John Winthrop: Contribution to American Literature

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      On March 29, 1630 John Winthrop made the first entry in his Journal on board the ship Arbella, before she left the Isle of Wight for Massachusetts Bay. This Journal was to continue until a few months before his death in 1649, and was in after times to receive the dignified name of History of New England, although it might more properly still be called his Journal, as its latest editor does indeed style it.

John Winthrop
John Winthrop

      John Winthrop was born in the County of Suffolk, England, in 1588, the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He was a wealthy, well-educated Puritan, the owner of broad estates. As he paced the deck of the Arbella, the night before he sailed for Massachusetts, he knew that he was leaving comfort, home, friends, position, all for liberty of conscience. Few men have ever voluntarily abandoned more than Winthrop, or clung more tenaciously to their ideals.

      John Winthrop was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1630 abroad, the Arabella was bound for the New World. Ten years after Bradford and his fellows landed at Plymouth, John Winthrop left for New England with nearly four hundred other Congregationalist Puritans. The Massachusetts Bay granted the right by the charter and he was the elected governor of the colony for twelve long years because of his help in negotiating the charter. In 1622 he called England as ‘this sinful land’ because he saw much unemployment and poverty. He took die golden opportunity to preach a lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity. He wrote a number of other pamphlets, while serving as governor or deputy governor until his death. Defense of an Order of Court Made in the Year 1637 written by him, supports the legislation passed by the General Court after the trail of Anne Hutchinson which denied citizenship to ‘dissenters’. As he saw it, there was certain responsibility of leading the new people along with the sense of providence. Winthrop shared with Bradford the aim of decoding the Divine purpose, searching for spiritual meanings behind the material facts.

      His spiritual autobiography, John Winthrop’s Christian Experience (1637) vividly recounts the memories of his childhood and manhood making no secret that he was “inclined to some peace and comfort in God” through no merit of his own. He wrote the book in the form of a dialogue (i.e., in the form of the questions and answers) in a simple language. Winthrop cultivated the belief in the God and he led them to a peaceful and protected life. Being full of humility, he shared with Bradford the aim of decoding the divine purpose, searching for the spiritual meanings behind the material facts. He convinced the people of his true church that the colonist should choose his liberty, even rejoice in it, and so find a perfect freedom in the service of God. His many comments on the political affairs of Puritan New England are collected in his journal entitled The History of New England 1630-1649 which was published in part in 1790 and in complete in 1826.

      After a voyage lasting more than two months, he settled with a large number of Puritans on the site of modern Boston. For the principal part of the time from his arrival in 1630 until his death in 1649, he served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Not many civil leaders of any age have shown more sagacity, patriotism, and tireless devotion to duty than John Winthrop.

      His Journal is a record of contemporaneous events from 1630 to 1648. The early part of this work might with some justice have been called the Log of the Arbella.


      "Riding at the Cowes, near the Isle of Wight, in the Arbella, a ship of 350 tons, whereof Capt. Peter Milborne was master, being manned with 52 seamen, and 28 pieces of ordnance, (the wind coming to the N. by W. the evening before,) in the morning there came aboard us Mr. Cradock, the late governor, and the masters of his 2 ships, Capt. John Lowe, master of the Ambrose, and Mr. Nicholas Hurlston, master of the Jewel, and Mr. Thomas Beecher, master of the Talbot."

      The entry for Monday, April 12, 1630, is:— "The wind more large to the N. a stiff gale, with fair weather. In the afternoon less wind, and our people began to grow well again. Our children and others, that were sick and lay groaning in the cabins, we fetched out, and having stretched a rope from the steerage to the main-mast, we made them stand, some of one side and some of the other, and sway it up and down till they were warm, and by this means they soon grew well and merry."

      The following entry for June 5, 1644, reflects an interesting side light on the government of Harvard, our first American college:—

"Two of our ministers' sons, being students in the college, robbed two dwelling houses in the night of some fifteen pounds. Being found out, they were ordered by the governors of the college to be there whipped, which was performed by the president himself—yet they were about twenty years of age; and after they were brought into the court and ordered to twofold satisfaction, or to serve so long for it. We had yet no particular punishment for burglary."

      Another entry for 1644 tells of one William Franklin, condemned for causing the death of his apprentice:—

"The case was this. He had taken to apprentice one Nathaniel Sewell, one of those children sent over the last year for the country; the boy had the scurvy and was withal very noisome, and otherwise ill disposed. His master used him with continual rigour and unmerciful correction, and exposed him many times to much cold and wet in the winter season, and used divers acts of rigour towards him, as hanging him in the chimney, etc., and the boy being very poor and weak, he tied him upon an horse and so brought him (sometimes sitting and sometimes hanging down) to Boston, being five miles off, to the magistrates, and by the way the boy calling much for water, would give him none, though he came close by it, so as the boy was near dead when he came to Boston, and died within a few hours after."

      Winthrop relates how Franklin appealed the case when he was found guilty, and how the Puritans inflicted the death penalty on him after searching the Bible for a rule on which to base their decision. The most noticeable qualities of this terrible story are its simplicity, its repression, its lack of striving after effect. Winthrop, Bradford, and Bunyan had learned from the 1611 version of the Bible to be content to present any situation as simply as possible and to rely on the facts themselves to secure the effect.

      Winthrop's finest piece of prose, Concerning Liberty, appears in an entry for the year 1645. He defines liberty as the power "to do that which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard, not only of your goods, but of your lives, if need be." Winthrop saw clearly what many since his day have failed to see, that a government conducted by the people could not endure, if liberty meant more than this.

      Winthrop's Journal records almost anything which seemed important to the colonists. Thus, he tells about storms, fires, peculiar deaths of animals, crimes, trials, Indians, labor troubles, arrival of ships, trading expeditions, troubles with England about the charter, politics, church matters, events that would point a moral, like the selfish refusal of the authorities to loan a quantity of gunpowder to the Plymouth colony and the subsequent destruction of that same powder by an explosion, or the drowning of a child in the well while the parents were visiting on Sunday. In short, this Journal gives valuable information about the civil, religious, and domestic life of the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The art of modern prose writing was known neither in England nor in America in Winthrop's time. The wonder is that he told the story of this colony in such good form and that he still holds the interest of the reader so well.

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