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Living history

Mayflower descendant Julia Ernst to intersect family history, American democracy at next Faculty Lecture

Associate Professor of Law Julia Ernst (right) and her mother Janet descend from the first English colonists of what is now the United States, who arrived on the Mayflower almost 400 years ago. At this week’s Faculty Lecture Series installment, Ernst will present the Mayflower Compact’s influence on American democracy. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Julia Ernst is descended from a scoundrel, and proud of it.

Her ancestor, John Billington, came to what is now the United States on the Mayflower in 1620.

“We grew up hearing stories of our family coming from England on the Mayflower,” said Ernst, associate professor of law, who will present “The Mayflower Compact and the U.S. Constitution” at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, in the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl. A reception will precede the event at 4 p.m.

It’s an appropriate topic, said Ernst, given that the 400th anniversary of the Compact is next year. She teaches and researches constitutional law, along with legislation, human rights and gender law.

Ernst’s mother, Janet (Mohr) Ernst became interested in genealogy and was able to establish that her ancestor, John Billington, did indeed sail on the Mayflower to the New World. That work sparked Ernst’s interest in the Mayflower Compact and its impact on the Constitution.

Ernst said that her mother is flying in from Michigan to hear her give the lecture.

“My interest in genealogy has definitely piqued my interest in history and has become a joyful adventure that I now share with my daughter,” said Janet Ernst.

Mutiny on Mayflower

“We thought John Billington was one of the original pilgrims who fled England for religious reasons, until we did some research,’” said Ernst. “He was not a ’Saint’ as the separatists from the Church of England called themselves; Billington was one of the so-called ‘Strangers.’” The investors in England who funded the journey had selected others—including craftsmen, merchants, indentured servants and orphaned children—to accompany the “Saints” to ensure the success of the colony.

Billington was accused, said Ernst, of being one of the mutineers on the Mayflower. Although Billington and his family were crucial in helping the settlement survive the first winter, he was also the first person to be hanged in the colony.

Several years ago, Ernst said that she and her family went with friends to a luncheon of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in Michigan at the prestigious Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

“People were asked to rise when their ancestor was announced,” said Ernst. “When John Billington was announced, my mother and I proudly stood up. And someone at the next table murmured, ‘I can’t believe they admit they’re Billingtons!’”

The mutinous dissent took place because the Mayflower was driven off course and landed near Cape Cod in Massachusetts instead of their original destination. Therefore, some of the “Strangers” argued that the patent under which they sailed was void.

To quell the rebellion, most of the adult male colonists signed what became the Mayflower Compact, an agreement establishing the governance of the new colony.

“Winter was coming,” said Ernst. “They landed at what is now known as Plymouth Rock and knew everyone was needed to help the colony survive. They needed to work together, so the Compact was signed before they left the ship.”

Julia Ernst teaches and researches constitutional law, along with legislation, human rights and gender law at the UND School of Law. She says it’s important to learn, know, cherish and embrace the history of democratic freedoms – something she has been able to do first-hand, through her family ties. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Seeds of democracy

“Democracy was a new concept in 1620,” Ernst said. “There were monarchies in Europe and England, influenced by the Magna Carta. The Mayflower Compact was an iconic idea of self-governance and democracy in the New World, and it spread to other colonies.”

The settlers had to govern themselves, she said.

“The New World was so far removed from Great Britain. The monarchs were unable to impose hands-on governance. It was a laboratory experiment in self-rule.

“The seeds of democracy were there, and the Mayflower Compact was a seminal piece of American history that led to democracy and our freedoms today,” said Ernst. “It’s so important to know and embrace that history.”

The Mayflower Compact helped shape the governance of Plymouth Colony, and led to the Pilgrim Code of Law in 1636.  Then in the 1700s, as King George tried to clamp down and establish more control, the colonies began to rebel.

“They had grown up under the democratic process,” Ernst said. “At the same time, The Age of Enlightenment was taking place and influencing the colonies.” The exchange of ideas eventually led to the Revolutionary War and independence.

That independence was tenuous at first.  The Articles of Confederation, which originally bound the new states together, formed a very weak central government.

“Loyalty was to each state,” Ernst said. “The United States was not necessarily united. It was under threat of falling apart.”

Alexander Hamilton and others, including an initially-reluctant George Washington, began advocating for a stronger central government. This resulted in the U.S. Constitution and the foundation of our current democratic system, she said.

“When the Constitution was signed, only 6 percent of the population could vote,” Ernst said. “Twenty percent of the population was enslaved. Democracy as we know it today evolved over time.

“Democracy is never guaranteed,” said Ernst. “It’s important to learn, know, cherish and embrace the history of democratic freedoms so we can continue to keep them.”