Signed by 41 Pilgrims in 1620, the Mayflower Compact will celebrate its 400th anniversary this year. It represents the first in a series of founding documents which celebrated deliberate self-government in the New World. This concept of self-government is at the heart of the American experiment. It is more important on a historical basis than other more recent and publicized efforts and I’m looking at the 1619 Project as a prime example.
The Greeks may have started the idea the self-government, but it was in America that it was perfected. Self-government, coupled with freedom, have defined this country since its founding. It continues to inspire and motivate people around the world. Is it any wonder that protesters in Hong Kong recently proudly displayed the American flag?
To recap, the Mayflower Compact did two things. It first set out common goals: “the Glory of God, the Christian faith, and the honor of King and country.” Translation: they wanted to succeed. Secondly, they agreed to “…combine ourselves together into a civil body politic … and … enact … such just and equal laws … as shall be thought most meet [appropriate] and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” In this second part, they agreed to establish laws by common consent, then obey the laws they consented to.
It is certainly true that things went off the rails somewhat and that they almost destroyed the success of the colony for the “just and equal laws” brought about an early form of socialism. More than Squanto and the Indians, the realization that they were killing their own chances was brought to light when William Bradford suggested capitalism- men were allowed to plant corn for their own consumption, rather than the “common good.” The “common good” bred intense resentment, bitterness, and a profound sense of injustice.
Over the ensuing century, more colonists came and experimented in self-government. Most of this occurred in New England. Outside New England, most of the law was written by the British, or the colony’s sponsor. For example, in 1701 William Penn composed a Charter of Liberties and Privileges for Pennsylvania. But it was the existence of popular governments in New England that attracted more colonists elsewhere.
There were British attempts to stifle the desire for freedom and self-government. The sponsors of the Carolina colony adopted an aristocratic “constitution” that failed to attract any colonists. North and South Carolina saw a rise in colonists only after it was scrapped for something more democratic. In 1686, the British imposed the autocratic “Dominion of New England” that almost caused a revolution and had to be scrapped after only three years.
It was only after the Crown and Parliament became more systematic in their suppression of self-rule that it led to events culminating in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That document echoed the sentiments of the Mayflower Compact when it said, “…“to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Soon thereafter, each state replaced its colonial government through popular conventions followed by relatively democratic state constitutions. After victory, the country, in perhaps the most democratic decision-making effort in human history, created a Federal Constitution. Here, men of modest means and, in some states, women and freed slaves, could send delegates to ratifying conventions.
They included an Article V allowing the people to control their own government through amendments to the Constitution. It even allowed the people to bypass elected officials by permitting state legislatures to trigger a convention for amending the Constitution. The amendment process created the Bill of Rights, the emancipation of slaves, and citizenship rights for all Americans.
The tradition and the ghost of the Mayflower Compact extended beyond our founding and was carried into the West with the best example being the establishment of the Republic of Texas in 1836. Long before federal officials took control over vast swaths of western territories, miners, prospectors and cattle ranchers had established effective control and democratic institutions on their own.
This is in no way an attempt to lessen the importance of slavery in American history. However, making it and its aftermath the central focus of American history, as the 1619 Project attempts, is sheer history revisionism better left to the likes of Howard Zinn. Slavery is nowhere near as important as the concept of self-government started by the Mayflower Compact. Most of the American colonies were founded in states that partially or wholly rejected slavery. And as time passed, those states became more populous and prosperous. At the height of slavery- 1860- slaves composed 13% of the population and slaveowners a mere 8%.
That, my friends, is why freedom and self-government eventually overwhelmed servitude. The Left can take the 1619 Project and stick it, proverbially, where the sun does not shine.