Documents: Colonization

The story of the Mayflower Compact begins with a group of religious dissenters in England in the early 17th century who believed it necessary to separate from the Church of England. Persecuted in England, these so-called “Separatists” fled to Holland. Concerned by economic woes and the threat of losing their English identity by living in Holland, the “Separatists” planned with investors and began their move to form a colony “in the northern parts of Virginia” in 1620. Forty-one male Pilgrims (as the “Separatists” later came to be called) signed the Mayflower Compact on November 1, 1620, before they ever set foot upon land while their ship, the Mayflower, was anchored in Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod. They spent several weeks considering Cape Cod for their settlement before they sailed across Cape Cod Bay and settled at Plymouth. They were, of course, not “in the northern parts of Virginia,” and thus, they had no legal right to settle in this New England area.

In the Mayflower Compact the men stated that they “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick for our better ordering and preservation.” They pledged to institute “just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” While not a governing document, its significance is that it committed the men to the creation of a government based on the consent of the governed. In this way, the Mayflower Compact served as a precedent for the later creation of a government for the United States.

In 1633, Thomas Hooker and some of his followers sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1636, Hooker and his followers relocated to Connecticut. Apparently inspired by a Hooker sermon in 1638 in which he stated that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people,” residents of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield adopted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639. Hooker was one of the men influential in its writing, but Roger Ludlow, the only trained lawyer in the colony, probably drafted the document. It remained Connecticut’s law until 1662. Some historians claim that it was the first written constitution in North America, but others dispute this. It set up a detailed governmental structure in which sovereign power rested with the freemen of the colony. It did not even mention the king. It created a body called the “General Court” with authority to adopt and repeal laws, impose taxes, and apprehend and punish people for misdemeanors. In other words, this “General Court” had legislative, executive, and judicial authority. One very modern idea found in the document was term limits for the Governor as noted in this provision: “that no person be chosen governor above more than once in two years.” The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut served as a step in the direction of present-day democracy in that it set the example of a written constitution as the basis for government.
Nathaniel Ward, a Puritan minister and former lawyer in England, drafted and compiled the Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641. He drew heavily from a code of law proposed by John Cotton in 1636 based on English common law and the rules of conduct given Moses by God as described in the Old Testament (primarily the Ten Commandments). The Massachusetts Body of Liberties is considered to be the first modern bill of rights. It includes some rights which were ahead of its time. This lengthy document contained provisions devoted to the liberties of women, liberties of children, liberties of servants, and liberties of foreigners and strangers. Perhaps most remarkable of all, it contained provisions dealing with the rights of animals. One historian has noted that of the 26 specific rights found in the U. S. Bill of Rights, seven can be traced in their origin to the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. For example, to ensure a fair criminal trial, the document included the following: a bench or jury trial, a speedy trial, no double jeopardy, a prohibition on torture, no self-incrimination, no cruel and unusual punishment, and a right to counsel. At the same time, the document also contained a lengthy list of the offenses all biblically based for which an individual could receive the death penalty.
Delegates from seven of the English colonies in North America (Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) met in what is called the Albany Congress at Albany, New York in 1754 during the early months of the French and Indian War. Here Benjamin Franklin presented the Albany Plan of Union, the first important formal proposal for unifying the thirteen English colonies under one centralized government. It was not viewed as a desire on the part of the colonies to seek independence from England. The confederation of the colonies envisioned by Franklin’s Albany Plan was similar to the decentralized system of government that would later emerge under the United States’ first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The Albany Congress adopted Franklin’s plan on July 10, 1754. However, despite support from some colonial leaders, the Albany Plan was never adopted by colonial governments. Feeling that it would limit their own authority, the colonial governments either rejected it or never even acted on it.
This “Join or Die” political cartoon was the first political cartoon to appear in any newspaper in the thirteen English colonies which later became part of the United States. It was published in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9, 1754. Based on the superstitious notion of the time that a snake cut in two would come to life if the pieces were joined, the cartoon urged the colonies to unite and assist the British during the French and Indian War. It was one of the earliest examples of a call for colonial unity.