John Winthrop
John Winthrop; drawing by David Levine

What makes a great man great? Historians occasionally ponder the question in assessing public figures, men or sometimes women (Queen Elizabeth I), who have given direction to a whole society. It is tempting, and sometimes fashionable, to read them out of history altogether, in favor of the impersonal forces and “-isms” that historians like to discover behind everything. And un-great men and women leading ordinary lives have commanded more attention recently than history’s movers and shakers. But if we allow that some individuals were able to change or direct the course of history, it is easier to recognize them than it is to say what enabled them to do it. In America we may acknowledge Washington and Lincoln as great men, and probably Franklin and Jefferson and maybe Franklin Delano Roosevelt and possibly even several more, but we would probably disagree about precisely what it was that made them great, what it was that enabled them to give a lasting direction to the course of events.

These ruminations are prompted by the publication of a definitive edition of the journal kept by John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts who led the English exodus there. From the founding of the first English colonies in North America in 1607 to the beginnings of the Revolution in the 1760s, John Winthrop is the only person who looks like a great man in the sense we are talking about. Captain John Smith might be a candidate. By his own account Smith saved the Virginia colony from extinction at the outset, and he probably did. But his influence on Virginia’s subsequent history was nil. Until the Revolution with its stellar collection of “Founding Fathers” Winthrop was the only pub-lic figure who left his mark on the way his society developed in his own time and for long after. He preserved many letters and papers to document his achievement—he was not bashful about it—and the most important by far was his journal. He started it as a diary of his voyage to New England in 1630 but gradually transformed it into a running account of what happened in Massachusetts Bay under his aegis.

The journal has a long history of its own, which contributed in no small measure to the continuing influence of its author on New Englanders’ consciousness of themselves and their singular importance in the nation’s development. When they began writing their story not long after Winthrop’s death in 1649, the first historians evidently had access to his manuscript. Despite the wretched handwriting, William Hubbard and Cotton Mather in the later seventeenth century, and Thomas Prince in the eighteenth, drew heavily on it. Several historians and antiquarians later transcribed parts of it, and the contents of the first two of the three notebooks in which it was written were published in 1790 in an understandably faulty transcription. After all three manuscripts came to the Massachusetts Historical Society early in the nineteenth century, the Treasurer of the Society, James Savage, a noted antiquarian, deciphered the handwriting more accurately and published the entire thing in 1825-1826 and, after more study of the handwriting, a corrected edition in 1853.

Savage annotated the work with his own well-informed but dogmatic opinions about everyone mentioned. His name appears on the new edition, however, not merely because of his skill as a paleographer and historian but because his transcription of the second notebook, covering the entire period from October 1636 to December 1644, is the best we shall ever have: he lost the original when a fire destroyed the law office where he had left it. The new editors have substituted their own scholarly annotations for Savage’s eccentric ones and have corrected some of Savage’s few misreadings in the first and third notebooks. The new edition will stand as a model of editorial scholarship. No one need struggle with that handwriting again. And to make reading easier the editors have used footnotes to explain the meaning of archaic words and to translate the occasional Latin tags. They have even supplied a separate abridged edition for readers who might find the full text more than they want to know about early New England, a possibility that would scarcely have occurred to an earlier generation.

The journal is worth reading simply for the sense it conveys of what it took just to stay alive in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. If Winthrop was a great man, he was not above recording the tribulations of everyday life for everyday people in a new world: they got lost in the woods, they drowned in storms as they traveled up and down the coast in small boats, their crude dwellings caught fire and burned down and so did their haystacks, they fell through ice, drought spoiled their crops, wolves ate their cattle. These were not trivialities for Winthrop, and he recounted them seriously, always observing the hand of God at work when disasters struck the impious or good fortune blessed those who walked in His ways and kept His commandments. But it is his treatment of larger matters that makes him look so large himself.


As governor of Massachusetts during most of its first twenty years, Winthrop presided over a collection of people, some fifteen or twenty thousand, who had already defied a more powerful government than Winthrop’s in order to join him in building a society more to their liking than the one they grew up in. They agreed on a great many things. They even agreed that agreement was itself a good thing—but not good enough to override differences in matters of principle, of which they carried a heavy load. They were determined that God’s will be done in Massachusetts as it had not been done in England, and their determination kept them busy searching out every implication of every passage in the Bible for directives to guide their conduct. Having escaped the ecclesiastical authority that had hitherto inhibited their doctrinal and ecclesiological investigations, they turned from denouncing what was wrong in England, on which they could easily agree, to discovering what was right in situations where no one had looked for right or wrong before. Here they could not so readily agree. Bringing their non-negotiable principles to minor matters, they could generate controversies that needlessly threatened their whole enterprise.

Winthrop recorded on March 7, 1634, an episode that suggests what he was up against in trying to keep minor matters minor. This was a controversy over appropriate habilaments for the females of the colony.

At the Lecture at Boston a Question was propounded about vayles: mr Cotton concluded that where (by the Custom of the place) they were not a signe of the womens subiection, they were not comanded by the Apostle [i.e., Paul, in Corinthians 1:15-16]. mr Endecott opposed, & did maintaine it by the general Argumentes brought by the Apostle. after some debate, the Governor [Winthrop] perceiving it to growe to some earnestnesse interposed & so it brake off.

Such debates did not all break off so comfortably. The English flag, flown from forts and carried by military companies, bore a red cross against a white ground. John Endecott, one of the leaders of the colony, who had served as governor before Winthrop’s arrival and would serve again, took it upon himself to cut out a portion of the cross from the flag flying at Salem, where he lived. He did it, Winthrop recorded, “vpon this opinion, that the redde Crosse was given to the Kinges of England by the Pope, as an Ensigne of victorye & so a superstitious thinge & a relique of Antichriste.” Endecott’s act of supererogation troubled the other leaders of the colony, who feared that excising this relic of Antichrist looked like an act of rebellion against the sovereign. They puzzled over what to do about it for a year and then admonished Endecott, in characteristic Puritan fashion, because he

did content himself to have reformed it at Salem, not taking Care that others might be brought out of it allso. laying a bleamishe allso vpon the rest of the magistrates as if they would suffer I dolatrye &c. & givinge occasion to the state of England to thinke ill of vs.

In other words, what he did may have been right, but if so he should have seen that it was done to all the flags in the colony; but on the other hand, even if it was right, maybe it was wrong because it might invite interference from England. The upshot of the affair was to remove the cross from the ensign of the colony’s military companies but to leave it intact on the flag displayed at Castle Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor, where ships from England could see it.

The episode, and the casuistry accompanying its resolution, appropriately symbolized the problem faced by Massachusetts as an English colony bent on achieving complete Protestant purity at a time when Charles I, aided by his Catholic queen and his Arminian archbishop, seemed to be leading the country back to Rome. The King had granted the government of Massachusetts to a trading company with the usual provisions for such companies, in which stockholders (known as freemen) elected annually a governor, deputy governor, and an executive council of “assistants.” While their charter forbade the Company to make any laws for the colony that were repugnant to the laws of England, in other respects the Company’s officers could run the Company and its overseas settlement any way they saw fit. But the stockholders, taking advantage of the omission in the charter of any specified meeting place, carried the Company lock, stock, and barrel to Massachusetts Bay, where they turned the charter into the constitution of the colony and opened freemanship, without any requirement to purchase stock, to all free adult males belonging to a Congregational church.


They thus carried out a revolution, rendered bloodless only by the three thousand miles of ocean that separated them from the government they would otherwise have had to overthrow in order to do what they did. In Massachusetts they created what amounted to a republic, substituting annually elected rulers for an hereditary monarchy and independent self-starting churches for the whole hierarchical structure of the Church of England.

To carry out so bold a departure from traditional law and order was to incur high risks of disorder, as the leaders of the venture recognized, none more than Winthrop. Governors deprived of the majesty that surrounded a king, and dependent on annual elections, would have their hands full in maintaining authority over an uprooted people eager for righteousness and all too ready to participate in defining it. Winthrop was particularly fearful that the new freemen would use their freedom to involve the colony in dangerous experiments. It was his view that the role of the freemen should be confined to the choice of officers, on whom their election conferred an authority derived from God himself. The charter specified that the freemen make laws for the Company in meetings of a “General Court” four times a year, but Winthrop reasoned that now that the Company had become synonymous with the colony, the less legislation the better because legislation called attention to what they were doing.

Success in establishing a godly society in Massachusetts depended in large measure on keeping quiet about it. The transformation of a joint-stock trading company into an independent republic was certainly not what the King had envisaged in granting the Company its charter. As news of what was going on in Massachusetts leaked back to England, the King and his advisers tried to recall the authority they had unwittingly conferred upon the Massachusetts venture. Until the Long Parliament challenged the King’s own authority in 1640, the governors of the colony had to prevent imprudent measures that might make the state of England think ill of Massachusetts. Even after a Parliament sympathetic to them took control in England, they had to avoid its embrace in order to preserve an independence that a change in England’s government might (and eventually did) destroy.

Winthrop understood more clearly than most of his peers what a thin line they were walking between God’s will and England’s. Hence he continually sought the discretion to act on his own without laws declaring he had the authority to do what he would do anyhow. He could thus conceal the flouting of English laws that the charter required Massachusetts to conform to. What he hoped for was to establish laws by custom and precedent, the way the English common law had come into being. As he counselled the freemen about making marriage a civil rite,

To raise up laws by practice and custom had been no transgression; as in our church discipline, and in matters of marriage, to make a law, that marriages should not be solemnized by ministers, is repugnant to the laws of England; but to bring it to a custom by practice for the magistrates to perform it, is no law made repugnant.

In this instance Winthrop did not prevail, and ultimately it was flagrant violations of the charter by Massachusetts laws that led to royal assumption of the colony’s government in 1685.

But while Winthrop lived, it was his constant endeavor to contain conflicts both within the colony and with England. He inaugurated a policy that the colony pursued successfully for fifty years of dodging orders from England by deliberately misunderstanding them. At home he could be highhanded in his insistence on the authority of government. When the freemen presented a petition for repeal of a law just passed by the General Court, Winthrop was offended:

For the people, having deputed others, have no power to make or alter laws, but are to be subject; and if any such order seem unlawful or inconvenient, they were better [to] prefer some reasons, etc., to the court, with manifestation of their desire to move them to a review, than peremptorily to petition to have it repealed, which amounts to a plain reproof of those whom God hath set over them, and putting dishonor upon them, against the tenor of the fifth commandment.

Winthrop himself was always ready to listen to reasons on both sides in any dispute and to give his own reasons for whatever he did. When he was publicly accused of exceeding his authority in a dispute in 1645, he submitted humbly to trial and when acquitted gave the assembled people a little lecture, reminding them that “it is your selues, who have called vs to this office, & beinge called by you, we have our Authoritye from God.” Popular elections did not, in Winthrop’s view, make Massachusetts a “meere democracie.” Yet the principal criticism of Winthrop’s use of authority was not that he used it harshly but that he was too lenient. The freemen wanted not only fixed laws but inflexible and mandatory punishments to ensure that God’s will was carried out to the letter.

Winthrop had to give in on the issue of fixed laws, but he was able to preserve judicial discretion in meting out punishments, and it seems likely that his discretion prevented many disputes from escalating into unmanageable divisions. For three years, from the elections of 1634 through those of 1636, he was left out of the governorship in favor of more zealous authoritarians. It was during these years that Roger Williams was banished and Anne Hutchinson took the colony to the brink of civil war over a disputed definition of righteousness. Winthrop’s return to the governorship in the election of May 1637 signaled the decline of Hutchinson’s influence, and Winthrop presided over her trial and banishment in November.

It would be too much to say that an earlier return of Winthrop to the governor’s seat could have averted the troubles, for Williams and Hutchinson were both more than a match for him in argument and appealed strongly to the large number of New Englanders who enjoyed pressing principles to their logical conclusions. But Winthrop’s success as a governor, recognized so often in the annual elections, was probably owing to the way he combined authority with leniency to defuse dissent before it became rebellion. He was probably not a charismatic figure, nor did he have the intellectual powers of Williams or Hutchinson, but he carried authority with the confidence that compels respect. The leniency that lesser men complained of grew from strength, not weakness. He could be stern when sternness was needed, but he could afford to give way without losing face when magnanimity would serve better.

To be sure, we know about his success largely because his account is often the only one we have. As the editors of the journal note, “The reader who accepts his presentation will certainly conclude that the author of the journal was much the best and wisest public man in early Massachusetts.” True enough, but the other surviving records from early Massachusetts, while not as full in many details as the journal, are not likely to lead an impartial reader to a contrary conclusion. For example, virtually everything we know about Roger Williams and the views that led to his expulsion from Massachusetts comes from a few passages in Winthrop’s journal. Williams did not publish any of his own writings until 1643, seven years after his banishment, but these later writings corroborate the very ideas and arguments that Winthrop ascribes to him. What he advocated publicly in Massachusetts was precisely the kind of thing that Winthrop sought to silence as threats to his colony. Williams demanded public denunciations of the Church of England and ultimately denied the possibility of any true church or ministry before Christ’s second coming. Yet we learn from Williams himself (as Winthrop does not record it in his journal) that when the General Court was preparing to ship him back to England in disgrace, it was Winthrop who forewarned him and suggested that he flee to Rhode Island. The two maintained a friendly correspondence until Winthrop’s death, without either persuading the other of his views. On the other hand, Winthrop took pains to keep Hutchinson and her adherents out of the colony. He regarded her as an instrument of Satan and displayed an unseemly relish in recording her misfortunes as an exile from the godliness and good order of Massachusetts.

In hindsight Winthrop can be faulted as a despot, however benevolent. The freemen in their demand for explicit laws and mandatory sentencing wanted not only to guarantee the enforcement of God’s will but also to protect themselves against a despotism that could turn malevolent. Winthrop thought that annual elections were sufficient protection and that the possibility of English interference brought on by open defiance of English law constituted a greater threat to the Puritan experiment than his own style of quiet action and oral suasion. Winthrop’s despotism prevented in Massachusetts the proliferation of religious and political views and the civil wars that England experienced when the Puritans destroyed royal authority there instead of escaping from it to America. And Winthrop did it without exposing Massachusetts to the tyranny that a Cromwell im-posed on England, and without provoking the reaction that returned England to a royal oppression which required yet another revolution to overturn.

John Winthrop surely was the wisest, if not the best, public man in early Massachusetts. He guided a whole society in a truly revolutionary reform. He appears in the journal as so restrained, so judicious, that it is easy to forget how radical a thing it was that he did. His reluctance to call attention to what he was doing in Massachusetts masks his resolve from the reader of his journal, just as he wished to mask it from England. But we catch an occasional glimpse of the iron in his character when he records laconically that a rumor of England’s intention to send troops to bring Massachusetts into line “occasioned the magistrates and deputyes to hasten our fortifications.” This was not a man who would have given up without a fight.

In his quiet determination and conservative direction of radical reforms Winthrop resembles some of the other men in whom Americans have found greatness. Washington and Lincoln both directed radical reforms in a conservative style. Benjamin Franklin followed the same pattern in a more complex way. He did his best to transform the British Empire to make it acceptable to his countrymen, and when that proved impossible, he led the fight for independence through patient diplomacy, as Washington did through a conservative style of warfare. Roosevelt transformed American social policy while conserving its capitalist frame. Only Jefferson does not fit the pattern. His temperament was radical, and his friend Madison had to furnish the conservative restraint on his actions in public office, where he did not in fact achieve as significant reforms as the others did. With the exception of Jefferson, the men whom Americans recognize as great seem to have pursued and accomplished radical ends by conservative means. Winthrop was the first.

This Issue

June 12, 1997