On the day before Thanksgiving it’s worth looking at a document that has a close tie to the holiday: The Mayflower Compact. This was the 200-word statement that was put on paper while the Mayflower lay at anchor in Provincetown harbor after a long and difficult passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Compact, which was signed by all 41 adult males on board, has a relevance today, though not for some of the reasons that have been claimed.
For example some see in the Compact a precedent for the Constitution that emerged more than a century-and-a-half later and that, with amendments, still guides us. But one would be hard put to find much literal connection between the spare document of 1620 and the detailed diagram of self-governance of 1787.
And some argue that the Compact, by its very language, establishes the United States as a Christian nation; in that case, the statement’s words and circumstances would also certify the nation as forever a subject of the British monarchy, controlled only by males and given to appropriation of other people’s lands.
We see a different meaning to the nation in the historic statement that was signed aboard the Mayflower, particularly in light of our current state of affairs. Consider the actual language:
“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 meaning of those words that principally resonates today is this: We are all in the same boat.
More than a few passengers on the Mayflower were surprised by where they had landed, having expected to wind up a couple of hundred miles to the south, and they threatened to leave. The Compact formally bound them into a single community where they were, and reinforced the original ambition to establish a settlement together. Notable is the commitment to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick,” with emphasis on the word “civil.”
The history books spell out how hard and sometimes imperfect that commitment turned out to be. But a shared mission it was, despite individual differences or preferences, with everyone working together toward a common goal. A worthy Thanksgiving ideal.