Today in History: The Mayflower docks at Plymouth Harbor in 1620

December 18th, 2013

On December 18, 1620, the Mayflower first docked at Plymouth Harbor in Massachusetts. The men and women on board had left for the New World three months prior, in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Though originally destined for an area near the Hudson River, the lost ship docked on the western side of Cape Cod Bay, and its passengers would establish one of the earliest settlements in New England. Later known at the Pilgrims, the colonists did not have it easy, and over half of the 102 passengers died during the first winter.

Yet the colony would soon prosper. With the help of the Native American leader Massasoit of the Wampanoags, the colony was able to become self-sufficient. Other European settlers soon followed the Pilgrims, establishing the Massachusetts Bay colony, with which the Plymouth colony would ultimately merge. 

Before coming ashore, on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact, which their first governing document. Read the compact and consider the following questions. How did the Pilgrims understand their community? Is “covenant” or “compact” just a synonym for “social contract” and government based on consent? Or does the language of covenant indicate something distinctive about the foundations or purposes of their political union? Tocqueville claimed that the American point of departure was “a product of two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into one another and combining marvelously . . . the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” Are these two spirits still present—still compatible, still mutually supportive—in America today? Does it matter whether they are still present and still harmonious?


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