The Pilgrim Code of 1636: English Charter, Christian Covenant, and Modern Constitution

Reading these lines from the so-called Pilgrim Code — written November 15, 1636 — it is easy to appreciate the influence this early constitution had on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. This undeniable influence has been forgotten, however, in an attempt to toss our true history down the memory hole, turning “history” into “social studies.”

This article will re-acquaint Americans with the story of the Pilgrim Code and the debt of gratitude we owe to our tenacious forebears this Thanksgiving.

Some 16 years after the Mayflower Compact was signed and our Pilgrim Fathers waded onto the cold and rocky shores of Massachusetts, the leaders of those settlers that survived that first freeze and famine, as well as all those who led other seekers of religious liberty to the colony known as Plymouth, gathered together to “put all the political practices and institutions, as well as the laws generated since 1620, into coherent form, eliminating what was redundant or no longer needed,” Donald Lutz writes in The Origins of American Constitutionalism.

Lutz writes that “centrality of religion” in the lives of the Pilgrim colonists, as well as their devotion to following the biblical example of a wandering people crossing the water to establish a land of promise, led the Separatists to constitute their “civil body politick” according to the covenants central to their Calvinist theology.

Whether it’s the Mayflower Compact or any of the scores of other town charters written in the first couple of decades after that seminal document was signed, each of them shared certain common clauses — covenant clauses.

According to Lutz, these covenant-inspired charters, codes, and constitutions counted on the following five “foundation elements”: first, God is called on as a witness; second, the need for the agreement is expressed; third, a covenant people is identified or created; fourth, a church is established; and fifth, the covenanting community’s goals are declared.

Such deliberations of divine provenance and purpose obviously have no place in 21st-century public schools that claim to be “educating” the descendants of these pious pioneers, and that should be unacceptable to those of us who claim to admire our ancestors and to serve the same Savior.

In addition to covenants, our Pilgrim Fathers established their communities’ constitutions on charters — the ancient expressions of English liberty. Charters, too, follow familiar patterns, Lutz explains.

Unlike covenants which united a distinct people in an agreement among themselves and their God, a charter served to create contract relationship between some earthly sovereign — the people themselves or the king — and the people agreeing to throw their lots together.

The second sentence of the Pilgrim Code is known to history as the “Plymouth Agreement,” and it is one of the earliest expressions of the once-English and always-American political tenet that the only legitimate basis for government is consent of the governed and that the Magna Carta (and other ancient, although unwritten constitutions) guaranteed that Englishmen in all places forever — including Massachusetts in 1636 — enjoyed the rights of all other Englishmen in all other places.

The Pilgrim Code declares, binding the colonists backward to Britain and forward to futurity, this dogma thus:

Now being assembled according to the said order, and having read the combination made at Cape Cod the 11th of November 1620 in the year of the reign of our late sovereign lord King James of England, France, Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, as also our letters patents confirmed by the honorable council, his said Majesty established and granted the 13th of January 1629 in the fifth year of the reign of our sovereign lord King Charles, and finding that, as freeborn subjects of the state of England, we hither came endowed with all and singular the privileges belonging to such, in the first place we think good that it be established for an act that, according to the … and due privileges of the subject aforesaid, no imposition, law, or ordinance be made or imposed upon us by ourselves or others at present or to come but such as shall be made or imposed upon us by consent, according to the free liberties of the state and kingdom of England and no otherwise.

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