How the Mayflower Compact Influenced the American Concept of the Rule of Law

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A group of scholars meets this week to discuss the impact of the Mayflower Compact—signed 400 years ago last week, on Nov. 11, 1620—on the American concept of the rule of law.

The Heritage Foundation and the Religious Freedom Institute are co-hosting the second event in a webinar series exploring the major themes in one of America’s neglected founding documents.

“The Mayflower Compact reaffirmed one of the fundamental ideas of the Magna Carta; namely, that no political society could flourish without respect for the rule of law,” said Kim Holmes, executive vice president of The Heritage Foundation.

The Nov. 19 webinar will discuss this pivotal political moment and its roots both in English tradition and in the Pilgrims’ religious convictions.

 Joseph Loconte, director of the Feulner Institute’s Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, will moderate the panel discussion.

“Given the malicious assault by the progressive left on the great achievements of American democracy,” Loconte said, “our need to reflect seriously, and gratefully, upon our nation’s origins is more important than ever.”

Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, emphasized that the political paradigm of the Pilgrims was grounded in their religious beliefs; namely, that, people “must have a set of laws and guidelines.”

“Otherwise one becomes barbaric, which is what the Pilgrims were trying to avoid,” Swain said.

The Pilgrims viewed their congregation as “the new Israel” and their destination as the new “Promised Land,” Swain explained, “and they were acutely aware of the punishments that Israel received when straying from God’s laws.”

For the Pilgrims, God was the ultimate lawmaker, and their mission was to fulfill His laws and succeed where Israel had failed.

In a new land, they believed they could cast off the corruptions of Europe and make a holy community where they could worship the Lord and follow His laws.

Thus, Swain said, the Mayflower Compact was not a mere legal contract, which might be abrogated, but rather a “covenant before the Lord,” a holy promise among its signers that established a community grounded in law.

William Allen, chief operating officer of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, emphasized the political situation in England when the Pilgrims departed: Their arrival in the New World occurred on the eve of decades of social turmoil in England and on the European continent over debates about the limits of political and religious authority.

“The Pilgrims were not utopians or theoretical dreamers,” Allen said. “They were people with a very concrete purpose.”

Nevertheless, he explained, they had great confidence in their God and their mission. The Mayflower Compact was viewed as a continuation of that mission that the members had agreed to when they joined the community.

The Pilgrims did not abandon their English political heritage. They still recognized their loyalty to King James. But the difference, according to Allen, lay in their doing so in spite of their maltreatment at home.

“They left because they were already experiencing religious persecutions and could foresee more to come, but they did so without disclaiming the proper loyalties and obedience” due their sovereign, he said.

Perhaps most importantly, the political foundation of the Pilgrim community was rooted in their religious tenets. The right of conscience, Allen said, was the catalyst for all of the Pilgrims’ actions. From the moment they create their company, to their sailing to New England, to their formation of the Plymouth Colony, the right of conscience was at the center of each decision.

The Pilgrims’ first performed an act of conscience when they confronted the priests of the Church of England, insisting that their own congregation could interpret the Scriptures without an intermediary.

 Without this initial separation, there could be no “Civil Body Politick,” but only the continuation of the “Ecclesiastical Body Politick,” which had previously held supremacy over the political realm.

“The right of conscience is first established against the claims of priestly authority,” Allen said. “It is only afterwards that it is applied to political authority.”

Thus, the right of conscience that established the Pilgrims as a separate religious denomination ultimately allowed them to form a distinct civil community.

The Pilgrims’ respect for the Bible nurtured a great respect for the law, in their belief that law was necessary to help check the darker impulses of human nature.

The biblical stories were replete with examples of human failings, which directed the political development of the Pilgrims and discouraged them from idealistic endeavors.

Jim Ceaser, a visiting scholar at the Feulner Institute’s Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said that our increasingly secular society tends to ignore those religious motivations of political trailblazers, such as the Pilgrims.

By doing so, he cautioned, we cut ourselves off from sources of cultural strength.

“Wouldn’t we do better,” he asked, “to recall the fidelity to the religious spirit present in the Mayflower Compact, and to strengthen our commitment to it?”

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