The Mayflower Compact: The Foundation of American Voting Rights
On November 11, 1620, 41 men aboard the Mayflower signed their names to the Mayflower Compact, setting the stage for modern democracy in the United States. As the Pilgrims prepared to settle at Plymouth, these signers of the Compact pledged to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; 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 language is long-winded but the concepts are incredibly important. This idea of a “body politic” coming together in order to pass laws for the good of all is heavily echoed in the Preamble of the Constitution, written a century and a half later. The United States is founded on this understanding that in coming together and passing laws for the good of all, we “form a more perfect union.”
The signing of the Mayflower Compact was the first time early America formally recognized the notion of rule deriving from and for the people. This wasn’t a new or original idea; from the Magna Carta four hundred years earlier to John Locke’s Treatises on Government later in the century, the evolution of the rule of law is complex. In fact, the Talmud tells us that governance is derived from the people: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (B’rachot 55a). The self-government enshrined in the Mayflower Compact evolved into the town meetings and early democratic institutions of New England—and ultimately the country—making this document foundational to our modern democracy.
Contrary to popular belief, the Constitution, while predicated on the idea of governance deriving from the people and the states, did not specify any right to vote when ratified in 1789. Only as various Constitutional amendments prohibited denying the ability to vote on the basis of race, sex and age did it come to actually protect voting rights. Still, our modern understanding of democracy is inextricably linked to this fundamental right. It is sacrosanct, and the slow expansion of the right to vote from the Mayflower Compact to today is representative of our broader evolution as a society and as a nation.
Today, the right to vote is threatened by a spate of restrictive state laws and by the Supreme Court’s decision this year in Shelby v. Holder. Dozens of proposed and passed state laws are making it more difficult or impossible to vote, through more complex requirements, especially with regard to identification, shorter voting periods and challenged ballots. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will make it more difficult to curtail discriminatory and harmful policies that restrict the right to vote.
As we think about our blessings at Thanksgiving this year, many of us will say that we are thankful to live in a democracy. As we ponder the evolution of voting rights from the Mayflower Compact to today, it is important to remember that the battle for voting rights is ongoing. This Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for the right to vote and promise to protect it for all Americans.