John Winthrop

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John Winthrop

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.

Religious Controversies

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.

Political Spokesman

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

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). □

John Winthrop

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John Winthrop

John Winthrop (1714-1779), American educator and scientist, helped liberalize the curriculum of Harvard College and received English recognition as America's leading astronomer.

John Winthrop was born in Boston, Mass., on Dec. 19, 1714, the great-great-grandson of Massachusetts Bay's first governor. He early demonstrated scholarly ability, completing Boston Latin School at 14 and graduating from Harvard in 1732. He studied science at home for six years and at 24 was named professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard.

Winthrop's public lectures and demonstrations in physical science attracted wide attention, and the results of his continuous and extensive research were published by London's Royal Society. His series of sunspot observations in 1739 were the first in Massachusetts and necessitated close cooperation with both the Royal Society and Greenwich Observatory. He noted transits of Mercury in 1740, 1743, and 1769 and also accurately recorded the longitude of Cambridge, Mass. Other studies included work on meteors (1755), the transit of Venus (1761), and solar parallax and distance (1769).

In 1751 Winthrop inaugurated a new era in American mathematical study by introducing the elements of calculus at Harvard. His study of the New England earthquake of 1755 was a pioneering approach to seismology. He established America's first laboratory of experimental physics in 1746, and his demonstrations on mechanics, heat, and light are thought to have influenced both Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford.

Winthrop carried on meteorological observations for some 20 years; in 1759 he first predicted the return of Halley's comet. His study of the 1761 Venus transit in Newfoundland was Harvard's first astronomical expedition. His other interests included extensive research on magnetism, eclipses, and light aberrations. In fact, his chief defect as a teacher was said to be his range of subjects which was so vast that he sometimes failed to go into them deeply enough.

Twice Winthrop declined the presidency of Harvard. However, he served for a time as Massachusetts probate judge and member of the governor's council. During the period of the American Revolution he enthusiastically promoted the colonial cause, encouraged munitions production, and advised George Washington and other American leaders. He was a fellow of the Royal Society (1766) and a member of the American Philosophical Society (1769), and he received honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh (1771) and Harvard (1773-the institution's first).

Winthrop married twice; his first wife, Rebecca Townsend, died after seven years (1753), and in 1756 he married Hannah Fayerweather Tolman. She survived him, together with three sons by his first wife, when he died in Cambridge on May 3, 1779.

Further Reading

Information on Winthrop must be gleaned from a number of sources. The best accounts are in Lawrence S. Mayo, The Winthrop Family in America (1948), and in Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America (1956). Robert C. Winthrop, Jr., A Pedigree of the Family of Winthrop (1874), is somewhat outdated. □

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). □

John Winthrop

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John Winthrop


American astronomer remembered for his work at Harvard during his tenure as the second Hollis professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (1738-79), including establishing America's first experimental physics laboratory and introducing calculus into the mathematics curriculum. His extensive astronomical observations include various Mercury transits and the Venus transits of 1761 and 1769, which contributed to international efforts to determine the astronomical unit. Winthrop was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1766.

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