A review of John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father by Francis J. Bremer

Francis Bremer, editor of the Winthrop Papers and professor of history at Millersville University, has written a biography of John Winthrop with the provocative subtitle, America's Forgotten Founding Father. But has Winthrop been forgotten? His sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," is one of the most widely anthologized pieces of writing by a North American, read by myriads of young students of history and literature. Yet there is a far more interesting question raised by Bremer's subtitle: whether Winthrop was America's Founding Father. 

Bremer is aware there is an issue here, for in his epilogue he traces the vagaries of opinion on the place of the Puritans, and thus Winthrop, in America's origin. "Until the late nineteenth century," Bremer informs us, "the public had willingly received the judgments of popular historians…that the Puritans…were the true architects of what made America what it was." Bremer notes that "this all began to change" in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Puritans became the target of America's intellectual elites in a concerted Kulturkampf, the best single statement of which was H.L. Mencken's jibe that Puritans were "haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." 

Bremer obviously dissents from this negative judgment, but he doesn't argue merely for the importance or merits of the Puritans. He insists that "it is time for a biography that is interested in John Winthrop himself." Of course, we need a reason to be interested in Winthrop, and so it is not easy to avoid setting his life into some context. Indeed, Bremer himself does so when he promotes the Founding Father theme. He is uncertain, in other words, just what he wishes to do in this book, and this, despite the book's many great merits, is a great flaw. He holds back from explicitly defending and arguing for his broader claim, and indeed gives the impression that he is not certain what sort of argument would be necessary to make good the claim in his subtitle. 

Nevertheless, Bremer gives us an eminently readable book, which is at the same time a work of great scholarship. He certainly makes the case that Winthrop and the Puritan commonwealth he led for a decade-and-a-half are worthy of our attention. Bremer emphasizes far more than others the pre-American phase of Winthrop's life. In part this reflects the current trend of placing the American Puritans more firmly into the context of English religious, social, and political history. In part, it reflects Bremer's judgment that "the possibilities of self-fashioning in the early modern era were set by the social, economic, geographic, and other circumstances in which one was born." Accordingly, nearly one-half the book covers Winthrop's life before he came to Massachusetts Bay. A substantial portion of it covers the period before Winthrop was born. One cannot but admire the sleuthing that allowed Bremer to produce so much information on Winthrop's forebears and youth, but, to be candid about it, enough is too much. The book really comes alive when Winthrop gets to the new world: the old judgment that this is the story most worth telling is confirmed by Bremer's effort to tell it differently. 

Winthrop's early life in the Stour Valley, an area in East Anglia not far from Cambridge, receives much attention as the chief formative influence on him. Like East Anglia as a whole, the Stour Valley was a center of Puritanism, an especially successful one, full of piety and social responsibility, but not riven by religious schism. He attributes this success to two developments that worked toward harmony and the common good. On the one hand, the magistrates and the ministers cooperated closely, an arrangement that prevented the kind of conflict that dominated Britain in the first half of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, the ministers themselves worked out a conference system, to talk through doctrinal and practical matters, to come to some agreement among themselves, and to avoid the era's chaotic religious conflicts. 

Out of this informal system of consultation grew a spirit of tolerance. Not Lockean-style toleration, to be sure, but they came to appreciate that grasping the truths of Christianity was often difficult and the ways to err were many. They learned to cut each other some slack, within the context of a common commitment on fundamentals. According to Bremer, Winthrop took this model as his standard for how the Puritan community should operate. He did all that he could to bring these practices and the tolerant spirit they bred to Massachusetts. The experience of the Stour Valley led to Winthrop's dominant characteristic as a Christian and a leader: he was zealous but not a zealot.

* * *

In many ways, Winthrop seemed ill-equipped to be the founder of a Puritan polity. He started university studies at Cambridge, perhaps aiming at a clerical career, but dropped out to marry at the unusually early age of 17 after a very brief courtship. Bremer attributes this rash marriage to Winthrop's adolescent sexual drives. Without a university degree, Winthrop had to renounce whatever ambitions he had to the ministry. He started law training, but again failed to complete his course of studies. He learned enough law, however, to be appointed an attorney at the Court of Wards, a position that brought him to London in the late 1620s and allowed him to experience first hand the conflict brewing between Parliament and King Charles. That experience strongly contributed to his sense that England was in crisis and the Puritan movement at risk. He saw America as a Providentially prepared refuge for the godly.

An Edward Coke he was not, but the legal experience proved invaluable in the New World; so did his service in the Stour Valley as a member of a local council. Experience in local government probably was more useful to him than time in high office would have been. Why was someone with minimal experience selected to be governor by the Massachusetts Bay Company? Apparently, because no one better qualified wanted the job. Winthrop became a founding father almost by default. 

Arrived in the New World, his company faced daunting hardship. The challenges derived from nature, (a much harsher climate than England had prepared them for, and relatively infertile land), external forces (Pequots and Narragansetts, the French, the English Privy Council and Archbishop Laud), and internal forces (those in the community who were both zealous and zealots). It is an irony that the qualities that allowed the Puritans to cope successfully with some of these challenges proved to be the breeding grounds for others. The character of Massachusetts Bay as an "intentional community," a community with a mission, inhabited for the most part by individuals committed to the mission, lent members the strength and the will to persevere in the face of great hardship. Few American settlements of the period fared as well. 

But this very dedication produced problems that other settlements did not have to face. Bremer recounts the pressures, from right and left, that Winthrop had to cope with in establishing legal and political order. On one side were those who found him too lenient and the laws too lax, those who wanted a full-scale biblical commonwealth, replete with laws taken directly from the Old Testament. At the other extreme were the so-called "antinomians" led by Anne Hutchinson, who believed that the coming of Christ had freed men from the law and from all concern with works. 

To say the least, it's not easy to find a compromise between positions like these, especially when each side believes God mandates its solution and that all who oppose it are ungodly and corrupt. Politics in this climate can quickly become nasty. It was Winthrop's job as governor (he was governor for approximately 13 of the 18 years he lived in the colony) to find a way to rally the community's resources and to negotiate as best he could the internal threats generated by those very resources. Skilled, moderate, and modest as he was, he was not able to avoid the situation's perils. He was voted out of office at least three times and was put on trial once for overstepping his authority and ruling in an arbitrary fashion. He always managed a comeback and indeed vindication, but his policies and person were by no means universally revered. 

* * *

Admittedly, Winthrop was a great man and a founding father; but was he America's Founding Father? To answer this question, it isn't enough to say that Winthrop helped found a community in the territorial boundaries of America. Bremer stakes Winthrop's claim on his authorship of the "Model of Christian Charity," a text frequently quoted by presidents and others "to try to reinspire Americans of our time to recognize that we are as a 'city on a hill' and to urge on us the duties of community." Be that as it may, a comparison of Winthrop's sermon and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence would show how different the two are. Winthrop begins not from the affirmation that "all men are created equal," but from the opposite, the assertion of inequality as God's order. He understands the ends of political life not in terms of securing rights, but of furthering the Christian life. One cannot imagine Winthrop or his community adopting the First Amendment or asserting the freedom of conscience. 

All the intimations contained in his sermon are borne out in the political life constituted under his rule. As Bremer makes clear, this was not a regime aiming at liberty. There were rigid regulations of everything from smoking to speech to dress. Criticism of the government led to official inquiries and often punishment. Religious disagreement led to expulsion or worse. Prices were set for the marketplace and the community even experimented with slavery. Though Winthrop was more moderate than many of his fellows, he was personally even more distant from America than they were. Regular conflicts arose in New England over the character of the political constitution. Winthrop favored the oligarchic or less democratic options in the face of many who sought to democratize the system. Often, he preferred, in effect, a government of men rather than of laws: he regularly resisted efforts to curb the discretionary powers of the magistrates and to codify the laws. He was, in short, no George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. 

Still, Winthrop was the founding father of a very interesting and important political experiment. It just wasn't America.