The Mayflower Compact of 1620

Embarkation of the Pilgrims from the Mayflower
Public Domain / Brooklyn Museum

The Mayflower Compact is often cited as one of the foundations of the U.S. Constitution. This document was the initial governing document for the Plymouth Colony. It was signed on November 11, 1620, while the settlers were still aboard the Mayflower before they disembarked at Provincetown Harbor. However, the story of the creation of the Mayflower Compact begins with the Pilgrims in England.

Who the Pilgrims Were

Pilgrims were separatists from the Anglican Church in England. They were Protestants who did not recognize the authority of the Anglican Church and formed their own Puritan church. To escape persecution and potential imprisonment, they fled England for Holland in 1607 and settled in the town of Leiden. Here they lived for 11 or 12 years before deciding to create their own colony in the New World. To raise money for the enterprise, they received a land patent from the Virginia Company and created their own joint-stock company. The Pilgrims returned to Southampton in England before sailing for the New World.

Aboard the Mayflower

The Pilgrims left aboard their ship, the Mayflower, in 1620. There were 102 men, women, and children aboard as well as some non-puritan settlers, including John Alden and Miles Standish. The ship was headed for Virginia but got blown off course, so the Pilgrims decided to found their colony in Cape Cod in what would later become the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They called the colony Plymouth after the harbor in England from which they departed for the New World.

Since the new location for their colony was outside the areas claimed by the two chartered joint-stock companies, the Pilgrims considered themselves independent and created their own government under the Mayflower Compact.

Creating the Mayflower Compact

In basic terms, the Mayflower Compact was a social contract whereby the 41men who signed it agreed to abide by the rules and regulations of the new government in order to ensure civil order and their own survival.

Having been forced by storms to anchor off the coast of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, rather than the intended destination of the Colony of Virginia, many of the Pilgrims felt it unwise to continue with their stores of food quickly running out.

Coming to grips with the reality that they would not be able to settle in the contractually-agreed-to Virginia territory, they “would use their own liberty; for none had the power to command them.”

To accomplish this, the Pilgrims voted to establish their own government in the form of the Mayflower Compact. Having lived in the Dutch Republic city of Leiden before beginning their journey, the Pilgrims considered the Compact to be similar to the civil covenant that had served as the basis for their congregation in Leiden.

In creating the Compact, the Pilgrim leaders drew from the “majoritarian model” of government, which assumes that women and children cannot vote, and their allegiance to the King of England.

Unfortunately, the original Mayflower Compact document has been lost. However, William Bradford included a transcription of the document in his book, "Of Plymouth Plantation." In part, his transcription states:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these present 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, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.


The Mayflower Compact was the foundational document for the Plymouth Colony. It was a covenant whereby the settlers subordinated their rights to follow laws passed by the government to ensure protection and survival. 

In 1802, John Quincy Adams called the Mayflower Compact “the only instance in human history of that positive, original, social compact.” Today, it is generally accepted as having influenced the nation’s Founding Fathers as they created the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

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Kelly, Martin. "The Mayflower Compact of 1620." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). The Mayflower Compact of 1620. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Mayflower Compact of 1620." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).