The Mayflower Compact’s Foundation for Liberty
400 years ago this week, the Pilgrims at Plymouth signed a lasting document.
This week marks a historic but increasingly underappreciated event in American history: the signing of the Mayflower Compact some 400 years ago. The Compact contains fewer than 200 words, but the power of those words established the important precepts of religious liberty that many of us take for granted today.
Time was when every boy and girl knew the inspirational story of the Pilgrims and this quintessential American document, and we celebrated it as part of the fabric of our civilization. Unfortunately, if today’s students have even heard of the Mayflower, it’s likely a revisionist telling that leaves young people wishing the Puritans hadn’t come to the New World at all.
“This once well-known story barely stirs a connection with Thanksgiving — much less with America’s earliest foundations of civil and religious liberty,” writes missionary Chris Lascellas. “Compounding the problem, the pandemic of 2020 has cancelled public celebrations that would have put a spotlight on this pivotal moment in history.”
When we imagine more than a hundred people spending more than two months aboard a single wooden ship, crossing the stormy Atlantic, lacking warm clothing and food, susceptible to disease, and discovering a desolate, cold wilderness when they arrived, we can also imagine how important freedom of worship must have been to them.
While this first iteration of freedom was imperfect, the idea that people could voluntarily come together and form a social compact for the good of everyone laid the cornerstone of our American civilization. Today, the Pilgrims would instantly recognize the threat to Liberty posed by authoritarian COVID-19 mandates and by the criminalization of people gathering to worship or to simply discuss public affairs. It’s precisely this type of governance-by-fiat they sought freedom from in the New World.
“The Mayflower passengers decided that their freedom and security would not depend upon an all-powerful Leviathan,” writes The Heritage Foundation’s Joseph Loconte. “It would depend upon their ability to govern themselves, to submit to laws that they themselves had written. The Mayflower Compact, signed on November 11, 1620, broke ranks with English political theory and practice, in which unelected monarchs issued decrees and ruled by divine right.”
Four-hundred years later, our religious and civil liberties are in the crosshairs of a government growing ever more like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and further away from the ideals of our Founders. As Loconte adds, “The Pilgrims introduced into the West an unprecedented experiment in consensual government, involving not a monarch but individuals acting on their own initiative.”
To students of the historically inaccurate 1619 Project, this may seem hard to believe, but the ideals in both the Mayflower Compact and later the Declaration of Independence are wholly incompatible with the idea of one human being ruling over others without their consent.
Indeed, the abolition of slavery in the West may not have occurred without this important development in political philosophy, and we certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed these centuries of religious liberty now being threatened by modern-day Leviathans on the Left.
In classrooms across America, our children no longer learn about the Mayflower Compact. Instead, they’re told that America is an oppressor and an irredeemably racist regime that can be cured only by abandoning the principles that made this country a beacon of hope around the world.
This brings us to a crossroads in the 21st century: Either we follow the beliefs of the 1619 Project, or we rediscover those of the 1620 Mayflower Compact. To those who believe in the freedoms of speech, religion, equality, and self-governance, the choice couldn’t be more clear.
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