If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed…to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. — William Bradford
The first document of self government was written in 1620 by the male passengers of the Mayflower. It is known today as the Mayflower Compact, but was known at the time only as “an association and agreement”.
In the original:
In ye name of God Amen· We whose names are vnderwriten, the loyall subjects of our dread soueraigne Lord King James by ye grace of God, of great Britaine, franc, & Ireland king, defender of ye faith, &c
Haueing vndertaken, for ye glorie of God, and aduancemente of ye christian ^faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye Northerne parts of Virginia· doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in ye presence of God, and one of another, couenant, & combine our selues togeather into a ciuill body politick; for ye our better ordering, & preseruation & furtherance of ye ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof, to enacte, constitute, and frame shuch just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & conuenient for ye generall good of ye colonie: vnto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witnes wherof we haue herevnder subscribed our names at Cape
Codd ye ·11· of Nouember, in ye year of ye raigne of our soueraigne Lord king James of England, france, & Ireland ye eighteenth and of Scotland ye fiftie fourth. Ano: Dom ·1620·
In modern American English:
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, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour 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 Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, 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 eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.
Notice that the king is such “by the grace of God” and that they write “in the name of God”. They undertook the trip “for the glory of God”, “the Advancement of the Christian faith”, and “the honor of the king”. They make the agreement “in the presence of God” as well as each other.
Notice also that it is a “civil body politic” not a religious order. This does not mean that religion was not important, it was because it governed their personal lives and consciences. However, not all of the men were part of the church, but they would be part of the community. The Saints (the people we call pilgrims) were Congregationalists and believed that God governed them individually, not corporately, as this would keep the people in the most direct relationship to God.
Additionally, they would “enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony;”. The government would not make rules for everything and would not be a constant presence in the lives of the people. The people were expected to be self-governed, which means responsible for their own behavior. [Self government and self-government are not the same thing. The first means that people have a voice in their community government, the second means they have self-control and bear personal responsibility for their actions.]
The phrase continues: “unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.” This means submission and obedience was DUE (that is owed or deserved) to those laws that are just and equal, and “most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony”. Just and equal are self-explanatory. General good means for EVERY person in the colony, not just some. The phrase meet (adj. from the Greek meaning “suitable, fitting) and convenient (the archaic meaning of “proper” not the modern meaning of easy or nearby) has the same meaning as “necessary and proper” that appears in the Constitution. The AND is important in that the laws must meet two requirements, not just one. A law might be thought suitable or fitting by some, but not be in the proper purview of the government. The law might be in the purview of the government, but not be suitable because it can be handled in some other way. The implication of the word due (which will be repeated in future documents) is that only laws that are “just, equally applied, and both necessary and proper” deserve to be obeyed. This is well supported in scripture such as in the book of Daniel and also in the lives of the Apostles, who “obeyed God rather than men”. However, it was not license to disobey a law that was simply disagreed with, nor did it mean there would be no consequences. When the people in the Bible disobeyed human laws they were still subject to the authorities and took their punishment, which may or may not have been mitigated by God’s intervention. This is what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. These words of Jesus should govern the actions of all: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matt 22:35-40
To summarize: this document clearly contains the idea of divine authority vested in a king and respect and reverence for that authority. However, there is the reminder that justice will play a part in whether or not obedience is deserved.