Paul Johnson

America Made Him

John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father


Oxford University Press 478pp £25 order from our bookshop

STRICTLY SPEAKING, JOHN Winthrop (1588-1649) was not one of the Pilgrim Fathers of New England. He did not sail on the Mayjlower in 1620. But ten years later he led, as elected Governor, a fleet of seventeen ships, carrying over 1,000 settlers, which landed at Salem. He founded Boston in 163 1, effectively established the colony of Massachusetts during his first four-year term as Governor, and was then deposed in a political coup, although one carried out under the rule of law. Returned to power in 1637, in the first contested election in American history, he was dismissed or demoted thrice more by the electors but ended his life as Governor in 1649, having served a total of fifteen years in the post. Moreover, he not only published a number of books and pamphlets setting out his views about the colony, but kept a diary, his works serving as a key primary source for the early history of America.

Francis Bremer is wrong to call him ‘forgotten’. In my History of the American People (1997) I refer to him as ‘the first great American’, a title I think moit historians would award Winthrop: thejrst him today. However, Bremer, who has edited the Winthrop Papers for the American Historical Society, has produced a formidable volume embodying much original research, especially on Winthrop’s life in England before he left for America, aged forty-two. What this shows is that America made him, just as he made America. Like his contemporaries Thomas Hobbes, born in the same year, and Oliver Cromwell, eleven years younger, he was a late starter who found his true mCtier only in middle age and in a completely new context produced by the convulsions of the time.

Winthrop was a lawyer who contrived to become an Essex sauire. lord of the manor of Groton (a name perpetua;ed a school which became ~merica’s Eton). He was tall and powerfkl, with a long nose and a stern, lugubrious, impressive face, penetrating eyes and an enormous brow. He radiated intelligence and decisive character. Religion and politics were to him inseparable. Unlike the Mallflower pilgrims, who were separatists who simply wanted to get away &m the corrupt Old World, Winthrop was an Anghcan who saw the New World as an opportunity to give a global lead. In a discourse which became the most famous sermon in American history and which he may have preached on his flagship going out, he presented Europe as spiritually and materially a lost cause and American leadership as a solution. ‘We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’ The theme has had strong contemporary relevance since 9/11, and it is not surprising that President Bush is fond of quoting this sentence.

Winthrop’s life and writings not only drew the contrast between Old Europe and Young America, but dustrated the central dilemma of all governments, especially democratic ones: how to balance liberty and order: how to allow for the keedom of the individual conscience within the necessary authority of the Government and Church. In Winthrop’s Massachusetts, electors were chosen by the Congregation, or its elders (ofien by Winthrop himself), and orthodoxy in religion was ofien synonymous with submission to duly constituted government. The Colony was effectively a theocracy. Bremer argues that Winthrop was essentially a moderate and a conciliator, whose object was usually to get an opponent to see the error of his ways rather than to punish or persecute – his enemies, for the most part, saw him as too liberal. This may be true. But he sentenced Philip Radcliffe to having both ears cut off, plus a whipping, for ‘Foul scandalous invectives against our Church and Government’. Sir Christopher Gardiner was banished for ‘bigotry and papism’. Thomas Morton had his Boston house burned down for setting up a maypole and ‘revelling’. And Thomas Knower was ‘sett in the Bilbowes’ for threatening to bring an action against the Colony’s Government back in England. Winthrop was always sharp with anyone who threatened to undermine the Colony’s Charter by invoking the Crown. In the case of Roger Williams, the second great American, who advocated fkeedom of conscience, Winthrop’s attitude was ambivalent. He was out of office at the time, but liked Williams and privately encouraged him to move on and to found. at Providence. a new colonv which tolerated dissent.and later became the State of bode Island. One of the virtues of America’s vasmess was that it accommodated antinornians who were prepared to fend for themselves.

In the case of Anne Hutchinson, the first Great American Woman, this led to disaster. Winthrop rejoiced in the fact that the smallpox the settlers brought with them devastated the Indians and so gave the Colonies their lands without a struggle. But Indians remained in some areas, and could turn nasty. Mrs Hutchinson was a ‘sermon gadder’ who liked to hold parties at her house after church on Sundays to dscuss the preacher and what he said. Sometimes sixty turned up, and one would like to know what they ate and drank. (Perhaps nothing.) She was bold, sharp-tongued, contumacious and obstinate. Winthrop evidently disliked her. She was tried and banished, and then excommunicated by a Church court. In the wdderness, her husband &ed, and she and all save one of her daughters were massacred by Indians. Alas, she left no documentation, other than the records of her trials. So this proto-feminist (as she has been described) remains shadowy. By contrast, Winthrop is sharply etched – formidable and, on the whole, a man to admire. Francis Bremer has produced a large-scale portrait.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter