John Winthrop's Treasure Mine of Detail

Dan Graves, MSL

John Winthrop's Treasure Mine of Detail

Anno Domini 1630, March 29, Monday. [Easter Monday.] Riding at the Cowes, near the Isle of Wight, in the Arbella, a ship of three hundred and fifty tons..." So begins one of the most famous journals ever written, a journal which remains a treasure mine of information for historians of New England.

John Winthrop, the writer of the journal, was a well-educated upperclass Englishman. Although a moderately successful lawyer, he left it all to join the Massachusetts Bay Company. Motivating his decision was a personal inclination toward Puritanism and distress over the religious condition of Europe. Puritans believed that the Church of England was cluttered with leftover practices from Roman Catholicism which they wished to eliminate. As the journal tells us, the company sailed on this day March 29, 1630 from Cowes to Yarmouth. Unable to get satisfactory wind the ship was back at Cowes by Sunday the 4th of April.

Eventually, of course, the Puritans reached Massachusetts. There Winthrop was for nine years a somewhat dictatorial governor and for ten years deputy-governor. He considered democracy unbiblical and was once impeached but escaped censure. According to his journal, he asked leave to speak, saying, "...I am well satisfied; I was publicly charged and I am publicly and legally acquitted, which is all I did expect or desire. And though this be sufficient for my justification before men, yet not so before God, who has seen so much amiss in my dispensations (and even in this affair) as calls me to be humble."

Since, on the whole, he was humble, tactful and moderate, even his critics were willing to vote for him again. His experience with the law and managing an English manor made him a capable leader. He generally lived out the brotherly love and intense religiosity which he advocated in his "Model of Christian Charity." Many duties fell to him, such as dividing land and establishing towns.

It was Winthrop who presided over the court which banished Anne Hutchinson. To him it seemed wrong to allow non-Puritans to subvert the community God had so graciously given them. The "heretical" and irritating woman had to go. His treatment of her case was in keeping with his theory. There are two kinds of liberty, he maintained. The first is a natural liberty, the liberty which enables a person to do good or evil. It always tends to corruption, until it reaches a point it cannot endure any restraint, however justified. The other liberty is internal and moral, the liberty of love such as wife has under husband and Church under the authority of Christ.

John Winthrop maintained his sporadic journal entries until 1649.


  1. Fitzhugh, Harriet Lloyd and Percy K. Concise Biographical Dictionary. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1935.
  2. "John Winthrop." American Literature Vol 1; the 17th and 18th Centuries. Editors Carl Bode, Leon Howard and Louis B. Wright. New York: Washington Square Press, 1969.
  3. Kunitz, Stanley. American authors, 1600-1900: a biographical dictionary of American literature. New York : The H. W. Wilson company, 1938.
  4. Lossing, Benson J. Eminent Americans. New York: Mason Bros, 1857.
  5. Lyons, Albert S. Medicine; an illustrated history. New York : H. N. Abrams, 1978. p. 179.
  6. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma; the story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.
  7. Vaughan, Alden T. "Winthrop, John." Encyclopedia of American Biography. Editor John Garraty. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
  8. Winthrop, John. Journal. Various editions.
  9. "Winthrop, John." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958-1964.

Last update May, 2007.

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