The Mayflower Experiment

by Jery Payne

In August of 1620, a group of Puritans set sail from Southampton, England, on two ships named the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The destination was Virginia. The Speedwell, which had already seen leaks repaired several times, sprung a leak and took on water, so both ships went back to the closest port of Plymouth. Many of the Speedwell’s passengers squeezed themselves and their belongings into the Mayflower, and they set sail once again.

Because of the delay, the Mayflower crossed the Atlantic during storm season, which made the journey unpleasant. Many of the passengers were so seasick they could scarcely get up, and the waves were so rough that one person was swept overboard. After two months of misery, the Mayflower landed in Cape Cod, which wasn’t their destination. But they didn’t continue on to Virginia because, among other things, they were out of beer.

Then the colonists drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact. This compact promised to create a “civil Body Politick” governed by elected officials and “just and equal laws.” And they meant it.

The Puritans appear to have made what many modern Americans would consider a dystopian bargain. They gave up most freedom, individuality, and art for a society with low crime and low inequality. Our modern view of the Puritans is probably a little too influenced by the Salem witch trials and The Scarlet Letter. Although these portraits of the Puritans are not entirely wrong, they overlook a great deal. Put in context, a different picture is painted:

  • The Puritans believed in public shaming. Along with the famous scarlet A for adultery, there was a B for blasphemy, a C for counterfeiting, a D for drunkenness, etc.
  • They were strict. Wasting time was a criminal offense, and another law held, “If any man shall exceed the bounds of moderation, we shall punish him severely.” (The drafter must not have had a keen sense of irony.)
  • The law required everyone to live in a family. If a Town official discovered a person living alone, the official would find a family and order the loner to join it.
  • Teenage pregnancy rates were the lowest in the Western world and in some areas were zero.
  • Murder rates were half of those in other American colonies.
  • The Puritans valued education. Massachusetts was the first place to mandate universal public education. The law was nicknamed The Old Deluder Satan Act in honor of its preamble, which began “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures….” The Puritans founded Harvard and Yale. And the Massachusetts constitution guaranteed a public education to all citizens.
  • There was remarkable wealth equality. The wealthiest 10 percent owned only 20 to 30 percent of the property, compared to about 75 percent today.
  • The poor were treated with charity and respect. For example, a man’s heels were locked in the stocks for being uncharitable to a poor man.
  • Women had more equality than in probably any other part of the world. Wife abuse was punished by a public whipping. A wife could divorce her husband for failing to meet his marital obligations, due to adultery, impotence, desertion, or other failures. For example, a husband was excommunicated in 1640 for having “denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife.” In another case, a woman admitted to committing adultery, but that was overlooked—belying the plot of The Scarlet Letter—because her husband admitted that he had “deserted her for several years.

So although many of the Puritan’s attitudes and practices shock modern sensibilities, they were for their time remarkably egalitarian. Wealth distribution was actually more egalitarian than in modern America and almost every other civilization in history.

The settling of American’s 13 colonies is a social scientist’s dream come true. The lords and their servants settled Virginia and much of the coastal South, and the Puritans settled New England. The Puritans came to New England in large numbers because the English lords persecuted them. When Parliament went to war with King Charles I, the Puritans supported Parliament. And it was Puritan armies that by and large won the war, so the Puritans ended up ruling England for a time. When Parliament beheaded Charles I, many lords took the hint and came to Virginia. Although they both came from England, the two groups had very different cultures.

It’s not an accident that the descendants of the people who fought to reduce the king’s power over Parliament fought another civil war to end slavery. It’s not an accident that the descendants of the lords who fought for the rights of the king over Parliament fought against ending slavery. Although the first state legislature was established in Virginia, the American ideas about equality that inform the modern state legislature owe much to the Puritans.

Although Puritan rule ended up placing Oliver Cromwell on something that looked remarkably like a throne, the British civil war was a step toward parliamentary sovereignty. And this informed the attitudes of Americans.

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the oldest-written still-functioning constitution in the world. And it served as the model for the United States Constitution.