John Winthrop: Magistrate, Minister, Merchant

By Crilly, Mark W. | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

John Winthrop: Magistrate, Minister, Merchant


Crilly, Mark W., The Midwest Quarterly


SCHOLARS HAVE TENDED to characterize the English colonization of Massachusetts in 1629 as an intellectual sojourn, a movement propagated by religious non-Separatists of the Church of England who sought to purify and reform church practices in the New World. Perry Miller, for instance, contends that the religious aspirations of the early colonists gave them the impetus to migrate to New England. Miller asserts in his seminal book, The Puritans, that the rift existing between members of the established Church of England and the non-separatists resulted from a "relatively small number of ideas." But, he adds, this "small number of ideas [in] which there was dispute made all the difference between the Puritan and his fellow-Englishman." In fact the difference meant so much, according to Miller, that these Puritan men and women "pulled up stakes in England" and migrated to America (7). And in his book The New England Mind, Miller continues to argue that the Puritan settlers were of a like mind with a "truly unified and coherent" sensibility (6). Philip Gura's polemics on Puritan radicalism delineated in A Glimpse at Sion's Glory differ slightly from Miller's argument of a unified body of thought in colonial New England. But Gura contends that "New England was settled in the belief that it was to become nothing less than a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, a land in which life of the spirit informed all behavior and so would mark the spot of the New Jerusalem" (13).

While Miller and Gura's analyses offer perspicuous insights into rather perplexing and fatiguing Puritan theological concerns, their foci ignore the economic considerations of the early colonists. In New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century, Bernard Bailyn analyzes the settlers' commercial enterprises, but contends that the leadership of the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Company was "securely in the hands of men whose main occupation was not trade" (19), suggesting that the leaders were motivated by spiritual aspirations rather than mundane concerns. Yet analysis of various social discourses suggests that members of the ruling oligarchy, led by John Winthrop, were able not only to secure intellectual or spiritual fortunes for the colonists, but also by dint of their position in the social hierarchy, were able to amass material fortunes for themselves. Whether he was driven by the spirit or was supported by the colonists he led, by means of lay sermons, legal documents, and letters, John Winthrop, who orchestrated the expedition to the new land, secured the interest of a small group of New World venturers.

John Winthrop had practiced law in and around London prior to his affiliation with the trading organization called the Massachusetts Bay Company, the company which he would eventually control. The company, formerly the Dorchester Company, had settled Salem and later became the Massachusetts Bay Company. Exactly how Winthrop became associated with those of the "Company of New England" is speculative, but he is presumed to have had business acquaintances whose relations owned the company. In The Puritan Dilemma Edmund Morgan notes that Winthrop was content to associate with men of importance. In 1617 Winthrop was in "Suffolk as one of the country's justices of the peace, a post reserved for persons of importance--and importance meant property" (16). During his years practicing law and serving the burgeoning merchant class, he secured ties with business ventures with whom he was to become partners.

In any event the Company had suffered financial difficulties and was in dire need of refinancing. In an effort to resuscitate the company into a profitable organization, adventurers, or to use modern parlance, investors, bought interest in the company. In The Massachusetts Bay Company and Its Predecessors Francis Rose-Troup offers an insightful analysis on Winthrop, noting that the investors of the original company, because of Winthrop's finesse with the pen, lost ownership of the land that they had been allotted by previous grants from the King of England and their voice in the conduct of the company as well. …

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