BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | NOV 25, 2021
English Pilgrims set sail for their New World in September of 1620. They must have been consumed by fear for their lives and trepidation about what lay ahead, yet they were propelled through their doubt by the promise of a better future and by their unbounded faith in God.
They started from the Dutch port city of Delfs-Haven on the good ship Speedwell, destined to write one of the opening and best known chapters of American history.
The trip didn’t go well.
The Speedwell only made it to England’s southern port of Southampton where it sprang a serious leak. It set sail again only to spring another leak. They made it to the port at Plymouth. There the passengers and freight were transferred to the sister ship Mayflower, bound for America (some accounts say the Speedwell was only intended to go as far as England to meet up with the Mayflower, while others indicate that both were headed across the Atlantic).
The 102 passengers and 37 crew members spent 66 days on the frigid seas of the North Atlantic, sick, hungry, cramped, and cold in the lower gun deck of a vessel designed to carry only lumber, fish, and French wine on short trips along the European coastline. The Mayflower was just 100 feet long and 24 feet wide. Of the 102, only 41 were considered true Pilgrims, seeking separation from the Church of England. The remainder were called “strangers”, merchants, craftsmen, indentured servants, and orphaned children.
At the end of their journey the passengers set their eyes on what they thought was their future home in Virginia. But the sea carried the Mayflower to Massachusetts instead. That discovery caused a near mutiny by “strangers” who insisted their agreement with the Virginia Company, which sponsored the journey, was no longer valid. Neither were the company’s rules.
The Pilgrims got the message and set about drawing a new pact. It would ensure order in the settlement, unify the inhabitants, and instill civility and calm among them. The Mayflower Compact as it became known is considered the first constitution for self-governance in the New World (among the Pilgrim signers was Francis Cooke from whom my family may be descended).
The Compact declared that the signatories “combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
The Mayflower Compact poured the foundation for a future Republic—the rule of law and the binding strength of civil self-governance, the sense of community and common purpose.
By the following year of 1621, half of those spirited pioneers would perish from the cold, starvation, and deadly illnesses. Most were women, some of whom apparently sacrificed their own health for that of the children.
Those who survived, however, still found much for which they were thankful and invited neighboring Native Americans to share a feast that may never have taken place had it not been for the help and guidance of the Wampanoags and one surviving chief from the pandemic stricken Patuxent tribe who had already befriended the settlers.
What became recognized as the first Thanksgiving occurred 400 years ago this week. George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving 168 years later as the nation embraced a new Constitution. Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863, amid the death and destruction of the Civil War.
This Thanksgiving occurs in one of the harshest winters of discontent we have experienced in a long time. Even Thanksgiving, like Washington and Lincoln, has been victimized by cancel culture.
The architecture of our system of governance is being torn down with nothing but wishful thinking in its place. Trust in and respect for the opinions of others and the beliefs they hold flickers like a candle about to lose its oxygen. We have become imprisoned in our own extremes, seemingly incapable of electing people who want to govern a center-right country and cure its ills. A lack of understanding of and appreciation for how far we’ve come, how far most Americans still want to go, and how much we have attempted to rectify our mistakes, has only further divided us.
Thankfully, more and more Americans of late seem to be growing tired of the anger and weary of being constantly confronted with the darker side of human nature. It’s pretty sad when psychologists and therapists have to counsel us on what to say and what to avoid over a Thanksgiving dinner with members of our own family.
It is time for change. It has been for some time. This holiday season could become our demarcation from years of bad behavior and abandonment of our values. We are very much in need of a holiday season dominated by what a former Member of Congress called a gratitude attitude, not through a dinner, but through the season of giving and gratitude, regardless of what commemoration you observe.
The Pilgrims and the Plymouth Colony overcame incredible adversity, greater than what we are going through today. The Mayflower Compact helped give their civil life structure and a framework for future governance. It bound them together in common purpose.
We need a new Compact, one that can be embraced by members of a family or by constantly quarreling political leaders; a Compact that can be embraced by church congregates and members of civic organizations; by students and seniors; by citizens of different cultures, religious beliefs, and language, bound together by hope not hate and by the commonality in their diversity.
The Compact need not be longer or more detailed than the original, but it must reflect more than a gesture toward change. The alternative? Not so good.
The course we are on will make the North Sea feel like a warm bath. We all have a stake in and share responsibility for where we are. The institutions of society and government that have served as the bulwark of social order and governance need reinforcement. Those who preach violence, hatred, divisiveness, and extremism must be silenced not by restrictions of speech and assembly, but simply by being boycotted and ignored. We need a Compact that restores basic human and civil values that comprise what we know to be the real American character.
The idea of a new Compact among the citizenry is, of course Pollyanna-ish, naïve, and full of generalities easily subject to interpretation to accommodate any form of bad behavior or self-serving belief structure. Granted. A friend told me recently, “Maybe some kind of encompassing calm will suddenly descend on the world, but I suspect not…it seldom does.” The late Senator Bobby Kennedy said what we should strive for now. To paraphrase: ‘Some people see things as they are and ask, why? I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?’
I was reminded a long time ago by a better writer and thinker than I that the power of words comes not from the pen, but from the willingness of people to embrace their purpose and muster the discipline to give those words life. I suspect the passengers on the Mayflower understood the purpose of their Compact and what it would take from them to give their Compact meaning. I suspect they also recognized what Benjamin Franklin is believed to have uttered after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 156 years later: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” That is the centerpiece for a new Compact. It is just that simple.
Editor’s Note: I gathered a great deal of information from a variety of sources, some of which offered historical perspective and information that contradicted other sources, not being a historian or academic, so I do not presume that my storytelling is entirely factual. The fact is that we do not know and never will know what actually transpired through the annals of the American experience.
Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.