Early American Government, Plymouth Style

The purpose of this lesson is for students to gain an understanding of the establishment of a democratic government in America by studying Jamestown, Plymouth, and St. Mary’s City to identify how early settlements adapted and survived in America. The idea of self-governing and democracy were new to the British settlers as they were under the absolute power of a king back in England. The way in which democracy started and grew in America is important for students to understand as it helps them as they progress through American History and into the Revolutionary Time Period. Democracy was a novel idea and its early foundations started in the early colonies of Jamestown, Plymouth, and St. Mary’s City. For this lesson, students will investigate the governing practices of the Plymouth Colony as set forth by the Mayflower Compact.

Lesson Objective

By the end of this lesson students will be able to identify the governing practices of the Plymouth Colony and explain why the Pilgrims chose to govern themselves as they did. Students will achieve this by finding examples of the decision making process in the document The Mayflower Compact and completing an exit card.



  1. Prior to this lesson students should have learned about Jamestown as it is chronologically before Plymouth. While studying Jamestown focus on the problems that occurred in Jamestown as a result of poor leadership. From the problems, have students find how the problems were solved by setting up a government. Most of the students will conclude that John Smith set up rules and boundaries that all had to follow with the understanding that if you did not work, you would not eat. Students will have also investigated the Plymouth Colony by watching the Discovery Education Video “” and finding facts about the Plymouth Colony in the document packet on Plymouth from the MCPS guide. Students should have a basic understanding of the facts of the Plymouth Colony and focus on the fact that before they left the Mayflower the men signed the Mayflower Compact to govern the colony.
  2. Activator: Ask students why it is important to have leadership and a decision-making process when setting up a new colony. A good connection might be to schools and how we make ground rules and have consequences for actions.
  3. Whole Group Lesson: Talk to the students about our government and how we have elected leaders, fair laws, and a system for fair judgment. We essentially have a democracy, rule by the people. The English were used to the absolute power rule of the king back in England and when English Colonies were established in America they had to create their own government and decision-making process. Jamestown did not have a strong government and had many problems. The Plymouth Colony decided to create a document that delineated the details of their government and decision-making process. The Mayflower Compact was the document and it was signed by all the men on the ship.
  4. Explain to students that, in groups, they will find out their beliefs on government, basic rights and rules, and the way in which their government will function
  5. Group Work:Pass out The Mayflower Compact and the worksheet “Unpacking the Compact” to the groups and have the students read the document and find the information to complete the worksheet
  6. After about 15-20 minutes return to whole group and discuss their findings


Students can use The Mayflower Compact and the worksheet “Unpacking the Compact” to answer the exit card prompt “Decision-Making Process at Plymouth”


“Mayflower Compact in William Bradford’s Hand.” Plimouth Plantation (accessed March 9, 2013)

“Mayflower Compact.” Plimouth Plantation (accessed March 9, 2013) http://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/mayflower-and-mayflower-compact#mayflowercompact

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