Without the Mayflower Compact, there’d be no Thanksgiving

Posted 11/26/20

This week we celebrate the most quintessential of American holidays: Thanksgiving. We created it to proclaim the bounty and blessings of life to be shared with family, friends and even strangers …

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Without the Mayflower Compact, there’d be no Thanksgiving

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This week we celebrate the most quintessential of American holidays: Thanksgiving. We created it to proclaim the bounty and blessings of life to be shared with family, friends and even strangers after hard work accomplished and challenges met. Thanksgiving was not given to us; it was earned and hard won.

It became reality after our Pilgrim forefathers faced and overcame the gravest of crises — the stark truth of life or death choices. When that community committed to facing that terror together, to share a common fate despite their deep divisions, they created a framework that saved themselves. That model suffused our national culture and ultimately became the foundation of our American experiment to test whether democracy — rule by ourselves alone — can survive and flourish. Today we are back at that moment, to see whether we are going to come together or come apart.

The Pilgrims in November 1620, exactly 400 years ago, landed on an unknown rocky hostile shore that was not their intended destination. They were supposed to be 250 miles south at the mouth of the Hudson River in the large and accommodating bay that one day would be New York City (deemed to be “Virginia” at the time). Winter was upon them, their provisions were low, and they could not sail back to Europe. They had no authority from their leaders in the Netherlands to be where they were or settle where they landed. Confusion reigned. Tempers mounted.

“Mutinous speeches” were heard for families to do whatever they wished according to reports of the time. They were about to come apart, and their divisions in such a forbidding setting likely would have doomed them.

Instead, they found agreement, not on lofty principles, but on practical commitments. In their compact they decided to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic” to “frame such just and equal laws ... as shall be thought most ... convenient for the general good” and promised “all due submission and obedience.” Their vow to self government reached back to the Magna Carta and foreshadowed our Constitution.

Without the Mayflower Compact, there might have been no Thanksgiving. Their unity carried them through the terrible winter of 1620-21 when half the settlers perished. These Americans came together despite their divisions. By focusing on the benefit for all instead of the personal conviction of each, they surmounted their challenges. And they would have their Thanksgiving the following year.

Is that not also the message of Thanksgiving for us in this new time of challenge — whether we ordinary people can rise above our individual differences and govern ourselves for the better good of all? John Lewis said that if we were to build and reconcile and love and heal, we would have to see ourselves as “one family, one house, the American house, the American family.”

Thanksgiving is the perfect day to ponder that truth.

W. Robert Pearson, who lives in Fearrington Village with his wife, Maggie, was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development, and served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state.


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