Plymouth Colony offers a counterpoint to the corporate colonization of Jamestown if only because the Mayflower missed its destination. The Mayflower was intended to arrive in Virginia with additional settlers for the growing Virginia colony. However, the ship was forced to put ashore at what is today Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts due to storms and a lack of food in 1620. This leads to a spontaneous creation of self-governance among the Mayflower’s passengers, though self-governance was quickly overtaken through colonial rule directed by the Crown through a local governor, just like in Virginia. This placed Virginia and Massachusetts on equal footing as colonies with separate, but roughly identical governance structures.
The Mayflower included two groups: the Pilgrims and the non-Pilgrim settlers along for the voyage. Realizing they were not in Virginia, some of the Strangers claimed they were not bound by Crown rule, and planned to establish a new colony independent of Virginia. The Pilgrims wanted to maintain ties to England, and the two groups negotiated the Mayflower Compact before leaving the ship. This agreement paved the way for the Plymouth General Court, which was the Plymouth legislature and judicial court from 1620 to 1692, when Plymouth was merged into Massachusetts Bay, creating one colonial province for the region.
The original text of the Mayflower Compact is lost, but early copies are available and make its function and intent clear. William Bradford’s transcription is remarkably short, a single paragraph, and the document provides little in the way of a modern constitutional framework. However, the Compact, offered a few key essentials. First, the Compact stated the colonists’ allegiance to the Crown. Second, the Compact states the colonists “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” With this statement, the colonists established themselves as a political entity and allowed for self-government, something Virginia had lost by then. Further, the Compact states the laws established by the colonists would be “just and equal.”
Between 1620 and 1627, the Plymouth Colony faced similar problems to Jamestown, leading to the well-known Thanksgiving story. However, the colonists were concerned about the potential for conflicting land claims with respect to Virginia and sought a separate royal charter for Massachusetts Bay. The charter was granted and under this charter, the government of Massachusetts formalized local structures that had already been operating for areas in Massachusetts that were not a part of Plymouth. The local town councils continued and eventually the Massachusetts General Court was established as the colonial legislature and highest judicial authority in Massachusetts Bay. The legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts retains the name Massachusetts General Court today, even though it retains no judicial functions.
Operating outside the context of a royal charter, either indirectly as Jamestown started, or directly as Virginia was by 1624, the Mayflower Compact created a direct democracy and allowed the fledgling colony to kickoff without direct expected support. Further, as noted, the Compact was created immediately by the colony members upon the realization that no other governance structure existed, showing the obvious need for self-governance for the group. Under the Mayflower Compact, the structures of the modern Massachusetts government for created, along with guarantees of freedom and equality. Many of those principles continue in the American tradition, showing the influence a small support system can have on self-rule centuries later.