Last year marked the culmination of The New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project. The project rightly brought attention to the importance of the African American story of enslavement and 400 year struggle for freedom. But its original claim that the United States was founded in 1619 rather than 1776 went too far. A better year with a compelling story to mark America’s founding is 1620, the year the Pilgrims’ consented to the Mayflower Compact and, shortly thereafter, began America’s experiment in self-government. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the signing of this important document.
To understand the Pilgrims, we must recognize that they were shaped by Judaic and Calvinist political ideas. Of particular importance, in the seventeenth century Calvinist authors began to argue that the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible sanctioned only republican governments. As Eric Nelson demonstrates in his remarkable book The Hebrew Republic, they adopted this idea from an unlikely source: commentaries on the Old Testament written by Jewish rabbis.
English Calvinists were known as “Puritans” because of their desire to purify the Church of England from perceived corruptions. The Pilgrims were a subset of the Puritans who thought that each Christian congregation should govern itself. Because of their desire to separate from any sort of national church, they became known as “Separatists.” In order to freely practice their faith, a group of them fled to Holland in 1608, and then to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
Before the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, they made a solemn agreement in the style of a biblical covenant that represents an important political innovation. This covenant, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and their rulers to pursue “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the forty-one men heading households on the ship.
The Mayflower Compact is a great example of Hebraic republicanism, but it is far from unique. In the 1630s, great waves of non-Separatist Puritans came to New England where they created literally hundreds of covenants for their civil communities and churches. These agreements joined them together before the eyes of God to pursue specific ends. Each of these covenants reinforced the idea that governments are legitimate and binding because they were established by the consent of the governed.
Not only did the people consent to the formation of governments, most men could participate in town meetings and freemen could be elected representatives of the General Court.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Mark David Hall