Authors: Hugh Brogan
Winthrop was of the same astonishing gentry generation as Pym, Hampden and Oliver Cromwell; nor was his achievement less than theirs. Like Cromwell, he was a decaying gentleman: his estate, Groton in Suffolk, was at the heart of the region injured by the decline of the Old Draperies. Like Cromwell, though he was far from being an ordinary man, an ordinary man could have been made out of him. His natural tastes were those of a straightforward countryman: he liked food, drink and field sports; was extremely uxorious (four wives, sixteen children); hated London. Like Cromwell, his soul had early been fired by Puritanism; like Cromwell, he had little or no sense of humour; like Cromwell, his chance came at the age of forty.
There the resemblance ceases. There were traces of a high generosity and an intellectual distinction in Winthrop which Cromwell never attained. There was no whiff of sulphur about him, none of the Cromwellian blind groping to his destiny. Winthrop was eminently reasonable. He wrestled intelligently with his temptations, in the process discovering the great strength of his character and the joys of a life of challenge. His days were marked throughout by an earnest and honest attempt to mould himself and his society according to the will of God. But he made no impossible demands of himself and his fellows. His religion reflected his character, as a man’s religion always does, rather more than it shaped it.
Winthrop was able, hard-working, healthy and, until the call came, obscure: Puritanism enabled him to balance ambition and pleasure, and to accept the narrow confines of his life. Yet in 1629 he was known to a wide circle of Puritan gentry, merchants, lawyers and ministers as a man of great gifts, at peace with himself. He was clearly such a man as the Massachusetts Bay Company needed. Gradually he was drawn into its plans; gradually he accepted the part he might play in them. He set down on paper the arguments in favour of attempting a Puritan plantation in New England. Reasons of ambition and economics were stated; but over all predominated the feeling that, for the faithful of God, the times were bad and getting worse; that God was preparing a judgement against England, ‘and who knows, but that God hath provided this place, to be a refuge for many, whom he means to save out of the general destruction’. However, if the old England were, in spite of all, to be saved, it might best be done from the new. ‘It was a good service to the Church of the Jews that Joseph and Mary forsook them, that their messiah might be preserved for them against the
times of better service.’ And if this undoubtedly honourable work were to succeed, it would need to be undertaken by some men, at least, of education, ability and wealth. Winthrop at last agreed to be the chief of them. His friends had long insisted that they would not stir without him.
The decision once made, his spirit sang within him:
Now thou the hope of Israel, and the sure help of all that come to thee, knit the hearts of thy servants to thyself, in faith and purity. Draw us with the sweetness of thine odours, that we may run after thee, allure us, and speak kindly to thy servants, that thou may possess us as thine own, in the kindness of youth and the love of marriage. Carry us into thy Garden, that we may eat and be filled with those pleasures, which the world knows not: let us hear that sweet voice of thine, my love, my dove, my undefiled. Spread thy skirt over us and cover our deformity, make us sick with thy love. Let us sleep in thine arms, and awake in thy kingdom.
The joyous sense of a divine work to be done carried him on triumphantly to the building of the most remarkable of the English colonies and the establishment of a truly new society in the New World.
The times were with him. At their arrival, the Puritans found, like the Pilgrims before them, that the Indians were agreeably few; and there was no serious interference, let alone attack, from the Dutch or the French. The colony never lacked the essential for success, plentiful recruitment: during the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’ some 20,000 Puritans are thought to have crossed to Massachusetts Bay. Many died, many lost heart and returned; but most stayed. The earlier arrivals supplied the later with corn, dressed timber, cattle; in return the latecomers provided the cloth, pots, gunpowder and so on which could not yet be manufactured in New England.
The debt of America to Winthrop and his associates (especially the ministers) can scarcely be overestimated (though it may be misstated). It was not merely that the Governor made all the great decisions of the early days, such as that to establish the seat of government on the Shawmut peninsula, thereafter famous as Boston; or that his cheerful faith sustained the settlers’ morale throughout the starving winter after their arrival; or that he generously subsidized the colony from his own pocket. His faith, his programme, his method of government raised some questions, settled others; but overall the great work of the Puritans was the stamping of their character on American society. For the mark, though much altered by time, has proved indelible.
True, in the eyes of the Puritans themselves, their failure was almost as conspicuous as their success. We have seen that one aim of the Great Migration was to provide in the New World a new model of the due form of government, civil and ecclesiastical, by which, when the times mended, the Old World was somehow to be saved. ‘We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill,’ said Winthrop to the first settlers, ‘the eyes of all people are upon us.’ A splendid and deservedly famous assertion. Unfortunately
it remained a mere assertion. The eyes of all people – even of English people – proved to be looking elsewhere; and from that day to this, when they have from time to time turned to the Bible Commonwealth founded by Winthrop, they have seen more to blame than to admire. Seventy-five years of the Puritan spirit bore the New England settlements as their fruit; but the spirit continued to evolve with the years, leaving the ideas of Winthrop’s generation behind, stranded, as it were, on the American shore: looking to a different harvest. Winthrop’s city upon a hill was, nevertheless, actually built, organized and maintained against its enemies. Few other Utopias could ever boast as much. No wonder that, in spite of outer neglect and inner backsliding, its citizens continued to be proud of it and of themselves.
It was very much a Separatist Utopia. Not that, before their voyage, many of the Puritans had been of the Pilgrim stripe. As a matter of fact, nothing in the history of English Protestantism is more striking than the extreme and long-enduring reluctance of the Puritans under the Stuarts to be logical and separate from the national church. However zealous for the discipline, few of the ministers and lay Puritans had the martyrs’ temperament; and many, even of the most earnest, of those least swayed by material considerations (the discomfort of prison, the comfort of a benefice) could not bring themselves to abandon comprehensiveness and their dear, if sinful, fellow-countrymen, even though they cherished the notion that a church ought only to be a local thing, an exclusive and independent congregation of the saved. The Massachusetts Congregationalists were not voluntary schismatics: they were driven out of their church by Laud.
It is not surprising that professed Separatists had been the first to make the greatest break of all, and leave, not just their church, but their country, seeking a new England; and it is a certain testimony to the despair settling like a winter fog over the Puritans in Laudian England that so many of them decided to follow the Pilgrim lead. For by doing so they conceded the Separatist case. They struggled against admitting it: Winthrop and his friends (protesting, maybe, a trifle too much) issued a fulsome declaration of loyalty to the Church of England just before sailing. They had no wish to seem deserters of God’s cause in England. But the act of sailing was a sign that they had in fact abandoned it. Geography was too strong. Three thousand miles of ocean, they discovered, left them free (and therefore bound) to follow their religious principles to their logical conclusions without fear or regret. Bishops and the Book of Common Prayer were abandoned.
Ties of sentiment and habit fell away, and non-separating Congregationalism ended. Every New England church was sovereign in its locality, amenable only to the advice of neighbouring churches and the strong arm of the civil authority.
This last was a very severe restriction on the sacred freedom of the churches. It was a much more total surrender to the state than anything which Charles I or Laud were able to impose on the church in England. But Winthrop and the ministers felt they had little choice but to try to square this circle. Heresy and sedition (that is, non-Congregationalist views) would sprout unless some power existed to check them. That power could only be the state, since no church might coerce another, and since the state existed only to further God’s clear purpose… it was sophistry, but plausible enough. Heresy became a civil offence, like any of the others (such as witchcraft, profanity, blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, sodomy, Sabbath-breaking) with which the courts had to deal. Right liberty, Winthrop carefully explained, was liberty only to do God’s will. All other forms of liberty were frowned on. So, arm in arm, the Puritan churches and the Puritan state forced men to be free. It was an enlightened despotism.
Such a system was more acceptable in the religious than in the secular sphere. The bulk of the settlers were happy to believe that the divines whom they had followed from England knew how to steer them all safe to heaven, and supported them and the enforcing secular arm contentedly against such challengers as Roger Williams (1603–83), the founder of Rhode Island colony in 1636, who argued for complete separation between the institutions of church and state, and Anne Hutchinson (1591 -1643), who claimed direct inspiration from God. Politics was a different matter. Winthrop launched, and would have liked to continue, an enlightened despotism in this sphere too, but circumstances were too strong for him, and he showed his usual good sense in gracefully giving way to them. The colonists intended to run no risks of forced loans, ship money, billeting or any other arbitrary exactions now that they had got free of Old England. The preachers too, remembering Laud’s heavy hand, were all in favour of a strictly limited government in non-ecclesiastical affairs. ‘If you tether a beast at night,’ said the Reverend John Cotton, ‘he knows the length of his tether before morning.’
So in 1632 the settlers insisted on the principle of no taxation without representation (though not in those words). It was agreed that every town was to elect two deputies (like the borough members of the House of Commons) to confer with the Governor and other magistrates (known as assistants) and vote necessary taxes. They also successfully claimed the right to elect the Governor and Deputy. Then in 1634, at the May meeting of the General Court, ‘it was ordered, that four general courts should be kept every year, and that the whole body of the freemen should be present only at the court of election of magistrates, etc., and that, at the other three, every town should send their deputies, who should assist in making laws,
disposing lands, etc.’. The General Court was, under the charter, the sovereign body both of the Massachusetts Bay Company and of its colony, into which it had merged. Increasingly this court came to resemble the English Parliament. The resemblance was accentuated when, in 1644, it was formally divided into two houses, the magistrates and the deputies.
Winthrop, believing in a truly aristocratic government – ‘the best part is always the least and of that best part the wiser is always the lesser’, he said – deplored this evolution, but could not end it. The annual election of Governor and other magistrates had brought the joys of electoral politics to the sympathetic soil of North America. Winthrop was twice voted out of the Governorship for a period of years (in 1634 and 1640); and his belief in a flexible, organic government, to be guided by the precedents of its own decisions, was rejected by the colonists, who insisted on a code of written laws – the
Body of Liberties
Within so few years of its establishment, the Massachusetts plantation had grown into a fully self-governing little republic, having only paper connections with the royal government in England – it was far outside both the protection and the power of Whitehall. But it was far from being a democracy, which Winthrop (reflecting the general educated attitude of his time) described as the meanest of all forms of government. There had been no democracy in Israel. The danger that ‘worldly men should prove the major part’ of the government had to be avoided, and was, by a decree (1631) that ‘to the end the body of the commons may be preserved of honest and good men… no man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politic, but such as are members of some of the churches within the limits of the same’. Since only those who could convince the other members that they had been converted were admitted to churches the danger of ungodly rule was thus eliminated; and since the number of the converted was always small, the danger of mere majority rule was eliminated at the same time.
An élite, then, of the elect, the Saints, governed Massachusetts; an élite which was itself dominated by men like Winthrop, as he desired, men of wealth, education and breeding.
It was not a class élite, all the same. God did not save or damn by income: poor as well as rich were admitted to the churches. Whatever the other inequalities, church members were equal in political rights. Yet in every class, in every town, they were in a minority. By the end of the century their monopoly of political power was exciting envy in the unregenerate. Long before that, it was proving inconvenient to the regenerate. Efficiency required wider citizenship. For freemanship entailed not rights only, but responsibilities, and all too many church members, obeying a natural instinct to shirk, were declining to apply for it. In order to keep the affairs of government running smoothly, it proved necessary to find ways round the rule restricting freemanship – let us say
citizenship – to the saved. (In the daughter colony of Connecticut – founded in 1635 – the rule was never adopted.) The purely local franchise was early opened to all men of mature years who had taken the oath of fidelity to the commonwealth. In this way the idea of political equality began to make itself felt.