Mayflower Compact sets bar for democracy

November 2020

If it weren’t for this awful virus, we would have spent this year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims on Cape Cod. The 102 people who left the Mayflower included 50 men, 19 women and 33 young adults and children. Just 41 were Pilgrims, religious separatists seeking freedom from the Church of England. The rest were merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants and orphaned children—the Pilgrims called them “strangers.”

They were supposed to have gone to New York, and settled besides the Hudson. The Hudson marked the northern end of the land controlled by the Virginia company, with whom the Pilgrims had signed a contract. But bad weather had driven them off course.

According to the History Channel, trouble began before they left the ship. The “strangers” felt that because they had not landed in Virginia, the contracts they had signed were no longer valid. They refused to recognize any rules since there was no official government over them. Pilgrim leader William Bradford later wrote, “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speech”. The response of the Pilgrims was a democratically reached agreement that produced a set of laws for self-rule: What came to be called The Mayflower Compact, a document that we deserves more attention because it became the base for western democracy. According: to historian Rebecca Fraser, the Compact “…was the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch.”

On November 11, 1620 (almost exactly 400 years ago), 41 adult male colonists, including two indentured servants, signed the Compact. Then they elected, by majority vote, John Carver as the group’s first governor.

The full text of The Mayflower Compact as far as we know. The original has disappeared.

The Mayflower Compact

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.

Four hundred years later, we’re still working on the question of majority governance. In most cases, a plurality of votes will do. In a multi-candidate race, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if the percentage of votes they collected is far less than half.

And in our presidential elections, the use of electors instead of the popular vote to elect the president means that, lately, half of our presidents are elected without a majority of the popular vote (Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, GW Bush, Trump). Even worse, five times in our history, and twice since 1992, the president has been elected (at least the first time) by a minority of voters!

I am a firm believer in majority rule, and I believe that the United States has much to do in this regard. We have the Bill of Rights to protect us from our government’s excesses.

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