America’s First Great Man

The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649

edited by Richard S. Dunn, edited by James Savage, edited by Laetitia Yeandle
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 799 pp., $100.00

The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649 Abridged Edition

edited by Richard S. Dunn, edited by Laetitia Yeandle
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 354 pp., $19.95 (paper)

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…

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