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Mayflower, Day by Day - Saturday, 21 November 1620

21 Nov 2020 2:44 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Comes in with light, fair wind.  Signing of the Mayflower Compact 

[This is a long post -- you may want to get a really hot cup of tea.]

There is good reason to believe that “sickness” would not have prevented the obtaining of the signatures (by “mark,” if need be, since it is probable that some were illiterate) of the nine men who did not subscribe, if they were considered eligible.  Two whom we know did not sign were Ely and William Trevor (Ely -- whose first name is unknown -- returned to England before 1623, because he is not included in the 1623 division of land, and William Trevor returned to England in 1621 on the Fortune).  The fact seems rather to be that age—not social status—was the primary determining factor as to those eligible. 

If the intention to land south of the 41st parallel had persisted, there would have been no occasion for the Compact, as the patent from the London Virginia Company would have been in force.  The Compact became a necessity, therefore, only when they turned northward to make settlement above 41° N. latitude.  Hence it is plain that no opportunity for “faction”—and so no occasion for any “Association and Agreement”—existed till the Mayflower turned late yesterday afternoon.  The Compact was not drawn up and presented for signature until Saturday morning.  Bradford’s language,“This day, before we came into harbour,” leaves no room for doubt that it was rather hurriedly drafted—and also signed—before noon today. That they had time on this winter Saturday—hardly three weeks from the shortest day in the year—to reach and encircle the harbour; secure anchorage; get out boats; arm, equip, and land two companies of men; make a considerable march inland; cut firewood; and get all aboard again, indicates that they must have made the harbour not far from noon.  These facts also correct another common and current error of traditional Pilgrim history, that the Compact was signed “in the harbour of Cape Cod.”  The instrument itself simply says, “Cape Cod,” not “Cape Cod harbour” (writers add “harbour” specifically to later descriptions of actions, but not here).  The leaders clearly did not mean to drop anchor until there was a form of law and authority.

Five short comments, in order not to drag this out too long:

1. The original copy of the Mayflower Compact, with the signatures, has been lost.  A copy was made in Bradford's handwritten journal, Of Plimoth Plantation, about 1630 (and now in the State Library of Massachusetts).  Reproductions with “original” signatures at the bottom are the result of later “cut and paste” activity from other sources.

2. The text was first published in London in 1622 in A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceeding of the English Plantation Settled at Plymouth in New England.   Nathaniel Morton, secretary for Plymouth Colony, published it in 1669, along with the earliest known list of the signers, in his history, New England's Memorial.  The Mayflower Compact was an attempt to establish a temporary but binding form of control until such time as they could get formal permission from England.  This formal permission came in the form of the Pierce Patent of 1621, which superseded the Compact.

3. The Compact was signed on 11 November (old style), which is in our current calendar 21 November.  Today is thus the 400th anniversary of the signing of the Mayflower Compact, and not 11 November (which would be 399 years and 354 days afterwards), the GSMD press release and the angry protestations of Richard Pickering from Plimoth Plantation to the contrary notwithstanding.  Both of them really should know better.

4. Most of the language of the Compact is taken verbatim from John Calvin’s Sermons (1 Sam. 11: 6–10) and Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.11.1; 4.20.2–3), both of which existed in English translations in the early seventeenth century and were undoubtedly well known to the passengers.  Note also that “civil” (as in “civil body politick”) was normally used in this period as distinct from “ecclesiastical” (on the one hand) and “military” (on the other hand).  “civil” was not used to mean “secular,” a concept which did not yet exist in its modern form.  Ecclesiastical and military organisation were the only two other forms which could provide authority and control, because the passengers were outside of the reach of government: since there were no clergy on the Mayflower, and they were not organised in a military unit, mutual agreement, particularly one which had religious roots and language, would be the only way to preserve order.

5. There is no reason to believe that those who drafted either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States based it on the Mayflower Compact.  The Compact itself, as well as Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, had disappeared by the late eighteenth century (with Bradford’s book reappearing in the nineteenth century, after both the Declaration and the Constitution had been written).  The Compact is not referenced in either document, either by name or by quotation (or even paraphrase).  The connection with these documents can be traced to Daniel Webster’s famous address on Forefathers’ Day in 1820 -- passages from which were memorised by schoolchildren for generations -- but two hundred years after the Compact, and over 40 years after the Declaration of Independence.  To see how views of the Mayflower Compact have changed, frequently radically, over the last four hundred years, see John Seelye, Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) -- this long and detailed work shows that statements about the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Rock, and the Pilgrims almost always and inevitably say more about the speakers and their times than they do about the events of 1620. 

In other events of this day:

John Carver was “confirmed” as governor -- the use of that term suggests that he had been elected previously, probably in Plymouth before departure from England, and once the Compact was signed that choice was re-affirmed.

The Mayflower bore up for the Cape, and by short tacks made the Cape [Paomet, now Provincetown] Harbour, coming to an anchorage a furlong within the point.  The bay was so circular that before coming to anchor, the ship boxed the compass [i.e., went clear around all points of it].  The ship let go anchors three quarters of a mile off shore, because of shallow water, 67 days from Plymouth (England), 81 days from Dartmouth, 99 days from Southampton, and 120 days (four months!) from London.  Got out the long-boat and set ashore an armed party of fifteen or sixteen in armour, and some to fetch wood (having none left), landing them on the long point toward the sea.  Those going ashore were forced to wade a bow-shot or two in getting to dry land.  The party sent ashore returned at night, having seen no person or habitation, and having filled the boat with juniper wood.

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