Plymouth Rock and Stepping Stones

America’s First Written Governing Document

What makes America unique in world history is our emphasis on local government and written Constitutions.

Written Constitutions mark “a momentous advance in civilization, and it is especially interesting as being peculiarly American.”

To keep our civilization advancing, let’s gather up our heritage and pass it on to the next generation unvarnished.

On this day, November 11, 1620, more than a month before they landed on Plymouth Rock, in the spirit of self-government, the men of the Mayflower signed America’s first governing document.

Jamestown was settled in 1607, and the Colonists declared independence in 1776. That means the Colonial period lasted 169 years. If we take into account the previous unsuccessful settlement attempts, we can say the Colonial period lasted around 200 years.

From 1776 till now (2019), 243 years have passed. That means the time from the Declaration of Independence to today, where you and I now sit reading this, is only 43 years longer than the Colonial times. Ponder that for a minute.

The Colonial period covered about eight or nine generations, and their experiences shaped the future of the nation. The colonists were small bands of people on isolated settlements near the Atlantic; slowly, they increased in number and, with a Bible in one hand and an ax in another, made their way further inland. They brought their English Heritage to America and molded it to conform to their new circumstances.

The Pilgrims, including men like John Carver and William Bradford, arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Before going ashore, they met in the cabin of the ship to draw up their governing document; it was a compact called the Mayflower Compact. It’s short and concise:

“In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. In the year of our Lord. 1620.”

About six weeks after the signing, they landed on Plymouth Rock (December 21),  and John Carver was chosen as governor. More than half of the people died that first winter, including John Carver. William Bradford replaced Carver, and he served as governor every year for the rest of his life except for five, and that’s because he declined the position those years. Bradford governed wisely. Under his leadership, the colony slowly grew to about 3,000 souls by 1640. Bradford wrote an account of the Plymouth settlement called “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which was one of the first American History books written. In it, Bradford reveals their motives.

“…a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world–yea, though they should be but even stepping stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”

The Colonists had a long-term vision that went beyond their immediate needs; they believed their actions affected their children and grandchildren. Bradford’s history book, written with posterity in view, is an example of this kind of thinking. He wanted us to know what they did, hoping we’d benefit from their experiences. This attitude gave the Colonists the courage to endure their horrible sufferings; generational family love gave them hope in the face of fatal perils.

The colonists were preparing the way for us, their posterity, by creating institutions and ways of doing things that are still with us today.

Are we grateful for their sacrifices? Are we imitating their example by planning for the future of our children? Are we willing to be stepping stones for future generations?

The Mayflower Compact is one of many documents that make up the political heritage of our Constitution. For more posts on the U.S. Constitution, please visit the “Know the Constitution” category of our website.