There are good reasons, of course, we may wish to forget the
year 2020, which need not be recited here. Indeed, the jokes about ushering
2020 out the door are already legion, like this one: "I'm going to stay up
on New Year's Eve this year. Not to see the New Year in, but to make sure this
one leaves." Or this one: "The dumbest thing I ever did was to
purchase a 2020 planner."
But Thanksgiving, by definition, is not a time of
forgetting, but rather of remembering. The act of giving thanks – and counting
blessings – necessarily requires remembrance.
On this particular Thanksgiving, especially in the midst of
our current travails, we should not forget that this is the 400th
anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, the founding of Plymouth Colony, and the
signing, on November 11, 1620, of the Mayflower Compact. Less than half of the
102 passengers aboard the Mayflower were members of the English separatist
group that earlier had fled to Leyden in the Netherlands in search of religious
freedom. It was only later that the entire group became known as Pilgrims.
The Mayflower Compact, brief as it is, is worthy of more
attention than it has received on this 400th anniversary, during a
year in which so much attention has been focused on America's supposed ills
rather than the ideas and ideals embodied in its foundational principles. The
Mayflower's original destination was near the mouth of the Hudson River. But
when rough seas blew the Mayflower off-course and the Pilgrims landed at what
is now Plymouth, they understood that they were in territory beyond the
authority that they had been granted. Hence the need for an agreement – which
we now call the Mayflower Compact and which the Pilgrims called a
"covenant" – to govern their affairs. The covenant was signed by all
41 of the male passengers aboard the Mayflower.
The agreement declares the Pilgrims' purpose "to
covenant & combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our
better ordering, & preservation & furtherance of the ends" of
planting a colony. And it continues, "to enacte, constitute, and frame shuch
just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from
time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for the generall
good of the Colonie: unto which we promise all submission and obedience."
I've retained the original spelling here, but hopefully the meaning is clear.
The Compact is simple but nevertheless foundational as a
declaration of self-government. Those combining together in a "civil body
politic" agree to submit to the rule of law under "just and
equal" laws, not merely any laws.
The Compact was not a full-blown plan of government. That
would await the Constitution of 1787. But it was a foundation upon which future
advances in self-government would be built. And in light of the principles
established in November 1620 on the Mayflower, the Compact is an important part
of the American story.
Fully half of the Mayflower's Pilgrims died of disease and starvation
in their first winter in the New World. So there was reason enough for those who
survived to assemble in the autumn of 1621 for a feast of
"Thanksgiving" with the Pokanoket Wampanoags, who had shared advice
on planting and harvesting.
The year 2020 will always be associated with this pandemic,
which has caused so much suffering. But in America, as always, we have much for
which to be grateful on this Thanksgiving. The prospect of a highly effective
vaccine developed in record time, along with the quickening availability of
more proven therapeutics, is reason enough to be hopeful – and thankful.
Of course, for many, our Thanksgiving holiday necessarily
will be much different this year than ever before, or even than we had envisioned
a couple of weeks ago. But amidst whatever other thoughts we entertain this
Thanksgiving, recalling the Mayflower Compact should be cause for celebrating
the 400th anniversary of an agreement articulating what became fundamental
American principles – rule by consent of the governed under just and equal
In closing, it is worth recalling this Thanksgiving, as much
now as when James Madison published Federalist No. 14 on November 30, 1787, his
plea to his fellow countrymen: "Harken not to the unnatural voice which tells
you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of
affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family."
May this Thanksgiving help bring us all closer to our
families, friends, and countrymen, bound together by what Madison called our "many cords of affection."
With best wishes,