The Pilgrim fathers aboard the Mayflower were uneasy as they prepared to set foot on North American soil in late 1620. Their concern was rooted in two issues:
It was apparent that the Mayflower voyage had landed far from its planned destination. Provincetown Harbor, as it would later be known, lay far to the north and west of the mouth of the Hudson River, the intended settlement site. Deteriorating weather conditions made it dangerous to continue the quest for a home. The fathers doubted that their instructions empowered them to govern a colony in this region.
The Mayflower’s passenger list contained the name of both “Saints" and “Strangers," the terminology used to separate the members of the separatist congregation from all others. The fathers feared they would be unable to control the actions of the Strangers, once the group had gone ashore.
Their solution to the problem of the lack of authority was to create it themselves. The document known as the Mayflower Compact was drafted aboard ship and signed by 41 of the adult males. It stated:
We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.
The agreement first acknowledged the colonists' loyalty to King James I, and then bound them in a "civil Body Politick" for the purpose of forming just laws for the entire community. This document established a social contract within the community and formed a government based upon the consent of the governed.
The Compact is often regarded as the first written constitution in North America, but it was actually an adaptation of the common church covenant to civil purposes. The signers served as the initial government of the colony by electing a governor, enacting laws and admitting others to membership as they saw fit.
Despite repeated efforts over the years, the Plymouth community was unable to secure a formal charter from the Crown. The Mayflower Compact continued to serve as the basis of government until the small colony was merged with Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.