John Winthrop (12 January 1587or 58 – 26 March 1649) was a wealthy English Puritan lawyer and one of the leading figures in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first major settlement in what is now New England after Plymouth Colony.
Winthrop led the first large wave of migrants from England in 1630, and served as governor for 12 of the colony’s first 20 years of existence.
Between 1629 and his death in 1649, he served 12 annual terms as governor, and was a force of comparative moderation in the religiously conservative colony, clashing with the more conservative Thomas Dudley and the more liberal Roger Williams and Henry Vane.
Although Winthrop was a respected political figure, his attitude toward governance was somewhat authoritarian: he resisted attempts to widen voting and other civil rights beyond a narrow class of religiously approved individuals, opposed attempts to codify a body of laws that the colonial magistrates would be bound by, and also opposed unconstrained democracy, calling it “the meanest and worst of all forms of government”.
Winthrop was first tutored at home by John Chaplin and was assumed to have attended grammar school at Bury St. Edmunds.
He was also regularly exposed to religious discussions between his father and clergymen, and thus came at an early age to a deep understanding of divinity.
He was admitted to Trinity College in December 1602, matriculating at the university a few months later.
Among the students that he would have interacted with were John Cotton, and John Wheelwright, two men who would also have important roles in New England.
He was a close childhood and university friend of William Spring, later a Puritan Member of Parliament, with whom he would correspond for the rest of his life.
The teenage Winthrop admitted in his diary of the time to “lusts … so masterly as no good could fasten upon me.” Biographer Francis Bremer suggests that Winthrop’s need to control his baser impulses may have prompted him to leave school early and marry at an unusually early age.
In March 1629 King Charles dissolved Parliament, beginning eleven years of rule without Parliament.
This action apparently raised new concerns among the company’s principals; in the company’s July meeting, Governor Matthew Cradock proposed that the company reorganize itself and transport its charter and governance to the colony.
It also worried Winthrop, who lost his position in the Court of Wards and Liveries in the crackdown on Puritans that followed the dissolution of Parliament.
He wrote, “If the Lord seeth it will be good for us, he will provide a shelter and a hidinge place for us and others”.
During the following months, Winthrop became more involved with the company, meeting with others in Lincolnshire.
By early August he had emerged as a significant proponent of emigration, and on 12 August he circulated a paper providing eight separate reasons in favor of emigration.
His name appears in formal connection with the company on the Cambridge Agreement, signed 26 August; this document provided means for emigrating shareholders to buy out non-emigrating shareholders of the company.
For the remaining 19 years of his life, Winthrop lived in the New England wilderness, a father figure among the colonists.
In the annual Massachusetts elections he was chosen governor 12 times between 1631 and 1648, and during the intervening years he sat on the court of assistants or colony council. His American career passed through three distinct phases.
On first arrival, in the early 1630s, he did his most creative work, guiding the colonists as they laid out a network of tightly organized towns, each with its church of self-professed saints.
Winthrop himself settled at Boston, which quickly became the capital and chief port of Massachusetts.
His new farm on the Mystic River was much inferior to his former estate at Groton, but Winthrop never regretted the move because he was free at last to build a godly commonwealth.