Liberty Matters

The 1612 Project


When telling a story, the beginning matters quite a lot. As Sarah Morgan Smith notes in her excellent essay, the New York Times' choice to begin its '1619 Project' with the arrival of the first African men and women in Virginia as slaves determines the American tale to follow: Original Sin breeds injustice, betrayal, and unsparing critique. Smith prefers a 'more positive' beginning. She points to the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 by a company of Puritan 'saints' and non-Puritan 'strangers,' blown off course on their way to Virginia, as the start of something better: the arrival of 'genuine republican self-government' and 'the principle of religious toleration' in America.[1]
Smith's celebratory story has its own historical roots. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville claimed to 'see the entire destiny of America embodied in the first Puritan to land on its shores, just as the entire human race was embodied in the first man.'[2]
In crediting the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony as the 'Founders' of American democracy, Tocqueville repurposed a popular domestic trope for an international audience.[3]
Smith quotes the 19th-century jurist and politician Rufus Choate, for whom the Mayflower Compact 'silently adopted…the grand doctrine that all men are born equal and born free.'[4]
A story that starts here is a happy one, in which an act of affirmative consent underwrites America's unfolding promise of liberty and justice, for all.
Of course, Smith—like Tocqueville—is well aware that the Pilgrims, who accidentally landed 500 miles north of their intended destination, were not the first English colonists in North America.[5]
While the ill-fated Roanoke colony had disappeared by 1590, Jamestown limped along from 1607, even as the contemporary Popham Colony in Maine packed up after only a year. Nor were the Pilgrims the first English settlers to be blown off course. The 1609 shipwreck that inspired Shakespeare's Tempest led to the settlement of Bermuda or 'Somers Isles' by English sailors. In 1612, the Bermudans even signed a 'Compact' of their own, before the third and final Virginia Charter brought the islands formally under Company control.[6]
No one celebrates the 'Bermuda Compact' today, nor has 1612 inspired any Pulitzer prize-winning projects from the New York Times. Still, what happens if one starts the story here? The agreement published as a postscript to A Plaine Description of the Barmudas (1613) shares many striking features with that recorded later by William Bradford.[7]
Its 'subscribers' were also individual male colonists and 'natural Subjects' of King James who thereby 'promise[d] and b[ou]nd' themselves to respect 'the true worship of God', obey local governors, and 'use all diligence of the good of the Plantation.'[8]
These similarities—as well as the fact that the Bermuda agreement was publicized in London several years prior to the Pilgrims' departure—has led one leading scholar to downgrade the Mayflower Compact's significance: 'What distinguished the New Englanders from previous Anglo-American settlements was not their beginnings but rather their subsequent movements toward de facto independence.'[9]
While this conclusion underplays important differences between the two compacts, the prior and public existence of a voluntary agreement of English settlers in Bermuda certainly troubles the too-ready assertions of the Mayflower Compact's originality cited by Smith, or its status as 'the beginning' of consensual government and republican ideals in America.[10]
The idea that English colonies should be seen as 'Commonwealths' unto themselvesinformed early colonization efforts in Virginia, too.[11]
The term 'commonwealth' was the early modern English equivalent of the Latin res publica, yet it did not initially entail any corollary commitment to self-government, let alone opposition to monarchical rule.[12]
Nor, for that matter, did government by 'consent'. In Bermuda, colonists pledged their obedience to the King, as well as 'to all such Governour or Governours, or their…Deputies' as should be sent by the Virginia Company. [13]
The issue of 'self-government' is similarly vexed. While the Bermudans (we don't know who or how many) consented to be governed by the Company, the subscribers to the Mayflower Compact promised 'all due Submission and Obedience' to 'such just and equal Laws…and Officers' as they made themselves.[14]
This is, indeed, a crucial difference. And yet only 41 of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower (50 of whom were adult men) signed the document. When these individuals did thereby 'covenant and combine [them]selves into a civil Body Politick', the consent of this minority was taken to bind the whole.[15]
The exclusion of women, children, and 'servants' or bonded laborers was hardly exceptional, and Smith and others are right to point out that political membership at Plymouth was strikingly inclusive compared with other colonies.[16]
Indeed, news of this quickly got back to 'Old' England, at which point Bradford wrote to concerned investors to reassure them that 'you are mistaken if you think we admit women and children to have to do in [our government], for they are excluded, as both reason and nature teacheth they should be.' Moreover, Bradford insisted, 'neither do we admit any [men] but such as are above the age of 21 years, and they also but only in some weighty matters, when we think good.'[17]
In fact, even men over 21 who were not servants or apprentices were excluded from participation in Plymouth if they still lived in their father's home, or if they were 'Particulars'—i.e. non-members of the original joint stock company.[18]
And when Quakers came to New England in the 1650s, Plymouth took direct advantage of its original device of consensual inclusion—namely, covenantal 'oath[s] of fidelitie' like the Mayflower Compact—as devices of exclusion against the Quakers, who conscientiously refused to swear.[19]
Finally, while Plymouth may not have been implicated in the early trade in enslaved Africans, the colony was an enthusiastic participant in the enslavement of Native American men and women, even before King Philip's War led to the mass export of indigenous captives to the Caribbean. These 'Indian servants,' too, were naturally excluded.[20]
My point in rehearsing these forgotten facts is not to debunk Smith's celebratory narrative in favor of a tragic one, a la the New York Times. It's simply to remind us that early modern practice—in this case, the efflorescence of political innovation and institution-building in 17th-century 'New' England—sits uneasily beneath the grand ideals and abstractions imposed upon it by successive generations. This is as true of the Pilgrims as of the so-called 'Levellers' and other radicals active during the English Civil War subsequently embraced by modern Leftists and libertarians. Many of these groups were, indeed, committed to the idea that 'men' (including American Indians and women!) were 'equal' by nature. But pace Choate and Smith, neither drew from this theoretical principle the practical consequences that modern democrats or egalitarians expect.
The history of 'equality before egalitarianism' remains to be written.[21]
In the meantime, I agree with Smith that the most significant and innovative feature of the Mayflower Compact was its separation of membership in the 'civil body politic' from that of a particular Church. The scale of this achievement becomes clearer if we start the story in 1612. The Bermuda Compact began by declaring subscribers' fidelity to the Church of England and hostility to its enemies: 'all Atheists Papists, Anabaptists, Brownists'—i.e. separatist congregationalists like the Pilgrims themselves—'and other Heretiques and Sectaries whatsoever, dissenting from the [Anglican] Word and Faith'.[22]
This is in stark contrast to the willingness of Plymouth 'Saints' to 'covenant and combine' with the 'Strangers' in their midst. That willingness may have been dictated by the exigencies of circumstance; still, as I have argued at length elsewhere, the theory of 'mere civility' that inspired this colonial practice has much to teach tolerant societies today.[23]
Contextualizing the Mayflower Compact can help us to appreciate the creativity and practical achievement of a parsimonious agreement signed by a minority of desperate migrants lost at sea. What it can't do, however, is sustain Smith's closing suggestion that 'the principle of toleration' (let alone that of equality) was already present therein, such that it was necessarily normative, let alone determinative, for what came after. [24]
Starting in 1612 reminds us rather that nothing was fated or determined for the waves of English settlers who made their way West in the 17th century. The very circumstances that constrained them gave them the freedom to do things differently, too.
[1.] Sarah Morgan Smith, "'To Covenant and Combine Ourselves into a Civil Body Politics': The Mayflower Compact @ 400" (May 2020).
[2.] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Library of America, 2004), vol. I.2.9.
[3.] Sanford Kessler, "Tocqueville's Puritans: Christianity and the American Founding," Journal of Politics 54 (1992): 776-792.
[4.] Smith, "To Covenant and Combine Ourselves." The reference comes from Choate's 1813 address, "The Age of the Pilgrims: The Heroic Period of our History," to the New England Association.
[5.] The Spanish, of course, had been at it in the South for a century. The English competed directly with the French, the Dutch, and later the Swedes to establish permanent settlements in the North.
[6.] J.S. Maloy, The Colonial American Origins of Modern Democratic Thought (Cambridge, 2008), 90.
[7.] Silvester Jourdain, A Plaine Description of the Barmudas, now called Sommer Ilands (London, 1613). I have modernized the spelling throughout. Jourdain, a merchant, was among the sailors shipwrecked in 1609. This pamphlet reprinted his earlier narrative, A Discovery of the Barmudas, along with supplementary material (including the text of the Bermuda Agreement as an appendix), the authorship of which is uncertain.
[8.] Jourdain, G2-3.
[9.] Maloy, 91. My emphasis. In particular, Maloy points to Bradford's successful maneuvering in assuming individual colonists' debts so as to pay them off collectively, thus securing independence for the colony from its London stock-holders.
[10.] Smith cites James Wilson, along with Choate and Calvin Coolidge.
[11.] See Maloy, ch. 3.
[12.] Patrick Collinson famously argued for the prevalence of the commonwealth ideal in Elizabethan England, which contemporaries classified as a "monarchical commonwealth" or republic. The ideological, anti-monarchical sense of the word triumphed with the declaration that England was a "Commonwealth" after the Regicide in 1649, leaving the term in somewhat bad odor for the next 200 years after the Restoration.
[13.] Jourdain, G3. Locke's argument that 'express consent' was the only basis of legitimate subjection in the Two Treatises of Government (1689) reflects this early modern mania for oaths of allegiance, which grew worse over the course of the seventeenth century.
[16.] Cf. George D. Langdon, Jr., "The Franchise and Political Democracy in Plymouth Colony," The William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963): 513-26.
[17.] R.G. Marsden, "A Letter of William Bradford and Isaac Allerton, 1623," American Historical Review 8 (1903), 299. I have modernized the spelling.
[18.] Langdon, "The Franchise and Political Democracy in Plymouth Colony," 515.
[19.] Ibid, 522-3.
[20.] Jillian Gale, "Servants and Masters in Plymouth Colony," By beginning in 1619 and focusing on African slavery, the Times perpetuates the neglect of 'Indian' slavery as the primary form of bonded labor in America by the end of the 17th c. For more, see Linford Fisher's forthcoming book, America Enslaved: The Rise and Fall of Indian Slavery in the English Atlantic and the United States.
[21.] I tackle this problem in First Among Equals: the Practice and Theory of Early Modern Equality, is forthcoming with Harvard University Press.
[22.] G1. The second article pledged to keep the Sabbath holy, only the 3rd turned to political matters as emphatically secondary to spiritual. They pledged to 'live together in doing that which is iust, both towards God and Man…and to avoide all things that stand not with the good estate of a Christian Chruch and well governed Commonwealth'.
[23.] See Teresa M. Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Harvard University Press, 2017).
[24.] Smith, "To Covenant and Combine Ourselves."