Winthrop, John, Jr.
WINTHROP, JOHN, JR.
(b. Groton, Suffolk, England, 12 February 1606;
d. Boston, Massachusetts, 5 April 1676), alchemy, iatrochemistry, natural philosophy. For the original article on Winthrop see DSB, vol. 14.
The degree to which alchemy influenced John Winthrop’s activities as a New England colonial leader has been significantly reevaluated. Alchemical knowledge and related philosophies, formerly considered avocations, have come to be seen as central to Winthrop’s plans and his successes as a political leader, industrial entrepreneur, town founder, physician, and transatlantic diplomat.
Pursuing Alchemical Knowledge. From the time Winthrop began alchemical experimentation as a student at London’s Inner Temple from 1625 to 1627, his interest
in alchemical arts was purposeful and expansive. He was especially attracted to the pansophic Christian alchemical philosophies of Paracelsus, John Dee, and the supposed secret order of the Rosicrucians. Pansophism was the belief that humankind could systematically acquire total knowledge of the natural world, and that this knowledge was to be used to improve both the everyday world and human society. These improvements were seen as prerequisites to Christ’s return and the onset of the millennium. Alchemy was an essential part of this quest. Winthrop pursued pansophic alchemical reforms on a number of levels throughout his life.
In 1627 he sailed with the Duke of Buckingham’s fleet to help defend the Protestants at La Rochelle, on which voyage he began a lifelong friendship with the German alchemist Abraham Kuffler, son-in-law of the Dutch alchemical authority Cornelius Drebbel. A year later, to acquire the alchemical knowledge of the Middle East, Winthrop sailed to Venice and Constantinople, further extending his abilities and chemical contacts.
The Alchemy of Colonization. In 1631 Winthrop joined his father and namesake, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in New England. Welcomed immediately into the governing elite, the younger Winthrop hastened to put his chymical—a modern term often used to describe the utilitarian aspects of alchemical research— skills to work for the fledgling Puritan colony. He surveyed the country assaying ores, while conducting alchemical experiments and building up his already prodigious library of alchemical and iatrochemical, that is, alchemical-medical, texts. In 1633 he founded the town of Agawam (now Ipswich, Massachusetts), and in 1635, after a brief return to England, he founded Sayebrook (now Saybrook) at the mouth of the Connecticut River for a group of Puritan grandees led by William Fiennes, first Viscount Saye and Sele, and Robert Greville, second Lord Brooke.
Winthrop’s English connections to the Reverend John Everard, a Christian alchemist with marked antinomian beliefs, have led some scholars to speculate that Winthrop, too, was a religious antinomian, that is, a believer in the direct infusion of grace from God, independent of preaching or pious effort. They cite in support of this view Winthrop’s notable absence as a judge from the trial of the Massachusetts antinomian Anne Hutchinson. Winthrop’s interest in Everard, however, was focused on determining whether the minister was a member of the Rosicrucians, a question that Winthrop ultimately concluded in the negative. Winthrop’s absence from Hutchinson’s trial more likely rose from his pansophic tolerance of sectarian differences, an ecumenism advocated by many English Puritan grandees such as first Viscount Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke. To the more conservative of New England’s Puritans, however, such tolerance of radicals verged on apostasy. As a result, Winthrop’s and his associates’ pansophic alchemy was always held in suspicion by some, and was sometimes held in suspicion by many.
Creating a New London. Following the collapse of New England’s economy at the outbreak of the English civil war, Winthrop returned to Europe from 1641 to 1643. While there, he was influenced by Samuel Hartlib and members of his circle, including Gabriel Plattes, Johann Moriaen, and Jan Comenius. Winthrop secured investors and capital for New England’s first industrial ironworks. Simultaneously, he privately promoted investment in a second venture: the creation of an alchemical research center in southern Connecticut that would be funded by the proceeds from a silver mine Winthrop believed he had found in southern Massachusetts. Ore samples from the mine brought to England repeatedly assayed with relatively high concentrations of silver, and Winthrop offered partial interest in the venture to alchemical friends such as Robert Child, who planned to emigrate to New England. He promoted the venture to alchemical associates on the continent, several of whom found Winthrop’s plan to create a “New London” along Long Island sound appealing enough to commit to join Winthrop in America.
Establishing the research center, however, proved difficult. Mining the silver ore (actually graphite) proved extremely laborious, and Indians effectively resisted Winthrop’s plan to transport ore through their lands. Moderating tensions in Europe also caused several men who had signed on to the project to rethink their commitment. One alchemist who did come, Robert Child, got in deep trouble with authorities almost immediately by demanding that the Puritan leaders liberalize their restrictive political and religious enfranchisement policies.
Child’s confrontation generated a backlash that cast a cloud over alchemy in New England in the late 1640s. Winthrop’s new town was repeatedly harassed by local Mohegan Indians with the tacit approval of Connecticut’s Puritan leaders. Child was placed under house arrest and ultimately fined heavily and deported. George Starkey, a young alchemist whom Winthrop helped train, reported to Hartlib that he was held under arrest in Massachusetts for two years under suspicion of being a Jesuit or a spy. Starkey emigrated to England, where he gained a significant reputation as an adept and influenced the alchemical research of both Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.
Winthrop persevered in his effort to establish the alchemical research center. He attracted and developed a cadre of New England alchemists, such as Jonathan Brewster, near New London, and he continued to promote the benefits that alchemy could provide a colonial society— through advances in mining, metallurgy, agriculture, and medicine. He focused much attention on alchemical medicine. While seeking knowledge of the weapon salve—an alchemical balm that could heal diseases from a distance—he made New London a hospital town, to which the afflicted came from all across New England to receive treatment. He developed proprietary alchemical medicines and distributed them through a network of elite women healers in many New England towns. Winthrop became the most sought after physician in New England. At his death, he was eulogized as Hermes Chris-tianus, and was praised as one who had mastered the ultimate alchemical secret of transmuting lead to gold. From his beginnings as a suspect newcomer to Connecticut when he laid out his alchemical town in 1645, Winthrop became Connecticut’s governor in 1657, and he was reelected to the position from 1659 until his death in 1676.
The Charter and the Society. Winthrop’s greatest service to Connecticut came through his securing of the Royal Charter of 1662, which incorporated the colony of New Haven into Connecticut and gave the new, larger entity virtual political autonomy. Winthrop’s ability to secure such favorable terms from a monarch with little reason to favor Puritan causes was due in part to his international reputation as an alchemist and the court connections he had gained through membership in the Royal Philosophical Society. Winthrop, already well known in England as an accomplished colonial natural philosopher, was also reputed to be Eirenaeus Philalethes, a pseudonymous author whose widely praised texts were then circulating in English alchemical circles. These works have been conclusively identified by William Newman as the productions of George Starkey, who, in an effort to obscure his own authorship, had claimed they were penned by an anonymous American adept. This reputation had helped Winthrop gain immediate acceptance into the group founding the Royal Philosophical Society. Well-connected members of the Society such as Boyle, Lord William Brouncker, and Sir Robert Murray helped Winthrop gain both access to the king’s court and a remarkably favorable charter, which speedily received the Great Seal on 10 May 1662.
In return for their support of his charter efforts, the society imposed a series of expectations upon Winthrop— that as colonial correspondent he would furnish useful information about New England back to the society. This quid pro quo is revealed through the repeated and insistent demands made by society secretary Henry Oldenburg, Boyle, Murray, and others that Winthrop compile a natural history of New England, a study useful not just for natural philosophers but for royal agents intent on gaining greater control of New England’s people and resources. The arrival of Royal Commissioners to New England in 1664 made the Crown’s imperial ambitions over the region unmistakable. Winthrop thereafter fended off the Royal Society’s demands for intelligence with a steady stream of polite excuses, usually delivered with shipments of colonial curiosities—items that inspired wonder about New England without revealing information of strategic or utilitarian value. Winthrop continued this benign resistance to society pressure until his death in Boston on 5 April 1676.
Although Winthrop cannot be said to have made significant scientific advances, his commitment to and use of alchemical knowledge exemplified the many ways in which alchemy could embody the political, utilitarian, spiritual, scientific, and cultural aspirations of the early modern era, even in a place as remote as seventeenth-century New England.
The primary repository for the papers of John Winthrop Jr. is the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts, Winthrop Family Papers II, 1587–1977. Many of the manuscripts have been printed in Winthrop Papers, 6 vols. (Boston, Massachusetts, Historical Society, 1929–).
Canup, John. Out of the Wilderness: The Emergence of an American Identity in Colonial New England. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1990.
Como, David R. Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. Discusses Winthrop’s links to antinomians.
Dunn, Richard S. Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630–1717. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962. Good biography, but dismissive of alchemy.
Kamil, Neil. Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots’ New World, 1517–1751. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Newman, William Royall. Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Woodward, Walter William. “Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606–1676.” PhD diss., University of Connecticut, Storrs, 2001.
Walter W. Woodward