The Mayflower Compact—once called the “Plymouth Combination”—is the first constitution known to have been written in the New World. Drafted aboard the Mayflower before the Pilgrims from Holland and their fellow travelers landed in North America, it was signed on November 11, 1620, by the 41 men on the ship. Pilgrim leader William Bradford was worried that some of the settlers were planning to “use their owne libertie” to ignore common rules (Foner and Garraty 1991: 708).
The written constitution is one of America’s most important contributions to the idea of government
Whereas England has an unwritten constitution that embodies the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, one of America’s most important contributions to the idea of government by law is that of the written constitution, unchangeable by ordinary legislative means. The roots of such constitutions, to which bills of rights were later added, can be traced to the biblical idea of a covenant between God and man, which more secular thinkers such as John Locke later portrayed as a social compact among individuals themselves.
After citing their common loyalty to King James I, the signatories to the Mayflower Compact pledged to “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 to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, 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 Mayflower Compact was regarded as law until 1686. Colonies, states, and in time the nation as a whole continued to rely on written documents both to create their own identities and to limit government powers.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.