|This Week in History
January 10 - 16, 1588
How John Winthrop Organized a Republic In the Wilderness
In 1629, the governing body of the Massachusetts Bay Company elected John Winthrop as Governor of their projected settlement in New England. Winthrop (b. Jan. 12, 1588), had developed such a firm commitment to the good, that the Company's founders were reluctant to send settlers to the New World without his energetic leadership. Governor Winthrop did not disappoint them.
The outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, and the virtual dictatorship of King Charles I of England after he disbanded Parliament in 1629, had taken a heavy toll on the well-being of Europe's population. Winthrop summed up the situation which had led to the decision to found a republic in New England, in a paper he wrote called "Reasons to be considered for justifying the plantation in New England." Among the reasons he cited, was the fact that, "This land grows weary of her inhabitants, so as man who is the most precious of all creatures is here more vile & base than the earth we tread upon, and of less price among us, than a horse or a sheep, masters are forced by authority to entertain servants, parents to maintain their own children, all towns complain of the burden of their poor though we have taken up many unnecessary, yea unlawful trades to maintain them.
"And we use the authority of the law to hinder the increase of people as urging the execution of the state against cottages and inmates & thus it is come to pass that children, servants & neighbors (especially if they be poor) are counted the greatest burden which if things were right it would be the chiefest earthly blessing." And the children of England, said Winthrop, were either going without education or being cruelly miseducated: "The fountains of learning and religion are so corrupted (as beside the unsupportable charge of the education) most children (even the best wits and fairest hopes) are perverted, corrupted, and utterly overthrown, by the multitude of evil examples and the licentious government of those seminaries, where men strain at gnats, and swallow camels, use all severity for maintenance of caps, and other accomplishments but suffer all ruffian-like fashion and disorder in manners to pass uncontrolled."
What it would take to reestablish a sane view of the precious potential of human creativity, was the subject of a lay sermon which Winthrop preached to his shipmates, as they neared the coast of New England in June of 1630. It was entitled "A Modell of Christian Charity," and recommended that the settlers "follow the counsel of Micah, 'to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.' For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection, We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other's condition our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
Although several hundred people had been sent out by the company during the 1620's to set up the infrastructure for the larger migration to come, sickness and lack of leadership had produced few concrete results. Captain John Smith, who had mapped the New England coast for the projected settlement, described the conditions which prevailed when Winthrop and the Massachusetts company arrived: "It is true that Master John Wynthrop, their new Governour, a worthy gentleman both in estate and esteeme, went so well provided (for six or seven hundred people went with him) as could be devised: but at Sea, such an extraordinarie Storme encountered his Fleet, continuing ten daies, that of two hundred Cattell which were so tossed and bruised, three-score and ten died, many of their people fell sicke; and in this perplexed estate, after ten weekes, they arrived in New England at severall times, where they found threescore of their people dead, the rest sicke, nothing done, but all complaining, and all things so contrary to their expectation, that now every monstrous humor began to shew itselfe.
"Notwithstanding all this, the noble Governour was no way disanimated, neither repents him of his enterprise for all those mistakes, but did order all things with that temperance and discretion, and so releeved those that wanted with his owne provision, that there is six or seven hundred remained with him, and more than 1600 English in all the Country, with three or foure hundred head of Cattell."
A hand-written "Narrative concerning the Settlement of New England," of 1629, reports that: "Now so soone as Mr. Winthrop was landed, perceiving what misery was like to ensewe through theire Idleness, he presently fell to worke with his owne hands, & thereby soe encouradged the rest that there was not an Idle person then to be found in the whole Plantation, & whereas the Indians said they would shortly retorne as fast as they came, now they admired to see in what short time they had all housed themselves and planted Corne sufficient for theire subsistence."
Another letter from Thomas Wiggin, an early settler, to a member of the Privy Council, in 1632, describes the Massachusetts pioneers as "having in three yeares done more in buyldinge and plantinge than others have done in seaven tumes that space, and with at least ten tymes lesse expence. Besides, I have observed the planters there, and by theire loving just and kind dealinge with the Indians, have gotten theire love and respect, and drawne them to an outward conforming to the English, soe that the Indians repaire to the English Governor there and his deputies for justice.
"And for the Governor himselfe, I have observed him to be a discreete and sober man, giving good example to all the planters, wearinge plaine apparel, such as may well beseeme a meane man, drinking ordinarily water, and when he is not conversant about matters of justice, putting his hand to any ordinarye labour with his servants."
Governor Winthrop labored so hard in the service of the new republic that his friend John Humfrey wrote to him from London, imploring him to be more careful of his life and health. Humfrey told him that while some men need the spur in order to act, Winthrop needed the rein in order to slow him down. Humfrey further cautioned Winthrop to take heed lest his "bodie, not accustomed to hardnes of unusual kindes, & not necessitated unless by a voluntarie & contracted necessitie, should sinke under his burthen, & fall to ruine for want of a more conscionable tenant."
Only six years after Winthrop's group reached New England, a proposal for founding a college passed the Massachusetts Bay legislature. As the Reverend Thomas Shepard put it, "Thus the Lord was pleased to direct the hearts of the magistrates to thinke of erecting a Schoole or Colledge, and that speedily to be a nursery of knowledge in these deserts and supply for posterity." The money for what was to become Harvard College was raised from the citizens of Massachusetts Bay, even though they were still grappling with taming a wilderness.
How much John Winthrop had succeeded in fostering a citizenry dedicated to a better future for posterity is reflected in a reply of the Constable of Andover to a later fundraising appeal for the college. He stated that the farmers of Andover "well approved of the care of the Court for the advancement of Learning and are willing to be helpefull according to their ability; but by reason our Towne is very small consisting of about 20 poore families (few whereof have corne for their owne necesseity) they found themselves unable to give any considerable sum to the use aforesaid. Yet to show their willingness to forward so good a worke they have generally agreed to give a pecke of wheat this year for the least family, others two, some a bushell, what it will exactly come to I cannot yet tell. We hope God will enable us to doe the like hereafter, or to agree upon a certain somme for the whole as wee shall finde may best sute the occasion of the Colledge and our abilityes." As it turned out, those 20 poor families gave Harvard College a quantity of wheat which was sold for two English pounds, a substantial contribution even in long-settled England.