The American constitutional tradition stretches back beyond our shores to England. It is a tradition shaped on this continent by experience and the character of the people. In this vision, local communities play the primary role in government, protecting the fundamental institutions in which good character is formed.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–Declaration of Independence
Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Countrey; a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the Northern parts of Virginia. [We] solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, Covenant and Combine our selves together into a Civil Body Politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid: and by virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Officers, 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.–Mayflower Compact
On first reading, the differences between the first and second quotations, above, seem immense. The first, from the Declaration of Independence, confidently proclaims fundamental human equality and natural rights to life, liberty and “the pursuit of happiness,” which we take to mean the right to maximum individual autonomy. The second, from the Mayflower Compact, sets forth the purposes of a particular joint endeavor with strong religious motivations, then binds the participants to make and obey laws passed in furtherance of their common mission. Many interpreters of the American constitutional tradition would have us believe that these two documents are, in fact, worlds apart in their nature, purpose, and implications for public life. In essence, the “proper” or “progressive” view would be that Americans outgrew the narrow sectarianism of the Mayflower Compact over the course of their time in the New World, and in particular over the course of their conflict with the mother country. Having “grown up,” the story goes, Americans replaced local, communitarian projects with a universal vision of individual rights, and it was only here that we became a free people. But these documents remain within a common constitutional tradition that, properly understood, stretches back in time and incorporates both community and independent self-government under God as essential aspects of ordered liberty.
The seeming contradiction between the Declaration and Compact stems in part from their differing purposes as public statements. A Declaration of Independence must, to do its job, make bold statements implicating general principles of political right. Thus, the American Declaration places the particular conflict between crown and colonists in the context of “natural” rights. If one people is to dissolve the bonds between it and another people, its reasons must point beyond the mere existence of grievances. In such conflicts, after all, it is necessary to explain why particular violations of any agreement justify dissolving the relationship in total. The Declaration does so, within a brief introductory paragraph, in universal terms, stating the elements necessary for governmental legitimacy—rule by consent of the governed, aimed at protecting the people’s fundamental rights.
The Mayflower Compact, on the other hand, is a document intended to bind together individual persons into a society devoted to furthering common ends. The Puritans, seeking to found a religious community in the New World, solemnized their relationship with one another, declaring before God their mutual allegiance to Him, to their common mission, and to the laws necessary to that common mission. Where the Declaration justifies separating one people from another, the Compact marks the joining of a people into a body politic.
To understand the relationship between the Declaration and the Compact, it is best to begin by recognizing that the Compact’s forging of a “civil body politic” was no novel act. Though it took place in a New World, the Mayflower Compact continued a tradition developed decades before in the Old World, as Calvinist dissenters formed churches (meaning religious communities, not just places of worship) as a means to defend and further their way of life within the hostile society of Anglican England during the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts. These church covenants bound together individuals (heads of households, really) committed to a common way of life, spelling out their duties and their proper roles in communal self-government. They were constitutions of a recognizable sort, giving rules for ruling a given community formed for specified ends.
The ends to which the Declaration is aimed are, of course, different from those of a Calvinist church community. They are the broader, more abstract ends of a people establishing its independent status. Predating any comprehensive governing structure for all of America, the Declaration (like the Compact) lacks the frame of government included in a full church covenant. But it remains in its fundamentals a legal rather than a philosophical document. The bulk of the Declaration consists of particular charges showing that the “agreement” between crown and colonists, rooted as it was in common law and historical practice, had been broken so severely and in so many important ways that it had, in effect, been dissolved already by the British government.
Thus, the two documents are not of a like type. But they form integral parts of a common, overarching constitutional tradition. Where the Compact forms a full, organic community joined by commitment to a common way of life, the Declaration recognizes and declares the separation of the American people, in its pre-existing communities, to become “Free and Independent States.” The Declaration, of course, only began the process of forming a common government. That deed was accomplished through the Articles of Confederation then, more comprehensively, the Constitution itself. Yet even the Constitution is an incomplete instrument. It does not form a civil body politic. Rather, through its federal form, limited, enumerated powers, and in the ninth and tenth amendments, it recognizes the pre-existing bodies of the states as fundamental parts of an overall political structure; parts that are primary, though not supreme, in the actual self-government of citizens.
The American constitutional tradition stretches back beyond our shores to England (and, thence, through Rome, to Greece, and to Mt. Sinai). It is a tradition shaped on this continent by experience and the character of the people. Clearly, the rhetoric of one paragraph in one document of distinctly limited purpose cannot define such a tradition. Rather, the broad, thin claims of the Declaration, like the theologically and politically demanding purposes of the Compact, form parts of a federal vision of political society. In this vision, local communities play the primary role in government, protecting the fundamental institutions in which good character is formed. But beyond these communities there must be a wider, less organic and communitarian organization with the more limited purpose of defending the common good of the states and localities, securing them against foreign aggression and keeping the peace among them. What we have, then, in the transition between Compact and Declaration, is not “progress” toward ideological abstractions, but rather movement from the more local, organic, and primary, toward the more general and conventional. Both are necessary for a functioning society and can, as they did in America, work together to form a more perfect union.
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The featured image is “The Mayflower Compact, 1620,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863 – 1930), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.