There is enough raw material in today for several columns. Looking in chronological order, the Mayflower Compact was signed on November 11, 1620, Veteran’s Day (formerly Armistice Day) will also be celebrated on the 11th, and, as a nation, we have just completed a historic election – one fraught with more vitriol than any in recent memory. Then again, perhaps all three of these events have a common, positive thread.
The intrepid group which sailed in 1620 from Britain to our shores was a group of volunteers. We have, understandably, romanticized them quite a bit; as a practical matter, they were dissenters, religious and social, who felt that unknown dangers were more desirable than the certain death which faced them if they persisted in voicing their opinions at home. We like to believe that they came in pursuit of religious freedom, and with a belief that all persons were entitled to believe as they chose. In reality, they did seek their own freedom – but were extremely narrow minded about granting the same to others. (William Penn was the first to really insist on religious freedom in his colony – much later.) Of the 102 who survived the voyage, forty one were “people” under the laws of the day, that is, they were white males of age. Thirty of those belonged to one of the most intolerant religious groups to ever be known, Separatists from the Church of England.
The Separatists initiated the voyage, having obtained a land grant through the efforts of friends in government. As they looked at the people they had to make the journey, there were “gaps” in the skills needed to start a colony. They then invited persons with those skills (and their families), even though they were not predestined for Heaven, to join the journey. Heated differences arose during the trip between the groups. These were people accustomed to an absolute authority, the King. Electing a leader was something not to be considered, as authority was inherited through the blood. They were in a dilemma, with no traditional leader, and a fear that the skilled individuals would disappear to form their own colony.
The solution to the problem was the Mayflower Compact. For the first time in known history, a group of men agreed, in writing, to work together for the good of the colony, and to be bound by laws and ordinances determined in a democratic fashion. There is no requirement of a particular religion, or of any belief at all; this is a document created to enhance the chances of survival for all involved. The Compact is extremely short – under 150 words – yet it encompasses, either specifically or by inference, the ideals which have formed us as a nation.
The Compact was one of the documents used in the framing of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution; it was used in the legal arguments of John Adams and his colleagues. It stood – and stands – for the proposition that we don’t have to agree, but that our survival depends on putting that disagreement behind us and moving forward for the “Generall goode of the Colonie”.
We tend to view our veterans and all those who have served as having endorsed the war in which they fought. Without taking away from their service, that has not always been true. Being individuals raised in a nation in which persons are encouraged to think for themselves, it is not beyond comprehension that some of those soldiers and sailors would have handled the policies of the moment in a different way. However, being citizens of our nation, they, too, stepped forward for the good of the nation, and deserve our heartfelt honor and thanks. Their willingness to sacrifice for the principle which is embodied by the United States, no matter their personal feelings about the policies of the moment, is a very large part of what makes our nation great.
In The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson has his main character explaining the American political system to the Pope after a noisy, and – for its day – vitriolic Presidential election. In an effort to clarify matter for the confused man, he removes a coin from his pocket – showing the pontiff its inscription of “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one. The unique character of America, born of that long ago Compact, is that we can fight bitterly over the leadership, then we submerge our personal thoughts or desires in support of the popular choice – whoever it may be. One has to wonder what chance Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, or some other historic and – in the eyes of some, less competent or less honorable – Presidents would have had with the internet commentary faced by todays’ candidates.
We live in a rare time. News is available to us every hour of the day – news which is sometimes not really worthy of the title, but is noise used to fill the time. Persons who choose to do so can start rumors with the click of a key. In time, these take on a life of their own and are believed to be fact. American politics reached a new high in 2008 when Senator McCain took the time to debunk an assortment of rumors about his opponent in the course of his own town meeting. When he told an attendee that, despite his differences with Senator Obama, the man was a honorable, Christian member of the United States Senate and a citizen of this nation, he rose above “politics”, and stood as a statesman.
The thirty Separatists on the Mayflower were people, not that different from us today. They did not always agree on the outcome of any election; they did agree to accept it. They did not approve of every candidate, but honored the process enough to accept the will of the majority. Their voices ring through the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the “newest” document, the United States Constitution. They would, I think, celebrate that the spirit of their Compact has survived, through time, war, hatred, and even the Internet.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to email@example.com .