Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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The Pilgrims - Part III
By Judy Leithe

The most famous peacetime ship in American history was the Mayflower. It was not a passenger ship, but used strictly for the transportation of cargo. In times of conflict, it was even pressed into service as a war ship to defend England’s maritime interests. However, in 1620, it carried 102 Puritans, along with 60 additional passengers and crew, on a stormy voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.

The ship’s size was 90’ long by 26’ wide. The entire space below deck, was used for cargo. The middle deck housed the gun and deck room, cannons, and ammunition stores. The upper deck housed the heavy cargo apparatus and three massive masts. The steerage room was on the top deck, along with sleeping quarters for the captain and the crew.

The gun deck was where the Puritans were quartered throughout the voyage. This meant that 102 people “lived” in a space of about 54’ long by 24’ wide. The ceiling was just 5’5” high, causing taller passengers to stoop while in a standing position. In this already cramped space, they also had to work around the ship’s main mast Pole, a cargo lift, and their own sail boat brought for future exploration in North America. The Puritans occupied this space during their 66-day voyage, with many choosing to not to leave their quarters because of rough seas, as well as the course behavior of the crew.

Rather than reaching Virginia, the Mayflower missed its intended destination and anchored in the northern harbor known to fishermen as Cape Cod.

At age 32, William Bradford had already assumed a leadership role, and, even before leaving the ship, he had overseen the writing of the first governing document of the New World, the Mayflower Compact. It was signed by 41 of the 51 male passengers on November 12, 1620.

It is interesting to note that, in the wording of the Compact, the Pilgrims maintained respect for their former country and king. In contrast to monarchical rule, however, the compact clearly outlined the importance of establishing a “civil body politic,” with “equal laws…constitutions and offices…convenient for the general good of the Colony…” In other words, self-government. One hundred and fifty years later, John Adams, and the other Founding Fathers, referred to the Mayflower Compact as the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.