In November 1620, after a stormy, two-month Atlantic voyage, the Pilgrims reached the coast of what is now Massachusetts. When they realized they had blown north of the region in which they had contracted to settle, some of the colonists announced they no longer felt bound by any legal authority, and that “none had power to command them.” The Pilgrim leaders quickly solved the problem with a new contract.
On November 21 (November 11, by the Old Style calendar), as the Mayflower lay at anchor off Cape Cod, the settlers drew up an agreement to live together peacefully. They pledged 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.” After writing out the compact, forty-one adult males signed it, and then the signers agreed that John Carver would be their governor.
In essence, the Mayflower Compact was an agreement for self-government. It was not a forced bargain among unequals, such as a monarch and his subjects, or a lord and his vassals. Rather, it was a social contract between pioneers with a common purpose. Here was a group of people capable of forging a new society in a New World. In the coming years, as Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote, “they met and consulted of laws and orders, both for their civil and military government as the necessity of their condition did require.” Throughout the infant American colonies, settlers gained practice in something very rare for that time: government of the people and by the people.