Bradford: The First Constitution of the New World

Bradford, Plymouth and The Mayflower Compact

Bradford, Plymouth and The Mayflower Compact

Preface:  William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth colony, and his famous and moving diary, a History of Plymouth Plantation, one of the great works of New England literature, will be drawn on heavily in this article.

Bradford, The Pilgrims of Plymouth and the First Constitutional Government in the New World

Bradford was not only a gifted writer, he would also become one of the heroic pioneers of Western history, laying the cornerstones that made possible the building of the American Republic.

On August 5, 1620, the Pilgrims set sail, encountering, according to Bradford, “many fierce storms in which the ship was soundly shaken.” Amazingly, only two died on the voyage, one of a mysterious illness and the other of scurvy. After seven weeks, and “a long beating at sea,” the ship arrived on November 9, 1620, at Cape Cod. They had been blown by a severe storm 300 miles north of their intended destination, which was Virginia. They sailed up and down the rocky coast for two days, finally returning to the Cape as the most suitable place to drop anchor.

No Governing Authority

The Importance of Establishing Friendly Relationships with Neighbors

But the Mayflower’s passengers were faced with a new problem: by choosing to settle outside the Virginia boundary, they no longer had any governing authority and no rule of law.  Their patent (government authority) was no longer valid. Thus, as one passenger pointed out, the ship was under no one’s jurisdiction. They were without a sovereign, and were therefore subject to no formal legal or social arrangements whatsoever. Without a government, to use John Locke’s term, they were in “a state of nature.” And a number of the non-Pilgrim men began behaving as one might expect men to behave in a state of nature. Rebellion stirred in the bowels of the ship, and the Pilgrim leadership had to act quickly in order to avoid mutiny, which quite clearly would doom the expedition. As Bradford described it, the Pilgrims huddled together amongst themselves and drew up an agreement, a sacred “covenant,” making them a “civil body politic” and promising “just and equal laws.”

That the decision to form such a compact was so instinctive for the Pilgrims is noteworthy. It was a natural outgrowth of the covenantal nature of their Scrooby congregation (This was the name for their congregation based on their former location of Scrooby in England). The Scrooby congregation was formed by people coming together voluntarily for a common purpose, which in England and Holland had been to live in strict adherence to the letter of Scripture. But on the Mayflower, an additional covenant was needed to form a legitimate government, necessary for their individual protection, as well as to make possible the emergence on virgin territory of civilized society.

The Mayflower Compact is Born

“Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and the advancement 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 the presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of 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…”

This became known as the Mayflower Compact, and is a pivotal document in the development of constitutional government in America. John Carver, who Bradford said was “a man godly and well approved amongst them,” was elected governor “for that year.”

Thwarting A Theory

The signing of the Mayflower Compact by almost all of the men on the voyage disproves the impression left by many historians that the “social compact” was an idea of the Enlightenment, invented by John Locke at the time of the Glorious Revolution in England 68 years hence. Now Locke is perhaps the single most important thinker in the codification of American constitutional philosophy; Thomas Jefferson and the founders relied heavily on him for their views on the proper role of the state. But it is very important to understand the correct sequence of events — if for no other reason than to understand Locke.

The Spiritual Power Behind the Mayflower Compact

The non-Pilgrims, by contrast, were confused and anarchic, apparently helpless without a human authority handing down orders. Absent the strong influence of men such as Brewster, Carver, and Bradford, the Mayflower adventurers and thrill-seekers, less firm in their biblical convictions, would have been on the road to very rapid demise. The Virginia settlement of 1609 failed largely because the spiritual bond between the people was weak; there was little sense of mission in Jamestown drawing the people together in contrast to the Plymouth expedition. That a social covenant, such as the one drawn up by the Pilgrims, could have worked if they had not been an intensely religious people is doubtful. For without God as overseer, always tugging at the strings of conscience, the Mayflower Compact would have been nothing more than a scrap of paper. There was, after all, no real legal redress available against those who decided to violate the agreement.

The Mayflower Compact Helped Inspire the U. S. Constitution

Similarly, the U.S. Constitution has worked because there has been a sacred aura surrounding the document; it has been something more than a legal contract; it was a covenant, an oath before God, very much related to the covenant the Pilgrims signed. Indeed, when the President takes his oath of office he places his hand on a Bible and swears before Almighty God to uphold the Constitution of the United States. He makes a sacred promise; and the same holds true for Supreme Court justices who take an oath to follow the letter of the written Constitution. The moment America’s leaders begin treating the Constitution as though it were a mere sheet of paper is the moment the American Republic — or American Covenant— ends. The American people are bound together by an oath; an oath between the people to form a government of ‘ and equal laws” under God. When that oath is violated, the bond, too, is dissolved is the grave danger our nation faces today.

Survival Under Bradford’s Leadership

A sacred bond, both spiritual and actual (as written on paper), enabled the Plymouth settlement to survive the first winter, for which, having arrived in November, they had little time to prepare. The task before them when they first set foot on that “wild and savage hue” was frightening to the sojourners, and the obstacles must have appeared almost insurmountable. As Bradford described their lonely situation, the Pilgrims had “no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies, no houses to repair to.” And as he turned to look whence they came he saw only “the mighty ocean which they had passed,” which “was now a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. . What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His Grace?” But, said Bradford in a more cheerful tone, they also had much to be thankful for: “Being thus arrived in good harbor, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over this vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.”

Ordinary Men in Extraordinary Times

What comes through in these lines by Bradford is the human qualities and emotions these Pilgrims had. They were not supermen. Bradford’s diary is an account of very ordinary people who, without their unflinching faith that God was looking after them, could never have accomplished such a feat. Often they doubted their own abilities. But not once does Bradford allude to any instance in which the Pilgrims doubted, even for a moment, God’s commitment to them, His covenant, His promise to make certain their work would bear fruit, and to see their enterprise through the terrible tribulations that awaited.

Excerpt from Bradford’s Historic Notes

The Pilgrims were absolutely certain that God would not abandon them, and that all hardships and all disasters they would have to confront somehow fit His divine plan. They were there on a mission—on God’s errand into the wilderness. They were the new children of Israel, spiritual descendants of Abraham, sent by the winds of Providence into a desolate waste land, just as Moses and the Jews were sent for 40 years into the desert. But the faith of Brewster, Carver, Bradford, and their Pilgrim brethren, that indeed their ordeal would serve a purpose, was very definitely the source of their power to begin the awesome task of building the United States of America—a fact that should cause even the atheist to marvel.


The Famous Writing:  Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation”…link:

Clay Blanche
About Clay Blanche 5 Articles
About this Author: Clay Blanche is a 65 year old Constitutional scholar, stanch Conservative, and Historian from Waco Texas. He has actively promoted Conservative ideology, Constitutionalism, and the rule of law for the past 38 years. Many of you know him as The Conservative Minuteman, his popular page on Facebook.

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