- Published on Wednesday, 21 November 2012 11:44
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It was Daniel Webster, the famous orator and Massachusetts Senator, who in a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of the landing at Plymouth Rock first coined the word “Pilgrim.”
But it’s a name that stuck and since then the Pilgrim story; which includes their perilous journey across the Atlantic, their first years of near starvation, the help they received from the Native Americans, and then their first Thanksgiving that has become a part of the American narrative. They helped define the meaning of our modern day Thanksgiving feast and our celebration.
The Pilgrims are more than men and women in funny hats. Though make no mistake, they did wear funny hats. They also played a major role in the development of democratic government in the New World.
The Pilgrims reached the New World in difficult circumstances. Thanks to a late season Atlantic hurricane, instead of landing in the Virginia Colony, they instead reached the coast of what is now modern day Massachusetts. A few thought about pushing further south to perhaps make contact with other settlements, but most, tired of the sea, wanted to stay where they were. And that’s where some of the real genius of the Pilgrims started to take shape.
Contrary to popular belief, the Separatists, who called themselves “Saints” and their fellow settlers, various craftsmen and fellow settlers, many not so religious as the separatists, didn’t get along all that well on the trip over.
There were a number of issues, disagreements and arguments that were still simmering, and many feared that this discord would only intensify once they reached the New World.
The problem became even more acute, when the Pilgrims, anchored off Plymouth Rock took stock of their situation. The Virginia Colony, which they had hoped to join, was a long ways away. What they saw when they looked towards the coast of their new home was wilderness. Their food supplies were running low and they didn’t know what to expect from the Native Americans. It was a tough spot.
The Pilgrim settlers, facing such a dire situation, understood they needed to work together, but first they had to come to some agreement on how to make decisions. Out of this perilous situation came the Mayflower Compact.
The Compact was an agreement, by the Pilgrims, amongst themselves, about how the colony would be governed. It didn’t offer any complex rules. Rather it simply said that questions would be voted on and that the majority opinion would be respected.
While the Pilgrims considered it simply a matter of necessity and not something they saw as radical, its legacy was something far more long lasting. Certainly more far reaching than any of these brave souls would have thought at the time. Some of its phrasing, in particular, “…We do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation,” is echoed in the Preamble of the Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution wouldn’t be written for another 150 years, but the spirit of self-determination in these early New England settlers was already becoming a part of what would evolve into the American psyche. John Quincy Adams, our sixth President, and son of the founding father, and our second President, John Adams, said in 1802, that he considered the Compact one of the foundations of the Constitution.
Some have claimed that Adams overstated its importance. That it was a minor document written for a small community. But, given that it was the first statement of self-governance of any kind in the New World, and that it did so with such simple elegance, it seems like he gave it the credit it deserves.