The Mayflower Compact

1. Mayflower 400 Citizenship Project: Plymouth 2020 Young People’s Compact legacy

The Mayflower 400 Citizenship Project is detailed on the website

The roots of the Citizenship Project in the Mayflower Compact become evident in the 48 frames in the ‘teacher resources’ power pointand the ‘Mayflower 400 Citizenship Project: The 2020 Compact: Making Rules to Live By’ notes.


The project takes its name from the ‘Mayflower Compact’ signed on the Mayflower by 41 of the male passengers in November 1620. The project is being billed as schools participating “in the democratic decision making process” through ‘Plymouth 2020 Young People’s Compact legacy’ events. Pupils ‘create their own Compact of nine statements’ as preparation for a ‘City Youth Council meeting on 19 March 19 2020’, where they ‘will vote in the overall top nine statements for our City Schools 2020 Compact’. ‘The Compact will be launched at an October 2020 event with representation from each participating school’


  1. The teaching about democracy and government through a Citizenship Project process of discussion and participation in city wide events may be a very fruitful mechanism. However, it has been decided to centre this teaching around the ‘Mayflower Compact’, and the fame of the Mayflower Compact is rooted in two distinct but interrelated times:

Firstly, the November 1620 circumstances on the Mayflower and  its arrival in what became New England. The compact document was a mechanism for uniting the two distinct groups on board. These were the group of English Puritan Separatists from Leiden and the ‘strangers’, the group selected by the Merchant Adventurers, who were the financial backers for the colonial expedition.

Secondly, the subsequent promotion of the compact as a pioneering democratic document, most notably by John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the USA in 1802.


  1. The conflation of the 400-year old context of the HISTORY of the Mayflower and the 200/250-year old context of the creation of the STORY of the Mayflower is the traditional one being followed by Mayflower 400. The Citizenship Project has been drawn up as part of this mixing of history and story and risks restricting and controlling what is remembered and discussed.


  1. The Mayflower colonists included indentured workers, not slaves, but they brought with them the justification for slavery. Trade links between the British Caribbean, e.g. the slave colony of Barbados, and the New England colonies were established very early in the 17thCentury. Also the first British colonial slavery law was passed in Massachusetts in 1641. You don’t need a slave law unless you have slaves.


  1. Military adviser, Myles Standish, hired by the Separatist section of the colonists is sometimes depicted in paintings of the signing of the Mayflower Compact. But these colonists hired a military adviser and brought cannon because they came as invaders expecting to fight the people they met.


  1. The extent of the democratic character and significance of the wording and details of the Mayflower Compact is debated by historian. However, the traditional assertion of the democratic nature of the Compact is rooted in the creation of the Mayflower Story with the establishment of Forefathers Day in 1769, a celebration which was revived in the 1790s in the by then independent USA.


  1. The British control of North American and the Caribbean from the early 17th Century during the colonial and Empire periods, and the period of expanding USA control of North America from 1783, are marked by a profound lack of democracy. Notable are the practices of land seizure, massacres, enslavement and forced de-Indigenisation education of First Nation peoples on the one hand, and slave trading, slavery, Jim Crow laws and institutionalised discrimination against African Americans and African Caribbeans on the other.


  1. Mayflower 400, have decided to construct a city wide schools project centred around the Mayflower Compact on “democratic decision making process”. It is incumbent on them to include the experiences and histories of all the peoples living in North American and the Caribbean from 1620. The Mayflower journey and the Mayflower Compact were bound up with colonialism. Any discussion of democratic association and the Mayflower Compact minus colonialism and slavery is highly misleading.


Reflections on some details of the Citizenship Project documents

The teaching guidance and resources documents set the framework and limits for this project. Most important is the absence of a historical and political context and explanation that includes slavery and the fact that the colonists were armed invaders.


Get involved document

A) “It [The Mayflower Compact] is widely believe (sic) to be the first document of self-government to exist in the USA.” 

Some would say the establishment of the Virginia Colony’s assembly in 1619 would be the first.

B) “a specific look at the Mayflower Compact and what it meant/why the settlers chose the points within it/ how it was agreed as well as the possible impact on the settlers and the indigenous people.” 

Where is the guidance about the impact on the Indigenous people? Does this “specific look at the Mayflower Compact” imply examining colonisation as involving invasion, land grabbing, enslavement, massacre, war and dramatic population decline? The answer, it seems, is no.

Notes document

Session 1:” Is there meant to be a connection made with the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda in 1609, often associated with Shakespeare’s play the Tempest?

C) “Some Background to help:” The background provided – including that sign posted in the Mayflower scheme of work – is debatable, e.g. “Not only self-rule, but representative government had taken root on American soil.”

D) The ‘Notes’ do not indicate that students will question the reasons why British Colonists and their sponsors believed it was justifiable to use force to establish colonies in North America and the Caribbean in the early 17th Century.

E) Colonisation and slavery had a very direct connection with the kind of society that was planned, created and regulated by British colonists in North America. There is no suggestion in the ‘Notes’ that students will be encouraged to consider this important historical background to the Mayflower journey. For example, European colonisation of the Americas had been happening since the late 15th Century and was known to involve land grabbing, massacres and slavery. European slaving in Africa had started in the 15thCentury and was an established part of international trade and colonisation by 1620. British involvement had started in these colonisation processes in the late 16thCentury.


Teacher resources Power Point

F) Frames 10 to 23 and 31 and 33 refer to the Mayflower Compact. Though they are to be used in a teaching situation ostensibly about an agreement between colonists, they do not attempt to provide background or initiate discussion of colonialism. The in-class preparation as outlined excludes the colonial context of the Mayflower Compact, and by implication, sanitises the settlement and the journey’s colonial purpose.




2. Comment on the ‘Mayflower Compact’

Not only are the 1620 events at present being presented in a highly selective and de-contextualised way, the interpretation of events is very controversial. For example, the ‘Mayflower Compact’ is being offered as a precursor to the creation of the ‘Constitution of the USA’, drafted at the end of the 18th century, and the journey of the Mayflower passengers is being presented as an act of refugees fleeing religious persecution. While neither of these propositions is wholly without foundation, such simplification is highly misleading, and is bound up with an interpretation of the histories of the British Isles and the USA which neglects colonialism, slavery and genocide.


The Mayflower Compact was signed by 41 of the male passengers on the ship on the morning of landing in Provincetown Harbour 11th November 1620 (all the women and nine men passengers did not sign). Though of historical importance subsequently, at the time of signing, the compact document was a mechanism for uniting the two distinct groups on board: the formally Leiden based Puritan Separatists and the ‘strangers’. This second group had been selected by the Merchant Adventurers, who were the financial backers for the colonial expedition. The compact did not propose a form of local government that did not exist in England (Philbrick, 2007, p.41). Rather it was a formal and binding contract that bound the colonists to abide by the laws drawn up by their officials.


One other early compact, the Massachusetts Bay Compact 1630, showed on its badge an Indigenous American saying the words “come over and help us”, and was designed prior to the embarkation of this much larger wave of Puritan colonists. In the course of the next 10 years the 1,000 colonists who had arrived in 1630 were joined in the various New England territories by several thousand more. Together these New England colonists set a pattern for future English colonisation in North America, by conducting a war with the Pequot people, enslaving Indigenous captives, and, in Massachusetts in 1641, enacting the first slave law in North America.

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