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John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father

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John Winthrop

John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father

One of the more obscure figures in American history, John Winthrop may be one of the least famous people every American should know something about. Winthrop was part of the transition from the Old World to the New. With religious worldviews rooted in the more radical wing of the English Reformation, he came to embody attitudes which would be considered uniquely American.


Title: John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father
Author: Francis J. Bremer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195149130

• Humanizes Winthrop with many details of his life
• Seeks to set Winthrop in the religious and political context of his time

• Rather long and may go into far more details than the casual reader cares about

• Biography of John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony
• Examines both Winthrop's past and his abilities as an administrator
• Explains how Winthrop was very much a part of his era

Book Review

It is because of Winthro's obscurity hat Francis J. Bremer calls him "America's Forgotten Founding Father" in his recent biography of the man. The first (and frequently reelected) governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, he was instrumental in shaping what came to be known as the "puritan" attitude in American culture and politics. For better or for worse, that attitude has remained with us in various forms and will probably continue to do so through the foreseeable future.

If people know about Winthrop at all, it is likely through his 1630 "Christian Charity" sermon in which he expressed the defining metaphor of America as "a City upon a Hill." Even here, however, he languishes in obscurity because so often politicians and others will make references to his metaphor without ever specifically attributing its source. He is, in a way, a victim of his own success: his metaphor has become so ubiquitous and accepted that the very idea of it having a specific source is dismissed.

He also might be considered a victim of his own ambiguities. On the one hand he can reasonably be portrayed as being relatively tolerant for people of his time - he rarely went as far as many wanted when it came to using the government to enforce religious orthodoxy. His life can thus be used to humanize early American Puritans. On the other hand, he wasn't as "tolerant" of other religious beliefs as people today are - he did, after all, expel Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams from the colony, sending them off into the wilderness.

In many ways beyond these Winthrop can be seen as an ambiguous man, very much rooted in the religious and social climate of his time but also embodying new ideas and new ways of approaching the world, something which certainly made him the right person to lead colonists from Europe to the Americas. Understanding Winthrop thus requires an examination of both the world from which he came (something that many biographers ignore) and the world he helped create - something which Bremer explicitly strives to achieve.

John Winthrop

John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father

As a result, Bremer's account of Winthrop's life is both sweeping in its scope and exhaustive in its details. Bremer actually begins with John's great-grandfather, Adam, who lived at time before the Protestant Reformation and who is the earliest ancestor of John that can be clearly identified. From here we are introduced to the religious context of England through the years of the Reformation and how that impacted Christians in England.

At the same time, this book is not simply a history of English and American religion, using the life of John Winthrop as means of organizing the material. Editor of the Winthrop papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society, Bremer has access to a wealth of information about Winthrop's life, explaining minutiae which almost threatens to become tedious at times, but which overall allows him to ensure that Winthrop is presented as a real person rather than an impersonal historical figure.

For some readers, the details may prove to be too much and ultimately too boring. Most, however, should enjoy the biography - especially if they already have any interest in American religion and/or early American history.

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