John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father

John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father

by Francis J. Bremer

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John Winthrop's effort to create a Puritan "City on a Hill" has had a lasting effect on American values, and many remember this phrase famously quoted by the late Ronald Reagan. However, most know very little about the first American to speak these words. In John Winthrop, Francis J. Bremer draws on over a decade of research in England, Ireland, and the United States to offer a superb biography of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one rooted in a detailed understanding of his first forty years in England. Indeed, Bremer provides an extensive, path-breaking treatment of Winthrop's family background, youthful development, and English career. His dissatisfaction with the decline of the "godly kingdom of the Stour Valley" in which he had been raised led him on his errand to rebuild such a society in a New England. In America, Winthrop would use the skills he had developed in England as he struggled with challenges from Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, among others, and defended the colony from English interference. We also see the personal side of Winthrop—the doubts and concerns of the spiritual pilgrim, his everyday labors and pleasures, his feelings for family and friends. And Bremer also sheds much light on important historical moments in England and America, such as the Reformation and the rise of Puritanism, the rise of the middling class, the colonization movement, and colonial relations with Native Americans.
Incorporating previously unexplored archival materials from both sides of the Atlantic, here is the definitive portrait of one of the giants of our history.

John Winthrop recevied an honorable Mention, The Colonial Dames of America Book Award.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195179811
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 03/31/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 233,371
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.60(d)
Lexile: 1630L (what's this?)

About the Author

Francis J. Bremer is Professor of History at Millersville University and Editor of the Winthrop Papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society. He lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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John Winthrop America's Forgotten Founding Father

By Francis J. Bremer


Copyright © 2003 Oxford University Press, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0195149130

Chapter One

October 1498. Adam Winthrop was carrying his infant son, the next Adam, from his home to the church of Saints Peter and Paul sitting on the hill overlooking the prosperous town of Lavenham. There he would present the baby to the parish priest, Thomas Appleton, to be baptized according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Accompanying Adam were some of his friends from the parish, perhaps including members of the prominent Lavenham families, the Springs, the Risbys, and the Ponders. Jane Burton Winthrop, young Adam's mother, was left lying in at home, denied entry into the holy precincts of the church until she was purified in a rite that usually came about a month after the childbirth.

A booming regional economy, a strong sense of piety, and a desire to create monuments to that piety that would stand them in good stead when they went to their last judgment had recently prompted the Christians of Suffolk to expand and beautify the churches of the region, and nowhere was that more evident than in Lavenham. Just four years earlier the base of a new church tower had been laid, and plans were also under way to add a new chapel, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, on the north side of the chancel. Building supplies cluttered the church precincts, and the dust of construction floated in the air as the senior Winthrop and the friends he had chosen as sponsors, or godparents, met the priest at the south door of the church. Custom dictated two godfathers and one godmother for a boy. The priest made "a sign of the cross on the infant's forehead, breast, and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby's mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcized the devil from its body with a number of prayers, and pronounced baptism as the sole means 'to obtain eternal grace by spiritual regeneration.'" The preliminary ritual completed, the baptismal party made their way to the fourteenth-century font. The font in Lavenham was made of Purbeck marble, adorned with the shields of Saints Peter and Paul and carved panels, one of which depicted a mother and child with a satanic angel turning away. That image was deliberate, for the rite of baptism was intended to symbolize both renunciation of Satan and incorporation into the communion of saints. The church interior was dark, illuminated primarily by the light shining through the stained glass windows, the colored beams bearing moving motes of dust generated by the construction. Each of the various altars in the church was lit with candles, and where the believers gathered around the font other candles created a small island of light around the Winthrop infant as the priest "divided the water with his right hand and cast it in the four directions of the cross. He breathed three times upon it and then spilled wax in a cruciform pattern. He divided the holy water with a candle, before returning the taper to the cleric beside him. Oil and chrism were added with a long rod or spoon." The rite continued with a reminder that all men are born in sin but that through the sacrament of baptism the child might be regenerated. The sponsors were questioned; then they asked for baptism on behalf of the infant. Dipping him three times into the waters of the font, the priest proclaimed, in Latin, "Adam, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." He anointed the infant with chrism, making a cross on Adam's forehead, signifying that "hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified." The babe was wrapped in a chrismal robe, and a candle was lit and placed in his hand.

The ceremony of baptism evoked the sense of union between natural and supernatural that was so much a part of the early modern world of the Winthrops. In receiving the sacrament the infant Adam entered the Christian community. All knew that his future health, physical and spiritual, would be constantly tested. The devil who was exorcized from the infant would try again to seize his soul. The communion of saints to which he had been admitted would help Adam to resist those assaults. Sin was inevitable, but forgiveness was promised to those who followed the path set out by God and employed the means of grace, such as the sacraments, which were provided by God's church. Religion was not merely a part of life; it was the center of existence and permeated all other aspects. Although the fourteenth-century heresy of Lollardy had struck a chord with many in Suffolk, the faith of Adam Winthrop's neighbors in 1498, nineteen years before Martin Luther's challenge, was that of the Catholic Church governed from Rome.

The centrality of this faith was illustrated not only by the magnificent church and its new additions but by the prosperous religious guilds of the town. Lavenham had four such fraternities, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, Our Lady, Corpus Christi, and Saints Peter and Paul. Each provided candles and other accoutrements of worship, procured prayers and alms for the repose of the souls of departed members, and promoted charity and a sense of community. The impressive Corpus Christi guildhall still stands on the square in Lavenham as testimony to the support that such fraternities commanded. Clergymen such as Thomas Appleton directed the laity in how to best serve God, their authority derived from a chain of authority that went back to St. Peter. They were empowered by the sacrament of Holy Orders to perform the miracle of the mass, to administer grace through other sacraments, and to forgive sins. Their literacy, dress, and use of Latin in the rituals of worship were all badges of their superior nature.

The elder Adam Winthrop, who sought baptism for his young son, is the first forebear of John Winthrop whom we can identify with any certainty. Even here we do not know where he came from, when he married, if he had other children, or even when he died. He is simply identified as a clothier. His wife, Jane Burton Winthrop, is almost equally hidden from our inquiries. No registration of births, marriages, or deaths was required in England at this time, and only those of gentle birth or pretensions had reason to preserve their genealogies. It is believed that the couple lived in a building that still stands, on what is now called Barn Street in Lavenham. Transformed over the centuries-for a time it was a grammar school in which the artist John Constable learned his early lessons-portions of the fifteenth-century home survive, most notably a carved wooden frieze, dating from the time of the Winthrops, on which are carved shields embossed with the letter W, angels, an image of Christ crucified, and a figure thought to represent St. Edward the Confessor. Perhaps it was there that the Winthrops joined with friends and neighbors to celebrate the baptism of young Adam.

East Anglia in general, and this area of south Suffolk in particular, had prospered from the cloth trade in the fifteenth century, and Lavenham was one of the centers of that industry. Those who succeeded as craftsmen in the surrounding villages gravitated to such towns in the hope of achieving greater success as clothiers; this makes a family tradition that says Adam and Jane both came to Lavenham from the area around Groton at least plausible. As a clothier, Adam would have been an organizer and financier, providing capital for the purchase of wool, generally from Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, or elsewhere, because Suffolk wool was not rated highly. He would have recruited and paid dyers, weavers, fullers, and other craftsmen who produced the broad cloths for which the region was noted, and then sold them, often at London's Blackwell Hall, to members of the city trade guilds who would export them abroad. The clothiers, especially the Springs, Risbys, Braunches, and Ponders, were important men in Lavenham-prosperous, influencing town affairs, and contributing to the beautification of the church.

Adam Winthrop, the Lavenham clothier, died when his son was still young. His widow married John Ponder, a clothier of greater stature than her first husband. Ponder would be credited with contributing four marks to the building of the church tower in 1520, and when he died he was buried in a tomb substantial enough that it could much later be moved into the church itself. John Ponder had four sons of his own; two of them would become clothiers, one a clergyman, and another a member of the Pewterers Company of London. Even so, he did not neglect his stepson. On one of his trips to Blackwell Hall he arranged for the young Adam to be apprenticed to Edward Altham, a member of the Fullers Company of London. The Fullers, like the Pewterers Company, was one of the great self-regulating guilds of London that controlled the manufacture and distribution of goods. John Ponder would have paid a fee for apprenticing his stepson, and, though the records do not survive, that fee would have been registered by the company. Altham on his part would have been looking for a young man who had some education and polish and, most important, was of good character, for Adam would live in his house and potentially become a fellow guild member. Under Altham young Adam would learn the skills of cleansing and thickening cloth to prepare it for finishing.

On arriving in London in 1515 Adam would have been examined by the wardens of the guild, who, dressed in the livery of the Fullers, would then have administered an oath to the young man. Within a year Altham was also required to bring the apprentice before the municipal officials, perhaps on one of the set guild days, to have his contract officially enrolled. Each of these ceremonies had its own rituals and was designed to underline the importance of the occasion as the young man was launched on the path to company membership and city citizenship.

Lavenham was a major market town, but nothing he had experienced there could have prepared Adam Winthrop for London. Fueled by peace, by a respire from epidemic diseases, and by an expanding prosperity, England's population grew rapidly in the sixteenth century, and nowhere was the growth more evident than in London. Adam was but one drop in a stream of young men that flooded the neighborhoods of the metropolis before forcing expansion beyond the old medieval walls. Over one thousand young men arrived in London annually to apprentice at this time, and still the demand for labor exceeded the supply. In the course of the sixteenth century the population of London rose from around 50,000 to over 200,000. By contrast, the total population of Lavenham at this time was about 1,100. Most Londoners lived within the square mile outlined by the city walls, portions of which remained from Roman days but had been regularly repaired, most recently in 1477, so as to provide the city with protection against dynastic challengers and peasant rebels. As he explored his new home Adam could have walked from the Tower in the east to Ludgate, the western gate, in about a half hour. Exiting Ludgate he could have walked westward toward the Inns of Court, the training ground for lawyers, and then on a short distance to Westminster, the seat of the kingdom's central courts and government.

The City of London comprised numerous neighborhoods and divided for purposes of civil government into wards-twenty-five at the time of Adam's arrival-and into more than one hundred parishes for purposes of worship. The city as a whole was governed by a mayor, a sheriff, and a council of aldermen, but most affairs that concerned the inhabitants were handled on the local level. Parishes, which usually contained fewer than a hundred households, were run by vestries that chose church wardens to handle everyday matters. In each ward, householders (occupants of dwelling places who were entitled to vote) gathered annually in what was called the wardmote. Presided over by the ward's city alderman, the wardmote elected juries; licensed bakers, brewers, and innkeepers; chose local officers such as constable, beadle, and scavenger; and entertained complaints from citizens. The guilds, or livery companies, also played a role in government, not only by regulating their own trades but also by carrying out government edicts. Merchants, artisans, and tradesmen tended to congregate together with others of their profession. Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane, Fish Market, and Wood Street were but some of the names that designated urban markets, and members of livery companies often lived near the company hall where they conducted their business and regulated their trade. Scattered throughout the city were pockets of foreign nationals-strangers, as they were known-who had been allowed to set-de and pursue their trades in the city.

Dominating the urban landscape was the cathedral dedicated to St. Paul. Citizens gathered there for worship on major feast days, but it was a hub for business transactions as well since its many altars provided ample opportunities for swearing to contracts. Nearby was the Folkmoot, where London's citizens gathered to conduct civic business. Cheapside, a major market street, together with the nearby Guildhall, formed another civic center, the site for processions and parades as well as trade. But while Adam would have become familiar with these neighborhoods, most of his time was spent in the confines of Altham's home and the streets around it.

A prosperous member of the Fullers such as Edward Altham would have owned property with perhaps thirty or forty feet of street frontage containing a range of shopfronts, which he might use to sell his own goods or rent out to other merchants. These typically three-story structures, each with its overhanging upper stories and shop signs, crowded the light from the canyonlike streets and trapped the smells of food, sweat, and human as well as animal waste. The burning of sea coal in countless hearths not only added its distinctive smell but also contributed to the foglike haze in which the city was often cloaked. Extending along one or both sides of a courtyard behind the shops was the hall where the family and servants lived.

Adam would have lived with Altham's other apprentices, either above the shops or in the hall. He would have taken his meals with the family, received his clothing from Altham, and been subject to his master's discipline just as if he were Altham's own son. His master's status would have assured Adam of accommodation and diet superior to that of many apprentices, not to mention most other Londoners. Most of his daylight hours would have been spent learning the mysteries of his new vocation. His future prospects depended on mastering his trade, and success was by no means guaranteed. During the period from 1510 to 1529 barely one in three apprentices actually finished their terms.

Winthrop's contract prohibited him from marrying during his apprenticeship, as well as from gambling, frequenting taverns, and haunting playhouses.


Excerpted from John Winthrop America's Forgotten Founding Father by Francis J. Bremer Copyright © 2003 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
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