Ideas have consequences
Eric Patterson | The Mayflower Compact (1620) vs. The 1619 Project
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Ideas have consequences. Especially ideas about how to understand the foundations of American history and our great constitutional order. One of the seeds of American liberty is the November 1620 Mayflower Compact and its approach to ordered liberty.
A contrasting new “idea” of American history is the notorious New York Times 1619 Project, which claims that the propagation of slavery was the fundamental ordering principle to America’s founding. Acclaimed historians such as Gordon Wood and James McPherson have shown that the 1619 Project’s conjectures do not add up based upon historical development and facts that led from the colonial era through the War for Independence in 1776. Princeton’s McPherson argues the Project’s essays “left most of the history out.”
Where did the seeds of the American experiment in ordered liberty come from?
A recent event at the Museum of the Bible answered these questions. In the late 1500s, many wanted to see dramatic changes in the Church of England. Some, such as the Puritans, wanted to purify the Church of England within, but others, known as Separatists, felt that England’s state church was so resistant to reform that they had to form entirely new churches. These individuals had already organized small congregations in Britain that were semi-separatist. They believed in the Reformation doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” This resulted in a level of social equality among the congregants, which was reflected in ecclesiology: church structures attempting to follow New Testament models of concord among believers, which included prayerful election of congregational leadership.
Facing imprisonment and financial ruin in Britain, some of the Separatists moved to the Netherlands. Over the next two decades, they struggled to put down roots there, all the while hoping to return to Britain. We know from the historical records found in their letters and diaries that they were frustrated by the worldliness of Dutch culture and strongly desired to find a place where they could raise their families and worship in ways that would allow them to thrive. When they looked at the New World, they saw a chance to live out their faith in community as well as opportunities to spread the gospel.
Consequently, these hopes brought about introductions to entrepreneurs with access to boats. This eventually allowed a group of the Separatists to make their way across the Atlantic, as colonists under a charter granted to the Virginia Company. As history shows, due to terrible weather, the Pilgrims ended up further north than expected, and there was significant disagreement about whether their charter even applied outside of the Virginia territory.
That lack of a colonial charter created the need for a self-governing compact that brought together the Pilgrims and the other colonists aboard the Mayflower.
A stunning fact is that the Pilgrims wrote their compact long before the writings of the major social contract theorists that historians often cite as influential on the American Founders—thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755).
Recognizing the need for a prudential approach to bringing together the Separatists and the others on board to establish law, preserve liberty, and provide for the common defense, the Mayflower Compact was written and signed by the 41 Separatists as well as the rest of the male passengers. They set up a local body politic under English law and a Virginia Company charter. The compact included the basic ingredients for self-governance as reflected in a covenanted agreement representing all individuals and families.
Moreover, even though the Separatists were zealously religious, they established a political community that protected their faith and allowed for full political membership for those outside their faith community. This was in sharp contrast to religious persecution in England and the disastrous Wars of Religion, or the Thirty Years War, ravaging the continent.
Ideas really do have consequences. The Mayflower Compact was the applied understanding of Christian ideas rooted in equality (“priesthood of all believers”) and a quasi-democratic church polity. It assumed a level of religious and related freedoms (e.g., freedom of assembly, print, and speech).
Thus, the Mayflower Compact was one of the earliest seeds of liberty, along with later documents such as the Charter of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a dozen declarations by continental congresses and the subsequent Declaration of Independence, the writings of Franklin, Adams, Locke, Jefferson, and the Constitution of the United States. These ideas germinated in later expressions of religious freedom and ordered liberty, from James Madison and James Monroe through Abraham Lincoln and down the decades to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan.
1620 reflects a project born of Christian ideals while the 1619 Project reflects an ideology that aims to fundamentally reframe the American narrative as systematic injustice. No nation is perfect, including the United States. But America’s sins do not justify historical falsehood. The truth is too important to lose.
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