ethos is born — 151 years before America
Google “ethos” and you’ll get this definition up top: The characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.
Now I’m no historian, but I think it’s pretty clear from our founding documents — and in the actions of our founders and their forebears — that the American ethos revolves around two core traits: The belief in self-governance and the desire for self-determination. To work properly, both of these things require freedom. And altogether, they balance the rights of individuals with the needs of the collective.
But there’s another trait that goes into this “American” stew as well…
The perseverance to see things through and make them work, no matter the cost.
In a nutshell: The right and freedom to govern ourselves and make our own fortunes — coupled with the will to do both of these things better every day, or die trying. That’s the American ethos, if you ask me.
And I truly believe that this is almost as starkly illustrated in the Mayflower Compact and the actions of the Plymouth Colony as anything having to do with the American Revolution and our official founding a century and a half later.
First off, that’s because the Pilgrims (Puritan Separatists, really) and others in their company were willing to risk everything for freedom, including their lives. Some for freedom of religion — others no doubt for the freedom to make their own way or profit by their own industry in a new land, free from excessive taxes and restrictions.
And secondly, because the ragtag company aboard the Mayflower were all clearly of a gritty, tenacious sort with the will to improvise, adapt, and overcome, to borrow the unofficial motto of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Mayflower Compact itself is a perfect embodiment of this spirit. It was created on the fly, and under desperate duress…
The problem was that the territorial claim granted by the Virginia Company of London — a capitalist enterprise — gave the Pilgrims the right to settle in the area of modern-day New York City, near the mouth of the Hudson River. But where they ended up after two months at sea was in modern-day Provincetown Harbor, over 200 miles farther north.
This created a dilemma, and damn near a mutiny, especially among the non-Pilgrims in the bunch. Their argument was that since they’d hit land well outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, all bets were off, basically. The Mayflower Compact solved this problem, avoided chaotic anarchy, and ensured the survival of the colony in the unsettled territory they found themselves occupying.
The Compact was the New World’s first true expression of self-government — adopted by a group of people who were all bent on self-determination of one kind or another, and who had the gumption to see it through, come hell or high water.
Without the Mayflower Compact, and the American traits that formed its foundation…
There would never have been that first thanks-giving celebration. The colonists could’ve just turned around and sailed home, either immediately or in the spring. But they didn’t. Despite losing approximately half their numbers (including most of the women) in that first brutal winter, they improvised, adapted, overcame — and prospered, against all odds.
To me, that all sounds awfully American in spirit.
So where are the quadricentennial celebrations for all this, you’re wondering?
They’re casualties of political correctness, liberal self-loathing, and historical revisionism.
The 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival and their Mayflower Compact has come and gone this fall with barely a ripple in the mainstream media. That’s because they’re a bunch of leftists — and in the communal mind everyone on The Left seems to share these days, the landing of the Mayflower foreshadows the injustice of an evil America to come…
A country they hate to its core, even though it has given them everything to be thankful for.
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder