Winthrop, John (1714-1779)

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John Winthrop (1714-1779)



Family. Before the Revolution, Harvard College ranked its freshmen according to family status, a practice often yielding embarrassing results. Coming from one of New Englands most famous and influential families, John Winthrop, born on 19 December 1714, was placed at the head of his class when he entered Harvard at age fourteen. He soon made it clear that in his case the honor was fully justified. Devoting himself to science and mathematics, Winthrop developed a rational, methodical, and critical mind that made him Americas preeminent academic scientist. He also developed a habit of independent thinking and an impatience for unscientific argument that frequently placed him at odds with more conservative classmates.

Professorship. His ability and reputation were such that in 1738, when he was only twenty-four, he was elected Hollis professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at his alma mater, the second one to receive that honor. He was a controversial choice, not only on account of his known religious liberality but, because of his youth. A rival for the post who had once been his tutor protested that that Boy...knew no more of Philosophy than a Fowl, and that I could teach him his A.B.C. in the Mathematicks. As Winthrops career was to prove, that claim was unjustified.

Astronomy. Winthrops particular delight was astronomy. His first work was on the nature of sunspots, and he later wrote and lectured on comets, but he became better known for his celestial observations of planetary transits across the Sun. These events, such as the transit of Mercury in 1740 and the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769, were important to the scientific community because accurate measurements made during their observation could yield clues to the size and nature of the solar system, still something of a mystery. In these events all eyes looked to Winthrop, for he was an acknowledged master of the methods and mathematics necessary for accurate computations.

Popular Academic. He held lectures for the public as well as for Harvards students, and in 1746 he established the first experimental laboratory of its kind at the college, for both instruction and research. One of the laboratorys prize possessions was an electrical battery built by Winthrops famous correspondent, Benjamin Franklin. To some students, particularly new ones, Winthrop seemed overwhelming. One student later wrote of Winthrops lectures: he touched on a few matters rapidly; the subjects were of course very familiar to himbut to the novitiates, it was all Greek. We derived no benefit from his remarks. On the other hand, more advanced students thought he had a happy talent of communicating his ideas in the easiest and most elegant manner.

Religion v. Science. Winthrops highest public visibility came in 1755, when a violent earthquake struck Americas eastern seaboard. Many ministers interpreted the quake as a sign of Gods displeasure and a warning to the faithful and preached and published copiously to that effect. Winthrop, disgusted by the providential and pseudoscientific explanations for what he considered a strictly natural phenomenon, published some of his lectures on the subject. One minister in particular carried the debate into Bostons newspapers, a venue that Winthrop entered with pleasure. In the month-long, sometimes acrimonious debate that followed, Winthrop got the upper hand and in the process brought the science-versus-religion issue into public discourse.

Honors. By the time of the American Revolution, Winthrop was renowned in the scientific communities of America and Europe and had received virtually every accolade his profession could bestow. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1766, elected a member of the American Philosophical Society three years later, and received an honorary L.L.D. from Edinburgh in 1771 and from Harvard in 1773. Preferring the pursuit of science to administrative duties, he twice refused the presidency of his college. He was an ardent supporter of independence but did not live to see the end of the war that established it, dying on 3 May 1779. His son James was considered for Harvards chair of mathematics and natural philosophy, but his uneven temperament cost him that position.

Assessment. Benjamin Franklin is the best-known of Americas early scientists today, but Winthrop was perhaps better qualified to be Americas premier natural philosopher. Unlike the many-faceted Franklin, who focused more and more on his political career in the 1750s, Winthrop remained immersed in scientific study almost to the exclusion of all other interests for all of his life. He lacked Franklins intuitive genius (and his talent for self-promotion), but he shared Franklins capacity for independent thought and had the advantage of superior education, access to the resources of a top intellectual institution, and a first-rate, analytical mind that could grapple with questions of cosmic consequences. Ezra Stiles, the Connecticut minister and scientist, eulogized Winthrop with words that few contemporaries would have disputed. In Mathematics and natural Philosophy, he wrote, I believe he had not his equal in Europe.


Silvio A. Bedini, Thinkers and Tinkers: Early American Men of Science (New York: Scribners, 1975).

John Winthrop

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John Winthrop

John Winthrop (1606-1676), American colonial statesman and scientist, founded several New England settlements. He obtained Connecticut's favorable charter and served as its chief executive.

Oldest child of Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor, John Winthrop was born at Groton, England, on Feb. 12, 1606. His mother died when he was nine, and his well-to-do father sent him to Bury St. Edmunds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin. John studied law desultorily, then served as captain's secretary in the fleet sent to relieve La Rochelle in 1627. After that expedition's failure, he embarked on a European tour.

Returning to London, Winthrop found his father determined to join the Puritan migration to America. John remained behind to sell the family estate and marry his cousin Martha Fones in 1631. Late that year the couple arrived in Boston.

For the next 14 years Winthrop roamed restlessly. In 1633 he led a party to found Ipswich, where his wife and infant daughter died. Returning to England, John visited leading Puritans and obtained the governorship for a projected colony in Connecticut. He reappeared in Boston in 1635 with men, supplies, and a second wife. An advance party erected a fort at Saybrook, Conn., but Winthrop resettled at Ipswich and soon moved the family to Salem.

When the elder Winthrop encountered financial difficulties, John aided his father. This necessitated selling some Ipswich lands; he began salt manufacturing and then journeyed again to England for capital. In 1644 Massachusetts granted him 3,000 acres to establish iron-works, and with imported workers and machinery he built furnaces at Lynn and Braintree. That year he also founded New London, Conn., for the same purpose.

After his father's death in 1649 Winthrop surrendered his Massachusetts public offices, concentrating on Connecticut. Elected governor in 1657, he made Hartford his permanent residence. After 1658 he was annually chosen chief executive the remainder of his life. King Charles II gave Winthrop a most liberal charter for Connecticut in 1662; it included New Haven within Connecticut's jurisdiction. During 1673-1675 he successfully defended the colony's claims against the Dutch and New York's governor Edmund Andros.

Winthrop was more concerned with science than theology. Noted for his library and knowledge of medicine, he pioneered in industrial chemistry and was first resident American member of the Royal Society.

As a New England Confederation commissioner, Winthrop attended a meeting in Boston, where he died on April 5, 1676. Able and charming, he was noted for his tolerance in a generally bigoted age.

Further Reading

The best book on Winthrop is Robert C. Black III, The Younger John Winthrop (1966), a thorough and objective treatment, although there are some admitted assumptions. Also worthwhile are Lawrence S. Mayo, The Winthrop Family in America (1948), and the penetrating analysis in Richard S. Dunn, Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England (1962). □

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John Winthrop (1606-76)

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