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The Mayflower Compact turns 400

An imperfect founding document still holds lessons for a divided nation.

A copy of the Mayflower Compact is posted on the entrance to the Mayflower II, in Plymouth. The first colonists actually arrived in Provincetown, it's believed, not Plymouth, four centuries ago.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

If this were any ordinary year — instead of one where Thanksgiving celebrations are miniaturized — there would be celebrations and fireworks to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact this month.

Instead, Provincetown — where the ship and its pilgrims are believed to have actually first landed, not Plymouth — has strung some lights from its Pilgrim Monument, and a few tourists in face masks will drift by for a closer look, stopping to read the brief text of the compact, etched in bronze. The words reflect an agreement forged by English colonists in November 1620, who pledged to form a common government so they could exist in harmony with one another.


This founding document of what would become the great experiment of American democracy deserves to draw a crowd’s attention, even if at a safe distance. In these fraught times, when divisions run deep and civility seems like a lost concept, there is much we can still learn from the disparate group of would-be settlers who landed here 400 years ago and saw in their need to survive the need to coexist — and to coexist under a government of laws.

Even though in the same document they swore allegiance to their king, everything about their act was revolutionary.

As the story begins, of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers only about half were Pilgrims — or religious “separatists” as they were known at the time. The rest were merchants, craftsmen, soldiers, several indentured servants, and others with skills that would help the colony survive. The Pilgrims called them “strangers.”

When the “strangers” discovered that the ship, which had traveled under the auspices of the Virginia Company, was far out of the jurisdiction of its original contract, which only applied in northern Virginia, well, things got dicey. “Several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches,” Pilgrim leader William Bradford would later write. There was no agreed-upon authority or rule of law in this uncharted territory.


So as the ship remained in the harbor, the compact was drafted to provide a peaceful transition into new terrain. The 41 signers — all of them men, but including two indentured servants — pledged to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.”

And they gave themselves the power “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.”

It would be 167 years before those words would be echoed in the opening words of the US Constitution, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .”

This democratic work-in-progress that began four centuries ago in a Massachusetts harbor — after more than two difficult months at sea — would hardly take a steady path forward, not then and not now. The words and the rule of law they represented were a precious thing, but the exclusions over the years were also many — Indigenous people, slaves, women. The fight for inclusion would take far, far longer. That fight is not over.


So perhaps it’s time for a new civil compact — one of mutual respect that can help see us through the perilous times ahead.

President-elect Joe Biden has been attempting under trying circumstances to set that tone, to outline the start of a compact of sorts that can lead this nation and its fractured populous along a new path.

“Refusal of Democrats, Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control,” he said recently . “It’s a conscious decision. It’s a choice that we make. If we can decide not to cooperate, we could decide to cooperate.”

Rather like those Pilgrims and “strangers” — aren’t we all “strangers” in some way or another? — it’s time to cooperate to face the nation’s crises, to yield to a new government and the rules of our democracy. Our survival — from the pandemic and the economic destruction it has brought — may well depend on the compact we can forge with one another.

With luck and cooperation, perhaps we can all celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving next year around much larger tables.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.