John Winthrop

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1951

John Winthrop lived the last nineteen years of his life, from 1630 to 1649, in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He served as its first governor and always held an influential position in the young colony. Historians have tended to depict him as a typically intolerant Puritan magistrate, the man who banished...

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John Winthrop lived the last nineteen years of his life, from 1630 to 1649, in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He served as its first governor and always held an influential position in the young colony. Historians have tended to depict him as a typically intolerant Puritan magistrate, the man who banished the irrepressible religious radical Anne Hutchinson from the colony. However, he fell from the leadership only when his constituents found him too lenient generally with dissidents. To understand properly Winthrop’s character and his way of exercising authority, his latest biographer insists on the necessity of a careful study of Winthrop’s Puritan heritage. Thus Francis J. Bremer devotes nearly half of John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father to his ancestry and to the first forty-two years of his life, mostly spent in East Anglia, where he attained no position higher than that of local magistrate.

Bremer begins his account with Winthrop’s grandfather Adam, born in 1498. Adam prospered as a London clothier, married twice, and fathered seven children, the sixth of whom, also named Adam, would become the father of John. The younger Adam’s birth in 1548 made him the first of his line to be reared in Protestant England. He fell under the influence of his elder half-brother William, whose evangelizing bent led him to join the crusade against the priestly vestments, images, and symbols that religious reformers regarded as undesirable hangovers from Roman Catholicism. Another important influence was a regional one: the resettlement of the senior Adam in the Stour River valley, which divides the counties of Suffolk and Essex, where the cause of continuing religious reform flourished particularly.

The young man who would father John Winthrop spent some time at Cambridge, but his admission to the Inner Temple in London in 1574 led to the bar and a legal career. Consequently John, born to Adam and his wife, the former Anne Browne, in 1588, was destined also for a legal career. John’s father assumed in 1595 the role of steward of Groton Manor in Suffolk, which had been in the family for some time. John, six years old at the time, would grow up in what Protestant reformers referred to in a rather proprietary way as a “godly” atmosphere.

Winthrop’s admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1603 coincided with the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of her Scottish cousin James to the English throne. As king of Scotland, James had ruled a stoutly Calvinist nation, and English reformers now entertained high hopes of initiating religious changes that Elizabeth had resisted. At Cambridge Winthrop surely experienced the thrust of current debates and divisions over the future of the Church of England.

Although King James called together the committee that produced the great Bible translation named for him, he disappointed the reformers at a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the state of the clergy, especially those in the Groton area, where a survey proclaimed only a little more than a quarter of them to be “good and faithful preachers.” In 1605 Winthrop left Cambridge, married Mary Forth, and settled in Essex. Over the next six years four children were born to the couple. In 1613 Winthrop returned to Groton, where he had already begun to assume some of the duties of a local magistrate. Around this time his name appeared on a list of members of Gray’s Inn, but he did not complete his legal training and never gained admission to the bar. Both his study and practical legal experience, however, would ultimately prove valuable to him and to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His first wife died in childbirth in 1615. He then married and was widowed again the following year. His next union, in 1618, with Margaret Tyndal, who shared his religious piety, resulted in four more children and persisted happily until her death in 1647.

Why did the leaders of the New England Company choose this obscure man to head the new colony? Winthrop’s selection had something to do with his perceived ability and integrity, but more to do with the fact that, compared to such enterprises as the Virginia Company and the East India Company, this one was failing to attract prospective leaders of any prominence. Winthrop accepted the nomination for several reasons, beginning with his ambition to “carry the Gospel in America.” He listed also overpopulation in England, inflation, the corruption of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and a conviction that the emigration of godly and respectable people would give the enterprise a good name. Privately he felt that God must be contemplating the punishment of a morally drifting England and that America offered the opportunity of a fresh start to those willing to take the initiative.

The motives—even the religious motives—of the seven hundred original emigrants were, if anything, more mixed than Winthrop’s. The accession of Charles I in 1625 had brought new wars, heavy taxation, and a trend within the Church of England toward what Puritan reformers saw as “popish practices.” Though united in their suspicions regarding the old religion, prospective emigrants found it far less easy to see eye to eye on the proper adjustment of religious freedom to the order and discipline necessary for survival and prosperity in the wilderness.

Bremer’s discussion of “A Model of Christian Charity,” the lay sermon that Winthrop delivered to his fellow emigrants immediately before their departure for the New World, forms the centerpiece of his book. The prophetic assertion therein, based on a passage in the Gospel of Saint Matthew that “we shall be as a city on a hill,” has become Winthrop’s chief claim to immortality. This role, Winthrop cautioned, could end in humiliating failure. He closed his sermon with a grim reminder that without a firm commitment to love of both God and neighbor, the colonists would “surely perish.” Bremer ends his “interlude” between the English and American stages of Winthrop’s life with a summary of the challenges that the man had to face from opponents in both Old World and New, from within and without his community.

Initially the challenge represented by the natives proved the easiest, for the white man’s diseases had already decimated the Indian tribes in the immediate vicinity of Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop had little to do with the war that John Endecott, the leader of the Salem plantation, felt compelled to wage against the Pequots in 1636. Much more diplomatic than Endecott, Winthrop weathered his first few years as governor without resorting to physical assaults of the sort Endecott visited upon Thomas Morton and his decidedly ungodly community of Merry Mount. Winthrop later had to deal with the problems occasioned by the banished Morton’s attempt to poison the reputation of the whole colony when Morton returned to England.

Winthrop’s most serious challenges came from political opponents within the colony. Thomas Dudley, Winthrop’s first deputy and eventual replacement as governor, charged Winthrop with leniency in his relations with dissidents. Both despised Anne Hutchinson and her radical religious views and cooperated in banishing her from the colony in 1637. Winthrop, however, remained suspiciously friendly with that other most illustrious heretic, Roger Williams, after the latter was exiled to Rhode Island during Dudley’s governorship. Soon other challengers arose, almost invariably winning support from the electors on the General Court by attacking Winthrop’s leniency. Bremer insists on the importance of viewing Winthrop’s politico-religious decisions in the context of his time. Even had he been capable of religious tolerance approaching today’s norm, the prevailing mind-set would not have allowed him to exercise it.

Given the intransigence of colonial judges and the harshness of the penalties for heterodoxy, Winthrop’s preference for judging cases in the light of circumstances does strike the modern mind as reflecting a liberal attitude, although Bremer sees Winthrop’s judicial philosophy as a reflection of his ingrained respect for the venerable tradition of English common law. In a society prone to theocratic leanings, Winthrop cautioned against the subordination of civil magistrates to the church, not from any particular fear of religious authority per se but because he understood the civic and ecclesiastical realms to be distinct. Clearly other colonial leaders, both lay and clerical, disagreed with him. In 1635 the General Court appointed a four-man committee, including Winthrop (then out of office for the first time), to draft a code of laws, but the effort failed, partly, it appears, because of Winthrop’s lack of enthusiasm for codification. The next year he served again on a larger committee formed for the same purpose. Dissatisfied with its theocratic formulations, such as that of the Reverend John Cotton, who would base the colony’s laws on the Mosaic law, Winthrop managed to block the enactment of any code. By 1641, however, the move for codification succeeded. Although Puritan to the core, Winthrop preferred the longstanding tradition of English common law to the severities of Old Testament justice.

Although Winthrop’s moderate brand of Puritanism remained unpopular, he continued to be an important figure, and as late as 1647, when he was fifty-nine, the electors again returned him govenor. A few days later Margaret, to whom he had been married for twenty-nine years, died suddenly. Before the year was out he married again, but like his first two marriages, this one proved brief. In the summer of 1648, his health began to fail, and on March 16, 1649, he passed away.

In an epilogue Bremer seeks to justify the subtitle of his book, America’s Forgotten Founding Father, with partial success. It is true that until late in the nineteenth century both Groton, the English seat of the Winthrops, and Boston seem to have pretty well forgotten him. No Boston physical structure associated with him remains—although the same can be said of most of his well-known contemporaries, for as Bremer notes, the only extant seventeenth century structure in Boston is the Paul Revere house. Still, it is disconcerting to learn that as late as 1879 consideration was seriously given to removing his grave and those of Cotton and other colonists out of the King’s Chapel Burial Ground “in order to make better use of the site.” In 1930 a ceremony involving a replica of the Arbella sailing into Salem Harbor with a Winthrop descendent playing the role of his ancestor attracted only local attention. Since then historians have substantially modifed the prevailing Puritan stereotype, but Bremer laments their lack of influence on the general populace.

The expression Founding Fathers usually denotes the men who helped form the federal union that arose generations after Winthrop’s death. Although the author establishes that Winthrop, to an extent fairly unusual in his time, used his influence to encourage the separation of church and state, Bremer seems to base his claim for “founding fatherhood” on Winthrop’s eloquent plea for “Christian charity” in his lay sermon aboard the Arbella. This admirable and deservedly famous utterance does not, however, define American character or foreshadow in any way the civic ideals of the American nation.

Bremer adopts a policy of beginning each chapter with imaginative, usually one-page re-creations of scenes in his subject’s life. Cautiously set off from the scholarly text which follows, these “plausible but not provable” scenes contain some extremely fine descriptive writing. Their style contrasts sharply with that of the author’s competent scholarly prose but provides a periodically refreshing change of pace. With its closing seventy-seven pages of notes and extensive index, Bremer’s John Winthrop stands as a carefully researched and thorough biography of a man who deserves to be remembered.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1733.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 10 (May 15, 2003): 725.

Library Journal 128, no. 11 (June 15, 2003): 80.

The New York Times Book Review, September 21, 2003, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 20 (May 19, 2003): 62.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 2003, p. 28.

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