The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

II. The Historians, 1607–1783

§ 7. John Winthrop

What Bradford’s History is to Plymouth, John Winthrop’s journal is to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The author, more than any other man, was the founder of the colony. He was an earnest Puritan, a supporter of the ideas of Hampden and Pym, and by natural ability he was a leader of men. He left Cambridge before graduation, married at seventeen, became a justice of the peace at eighteen, and was soon a man of note in his shire, Suffolk, where he was lord of the manor of Groton. In 1630 he gave up all this, as well as a lucrative position as attorney in the Court of Wards, and threw in his lot with the men who were to settle Massachusetts. He was the colony’s first governor, and through annual re-elections served it for twelve years, finally dying in office in 1649. Rev. John Cotton described him as

  • a governour … who has been to us as a brother, not usurping authority over the church; often speaking his advice, and often contradicted, even by young men, and some of low degree; yet not replying, but offering satisfaction also when any supposed offences have arisen; a governour who has been to us as a mother, parent-like distributing his goods to bretheren and neighbours at his first coming; and gently bearing our infirmities without taking notice of them.
  • The life of John Winthrop was worthy of this tribute in all respects.

    Introspection was a Puritan trait, and the first governor at Boston had his share. Early in life he kept a little diary which he called Experiencia, a record of very deep spirituality. His letters show that he thought God directed his love and marriage. It was in the spring of 1630 that he embarked for Massachusetts, and while abroad ship, “riding at the Cowes, near the Isle of Wight,” on Easter Monday, he began a journal which he kept faithfully until a few months before his death. It is filled with colony affairs, but its title, A History of New England, is misleading. It says little about any other colony than that over which the writer ruled, and the form is not that of history proper. Yet it is a valuable record of the life of the time, and presents good expositions of most of the problems of the early colony. While it is not written in so interesting a style Bradford’s book, it is in a fair diary manner, rarely becoming tedious to a reader who has the taste for the fine points of a contemporary document. It is Puritan in a liberal sense. Some New England writers can never forget their peculiar type of religion; but Winthrop discusses business matters like a man of business and public affairs like a man accustomed to weigh the fortunes of state in an even scale.