Mayflower Compact ≠ democracy

Criticising the Mayflower 400 Citizenship Project

The ‘Plymouth 2020 Young People’s Compact legacy’ 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 through a series of events “in the democratic decision making process”. 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’.


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’, which significantly changes its character as 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 warding off ‘mutiny’ and uniting the two distinct groups on board. These were the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, 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 controversial promotion of the compact as a pioneering democratic document written by the Pilgrim Fathers* (most notably by John Quincy Adams in 1802, who subsequently became the 6th President of the USA). The agreement on the Mayflower in November 1620 was rebranded and renamed ‘Mayflower Compact’ in the 1790s, and was largely forgotten  until 1791. Then Founding Father James Wilson unearthed this covenant to give a famous lecture justifying the new US constitution and attack the anti-Federalists in the new US government. So the re-branded ‘Mayflower Compact’ that’s being taught about in 2020 in Plymouth’s schools uses the story created by the Federalists wing’s Interpretation of the agreement. Interpretations differed both back in the early days of the USA as part of factional political division, and have continued to be the subject of controversy since amongst historians. #

The traditional conflation of the 400-year old context of the HISTORY of the Mayflower and the 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. While the extent of the democratic character and significance of the wording and details of the Mayflower Compact for the colonising signatories is debated by historians, controversy and context have been ignored. The traditional assertion of the democratic nature of the agreement 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 independent USA at the time of the Federalist/anti-Federalist dispute and conflict. In 1802, when the speech promoted by Mayflower 400 of John Quincy Adams was delivered, anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson was president. In the course of his presidency 32 treaties were imposed on various eastern Indigenous Nations to take some 200,000 square miles of territory for speculators, small farmers, and slave owners.

The Mayflower colonists included indentured workers, not slaves, but slavery was a well-known practice in the Americas. Trade links between the British Caribbean, e.g. the slave colony of Barbados, and the New England colonies were established very early in the 17th Century. Also the first British colonial slavery law was passed in Massachusetts in 1641. You don’t need a slave law unless you have slaves – the slaves in question being Indigenous Americans.

Military adviser, Myles Standish, hired by the Separatist section of the colonists is sometimes depicted in paintings of the signing of the Mayflower Compact. What is omitted is that these colonists hired a military adviser and brought cannon because they came as invaders.

Initially there was large scale sickness and deaths among the Mayflower passengers.  Also there was reluctance by the Indigenous Nation in the New Plymouth area they landed to forcibly expel the passengers due to a devistating 90% drop in population caused by disease in the period immediately prior to the landing. However, this does not mean that the colonists were not invading someones territory and taking land for their settlement. The settlers did not doubt their right to designate an area as theirs, erect buildings and engage in using the land without reference to the people already living in the area. Indeed, this was their intention as it had been the practice of the British colonist to North America who proceeded them. This land seizure should be as much a key issue as the Mayflower Compact for students when directed to discuss democratic association of this colonial incursion.


The British expanded territorial control in North American and increased the number of islands it claimed in the Caribbean from its three centres in the early 17th Century. During the colonial and Empire periods, the British colonies and the USA, from the period of US expanding  control of North America from 1783, were marked by a profound lack of democracy. Notable in the case of the USA from the time of the rebranding of the Mayflower Compact, are the practices of land seizure, massacres, enslavement, and subsequently, forced de-Indigenisation education of First Nation peoples. For African Americans were the continuation of slave trading, slavery, and subsequently, Jim Crow laws and institutionalised discrimination.


Mayflower 400, have decided to construct a Plymouth city wide schools project centred around the Mayflower Compact on “democratic decision making process”. It is incumbent on them to include the contextualising experiences and histories of all the peoples living in British controlled North American and the Caribbean in the 17th Century period. 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.


Citizenship Project documents

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 point and the ‘Mayflower 400 Citizenship Project: The 2020 Compact: Making Rules to Live By’ notes.


The teaching guidance and resources documents set the framework and limits for this project. On the one hand is the absence of a historical and political context which includes colonial invasion and slavery. On the other is promotion of a view about the form of government and its democratic character that the Compact is held to both represent and herald.


The ‘Get involved’ document states that “It [The Mayflower Compactis widely believe (sic) to be the first document of self-government to exist in the USA.” In the “Some Background to help” section of the“Notes” document it is further asserted that By 1639, deputies were sent to represent each town at the other General Court sessions. Not only self-rule, but representative government had taken root on American soil.”  However, though the ‘Get involved’ document says that students will look at “the possible impact on the settlers and the indigenous people” of the Mayflower Compact, there is no guidance about the colonists impact on the Indigenous people of the ‘New England’ region, or their resistance to the colonial incursions.


Examination of the details of the early government of the New England colonies would require consideration of land acquisition by the colonist at the expense of the regional Indigenous Nations. Moreover, study would be required of the use of the courts in New England and, from 1636 onwards, war and the threat of war, as part of both land acquisition and enslavement. 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.


Land acquisition and slavery had a very direct connection with the kind of society that was planned, created and regulated by British colonists and their backers 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.


Power Point: Slides 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 thereby sanitises the journey’s colonial and undemocratic purpose.

#  98 Sargent, Mark L. (1988), “The Conservative Covenant: The Rise of the Mayflower Compact in American Myth”, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 233-251

# 98 Green, Steven K. (2015), “Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding”, Oxford, Oxford University Press


* “Finally, as the first written constitution in the New World, the Mayflower Compact laid the foundations for two other revolutionary documents: the Declaration of Independence, which stated that governments derive their powers “from the consent of the governed,” and the Constitution.”

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