John Winthrop (1588-1649) was an American colonial political leader and historian. He was a very effective governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his journal constitutes an important historical record.
John Winthrop was the dominant figure in the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His actions and ideas gave the Puritan colony much of its essential character. He had close dealings with other important Puritan leaders, such as John Cotton, minister of the church to which he belonged, and Roger Williams, with whom he disagreed.
Winthrop was born on Jan. 22, 1588, near the family seat at Groton in Suffolk County, England. He was the only son of a prosperous landowner, Adam Winthrop. After an education near home, John was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1602; he studied there less than two years. At the age of 17, by family arrangement, he was married to Mary Forth. Sometime during his early years Winthrop had a religious experience. He adopted a zealous Puritanism as a result, although he decided not to enter the ministry.
Winthrop's wife produced six children before she died in 1615. He remarried but his wife died a year later. In 1618 he married Margaret Tyndale, and their relationship is one of the most attractive in history. During these years Winthrop devoted himself to the tasks of a country landholder and also to the study of law; he was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1613 for legal studies. In 1617 he was made a justice of the peace in Suffolk, where he lived at Great Stambridge on dowry lands. In 1627 he was appointed attorney in the Court of Wards and Liveries. But Winthrop found several sources of dissatisfaction. The government's religious and political policies and his unprosperous personal circumstances led to a concern to provide for his sons.
Massachusetts Bay Colony
In 1629 Winthrop agreed to go to America with the Massachusetts Bay Company, and in October, after a decision had been reached to put the government of the colony in the hands of resident leaders, he was elected governor. He was involved in all of the elaborate financial arrangements
and preparation of supplies, and in April 1630 he sailed on the Arbella, one of the four ships that brought 400 Puritan men, women, and children to America. Under his direction the colonists settled in the area around the Charles River. Despite courageous and able leadership, 200 colonists died during the first winter, and 80 returned home in the spring. Among the earliest deaths was that of Winthrop's son Henry. Because of the discouragement that resulted among the colony's backers, Winthrop was obliged to invest increasing amounts of his money to provide supplies. The rest of his family did not arrive until the fall of 1631, by which time the colony was solidly established.
Winthrop provided a rationale for the colony in a sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," which he delivered on the Arbella. Here he argued for the creation of a community covenanted with God, and "a due form of government civil and ecclesiastical." The colony was to be "as a city upon a hill" for all to observe. The key provision was that full citizenship in the colony was to be available only to church members. The churches first established adopted a congregational polity, and thenceforth only congregational churches were permitted. The government took great authority unto itself, though it was based on a principle of representative government. Though in 1634 the citizens elected Thomas Dudley as the colony's governor, Winthrop continued to be the most influential man in the colony.
In 1630 Winthrop had begun keeping a diary, which he continued to the year of his death. It is a dry, cold, and impersonal document in style, but it is of immense interest because of its contents. He referred to it as a journal, though it has been called The History of New England. In it he reports nearly all important events of the day; he also offers profound insights into the essential nature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Among the problems that Winthrop and the colony had to deal with was the highly individualistic Roger Williams. The separatist religious tendencies that Williams had demonstrated in Salem (he urged the church there to renounce the other churches of the colony) led to his being banished. But Winthrop, who recognized that Williams's views were potentially destructive to the colony he had helped create, also recognized the virtues of the man and maintained a friendship with him.
Winthrop was much less sympathetic to another member of the church in Boston, Anne Hutchinson. She had arrived in Massachusetts in 1634 to enjoy the preaching of the Reverend John Cotton, whom she had admired in England. As early as 1636 Winthrop began to record a list of the theological errors that she was teaching in weekly meetings. Her fundamental teaching was that "the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person," in a person called to eternal salvation, and that the presence of the indwelling spirit, not good works, was the evidence that one was of the elect. This antinomianism undercut the Puritan emphasis on the Bible as interpreted by learned ministers, and Mrs. Hutchinson went so far as to declare that only two ministers in the colony, Cotton and John Wheelwright, were among the elect.
At this time, 1636, Winthrop was not governor; the man who held the post was Henry Vane, also a member of Cotton's church and an admirer of Mrs. Hutchinson. Many of the other members of the church also admired her, but she and her views were much less popular outside Boston. Eventually Winthrop was reelected governor, replacing Vane, and Wheelwright and Mrs. Hutchinson were banished. Though Winthrop had been in the minority in his church, his position once more triumphed. In both the Williams episode and the antinomian controversy Winthrop's role was to create unity within the colony, unity necessary for survival.
Winthrop's governorship was intermittent (he served 1630-1633, 1637-1639, 1642, 1646-1648). The General Court recognized his services in 1637 by granting him substantial acreage in Concord. Unfortunately his incapable overseer brought Winthrop deeply into debt. When he put up his Boston house and much of his land for sale, the colony gave him gifts of land and money.
The Puritan Revolution in England in the early 1640s led many American colonists to feel a sense of responsibility to their mother country. Some of Winthrop's friends urged his return. But Winthrop felt that it was his duty to remain in Massachusetts. When Dr. Robert Child announced that he was asking Parliament to reduce the colony's independence and abolish the right to limit the vote to church members, Child was promptly fined for contempt, and Winthrop announced
that the colony recognized no appeal to higher authority.
One of Winthrop's most important roles in the life of the colony was his spokesmanship for its political position; he sometimes created public policy as well. In July 1645 he delivered a speech to the General Court in which he defined two kinds of liberty: natural (liberty to do as one wishes, "evil as well as good," a liberty that should be restrained) and civil (liberty to do good). It is only the latter, according to Winthrop, that is "the proper end and object of authority." In other words, it is the duty of government to stop corruption and to promote justice, not to promote the general welfare.
Winthrop died on March 26, 1649. Although circumstances in time changed the nature of the colony, many of the features of the New England way he had established remained. He more than anyone else gave the colony its distinctive character, and he was largely responsible for the flourishing state of its 15,000 inhabitants at the time of his death. Of his several children, the most notable was John, who became governor of the colony of Connecticut.
Further Reading on John Winthrop
The best edition of Winthrop's journal, The History of New England, 1630-1649, is that of James Savage (2 vols., 1825-1826; rev. ed. 1853). The Massachusetts Historical Society's Winthrop Papers (5 vols., 1929-1947) is also of great value. Other important sources are Robert C. Winthrop, Life and Letters of John Winthrop (1864-1867), and the splendid biography by Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958). A valuable discussion of Winthrop in relation to Boston's growth is Darrett B. Rutman, Winthrop's Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630-1649 (1965).