Last year we went to visit my wife’s grandmother and extended family outside of Boston. We took a day to do something I have always wanted to do, visit Plymouth Massachusetts, and in our case it took on special significance because my wife’s family descends directly from the Mayflower, the Ashley and Whitman families.
I was terribly excited to visit Plymouth and while not disappointed I do remember feeling let down that the sign on Plymouth Rock goes to great lengths to remind you that it isn’t the actual rock but an approximation picked out some time later. Furthermore, you are reminded that the Mayflower was actually heading further south to the mouth of the Hudson River, it’s almost like a “hey they actually didn’t want to stay here but got stuck” account of the history. I could not understand why a town that sits on the most consequential rock in American history would want to downplay it.
I was very disappointed that little of the Mayflower Compact was enshrined in the accounts of the history on the monuments or on the tour of the Mayflower II. This is really quite an extraordinary piece of history, because the Mayflower Compact represents the first government “by the people, for the people” in the New World. This document established a governing body without specific authorization from Britain. Indeed the Compact was superseded by the 1621 Peirce Patent a mere year later, which established a government based on the explicit authority of the King of England.
John Quincy Adams later referred to the Mayflower Compact as the foundation for the U.S. Constitution, most likely a symbolic foundation as the Compact itself probably didn’t even exist in written form by the late 18th century. The Compact established a government of equal and fair laws, written by the very people who would be governed by them. It also established that covenants between man and God could not be infringed upon, which is interesting to think about because 156 years later the Declaration of Independence take the notion of inalienable rights that all men are born with, not granted by government to a whole new level and gives birth to a idea that later becomes a nation.
EDIT: actually, after reading this last sentence I decided that I need to restate it because the Declaration did not result in a nation, what the Declaration did was to firmly assert the Mayflower Covenant principle of unalienable rights which when later included in the Constitution became a nation. It’s important to recognize that American history is wrapped by two revolutionary ideas, the first being what the Mayflower Compact started, that truths exist between man and God and are irrevocable by government, and the second being that government exists to serve the people.
The Mayflower pilgrims in 1620 were not the first settlers in North America, but they were the most successful because they recognized the importance of forming a government and having a sense of “covenants between men” as the basis for laws. We all benefit from the Mayflower, even if the Rock is just a rock.