Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 25

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 25


This is the grave of John Winthrop.


The kindest, gentlest man ever to walk the soil of North America, Winthrop was the governor and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the man who gave the famous “City Upon a Hill” speech that began a long tradition of white Americans thinking the rest of the world should copy everything we do. Born in 1588 in England to a wealthy family, he became deeply involved in religious matters at a young age, attracted to the Puritanism sweeping Britain. He led the group moving from England in 1630 arriving at Salem and spreading along the coast. Winthrop settled in Boston, acquiring a large parcel of land along the Mystic River. Winthrop was governor most of the rest of his life and was deeply conservative, leading the attacks to expel both Roger Williams (reluctantly) and Anne Hutchinson (with hateful glee). Of Hutchinson, he said she was “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” This was not a compliment. The meetings she held were a “thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex.”

He also supported the extermination of the Pequots in 1637. He opposed democratic decision making, fighting against an attempt in 1634 to create a representative assembly. He also enjoyed the tight control he had over the Puritan colony and was angry when Connecticut was founded away from his control. After Anne Hutchinson was deported to Rhode Island, he gleefully noted all the terrible things that happened to her, including her stillborn child and her death by Native Americans in 1643, as signs that God hated the heretic. He opposed incorporating Native Americans and Africans into the Puritan church and co-wrote the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first document explicitly sanctioning slavery in the English North American colonies. John Winthrop died in 1649 at the age of 61.

John Winthrop is buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts

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  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I wonder what an alternate history of a Catholic England colonizing North America in the 16th and 17th centuries would look like.
    Edit: Probably similar to the French effort, I suppose.

    • Actually I think it would have looked more or less like it did most places, i.e. Virginia. We often forget because of the outsized role the Puritans have played in American culture, but those colonies were outliers and mostly irrelevant backwaters in the colonial era.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Catholic English colonists might’ve not been so quick to not intermarry or not convert the Native Americans they encountered-it seems like the English behaved fundamentally differently in that respect than the French or Spanish.

        • LeeEsq

          Catholic England would be actually even quicker to convert the Native Americans and Africans imported as slaves. The Catholic Church took its missionary role very seriously. For all its faults, the Catholic Church did see Native Americans and Africans as fellow humans whose souls needed to be brought to Christ right away so they won’t be damned to hell. The Protestant Churches were much more ambivalent about this.

          • Pseudonym

            I think that’s what’s meant by “not been so quick to not convert”.

    • Or Maryland.

      • Fair, although the Protestants overwhelmed the Catholics pretty quickly.

        • I figure that’s exactly what would have happened in the counter-factual. Those early colonies wouldn’t have kept the Catholics on the throne.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            Well, assuming a counter factual in which Henry VIII’s hormones don’t get the better of him, and the faith he is the defender of is Catholicism, not proto Anglicanism, so that Protestantism is marginalized in England and Wales.

    • LeeEsq

      Not if our alternative Catholic English follow the same bring over women and children to strategy rather that our Protestant English did. Out of all the Europeans that colonized North America, the French treated the Native Americans the best out of necessity because not only were the less than successful than getting women to immigrate but that a lot of French men preferred to stay foot in France to. The Spanish and Portuguese got more men to make the leap of faith and emigrate to the New World.

      I think that a Catholic England wouldn’t exactly be like Virginia but a combination of Virginia and New England colonies. A Catholic England would prefer a less dispersed settlement pattern than the one in most southern colonies because they would want people to be near a church for religious reasons. This would mean that settlement would have the geographic of the New England, it will be based on concentrated settlements, and the social hierarchy of the southern colonies.

  • and was angry when Connecticut was founded away from his control

    From the looks of the picture, the first governor of Connecticut was John Winthrop the Younger, so I’m not sure how far out of his control the new colony was.

    • Ahuitzotl

      John and Jack were pretty much at daggers drawn, so, quite a long way out of control

  • One of the two statues in the U.S. Capitol is John Winthrop. That really should be replaced.

    I nominate the great Massachusetts peacemaker statesman John Kerry.

    • If we are really going to nominate someone, it should be Charles Sumner.

      • Good one!

        I mean, Sam and John Adams would be pretty lame. It would have sort of a royalist scent about it.

      • LFC

        Some time ago (i.e. a year or two, I don’t recall exactly), I had occasion to attend an event at a building in Wash. D.C. that is named for Charles Sumner. It was orig. an elementary school (I think iirc the first elem. school in the city set up specifically to serve Negro [as they were then] students in the late 19th cent.), and is now among other things a venue for concerts etc etc. Listening to snatches of a conversation around me, I was surprised to discover that the educated, middle-class white people in my immediate vicinity seemed to have no idea who Charles Sumner was. The sample size is admittedly tiny, but I suppose if so inclined one cd mobilize this anecdote as further evidence of the decline of American education, cultural literacy, and/or whatever.

    • CHD

      Roger Williams would be the only appropriate replacement.

      • Already there, from Rhode Island.

        • Pseudonym

          If Kerry can manage to hold together a long-term peace and positive influence with Iran he deserves it.

          • I am jumping the gun.

            No one should ever get a statue until they’re dead and we’ve had time to think.

            • Pseudonym

              It may be jumping the gun, but I still think his brother O. Penn deserves a statue at this year’s RNC though.

        • CHD

          Ok, now I get it. One of two *from Massachusetts*. I interpreted you to mean one of two *total*.
          I should get to DC more often, but it’s a long way from SoCal.

    • Hogan

      One of the two statues in the U.S. Capitol is John Winthrop.

      One of two statues of people from Massachusetts, right?

      • Right. Every state sends two figures hewn from some rigid material to the U.S. Capitol as a means of honoring their history and political establishment.

        But enough about the Senate; they also get to send two statues.

    • Colin Day

      John Kerry is a descendant of John Winthrop.

    • Bruce Vail

      How about Benjamin Butler?

      • Not nearly as much downside as John Winthrop, but he has some skeletons.

        Bad field commander, let his sleazy brother steal everything he could get his hands on.

        • Bruce Vail

          It’s my feeling that the ‘Bad Field Commander’ rap is overstated. He had is good days and he had his bad days. The West Pointers all hated him and talked trash because Butler was just a lowly Mass. ambulance chaser, not a professional military man.

  • girl in the burbs

    i did a little digging on Anne Hutchinson, as I was curious as to what sort of woman would evoke such ire from a man of such repute and privilege. Turns out Mitt Romney is a direct descendent through her daughter Susanna, the only survivor of the native indian attack that wiped out the rest of her family that had left the Boston area after Anne was banished.

    • mch

      Anne Hutchinson has many descendants by other children, including many prominent Americans, among them the Tory governor at the time of the Revolution, Thomas Hutchinson. It interests me that when we speak of Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, a rather short-lived phenomenon despite its far-reaching influence, we tend to focus on the propertied elites like Winthrop and Hutchinson to the exclusion of the numerous non-elites, both the more middling and the poor or at least struggling folks (I hesitate to say “classes,” which implies a rigidity of social and economic status that I don’t think existed outside of the elites, who did a good job of perpetuating their elite status among many of their descendants). These less exalted people leave evidence of themselves in places like the selectmen’s meeting minutes (e.g., of Dorchester) and records of the General Court. These sources are available free online and make for fascinating reading. People were constantly in trouble for wayward walking or drunkenness or spending too much time in the woods with Indians (having provided them with ale and guns — there were plenty of young men who, like the French trappers, were inclined to “go native”) or “entertaining” (having guests, including family members from another town, for more than a week without having first obtained the selectmen’s permission). Prostitution was there from the start. The Dorchester selectmen, at any rate, seem to have tried hard to persuade people to reform and even to have tried to help them (e.g., by helping idle youths find employment). (Btw, they also held to account men who mistreated their wives, both physically and even verbally.) People who persisted in their wayward ways were banished (though relatives often let them stay with them, risking reprimands from the selectmen) but could return if they “reformed.” These primary sources reveal a very salty, lively world in Boston, Charlestown, Dorchester from the very beginning. Life was not all antinomian controversies and elite struggles for authority. The seeds of the Revolution may be found as much among the descendants of these other folks as among the descendants of Winthrops and Hutchinsons.

  • dp

    What a jerk.

  • LeeEsq

    The Puritans of New England are fascinating because the best and worse parts of American life and thought are represented in them.

    • There is a graveyard in my hometown that has a the grave of a man who died in old age after having buried four wives and a mistress.

      His grave is white stone, with the ordinary dates and whatnot inscribed. So are the graves of his wives, lined up in order alongside his.

      The grave of his mistress, who he apparently took up with after the death of his last wife and didn’t marry, is down the end, and carved in black stone. The lengthy inscription describes in her agonizing death in childbirth and the deaths of the multiples she gave birth to – I don’t remember how many, 2-4, during and shortly after their birth.

      Those were some fucked up individuals.

      • LeeEsq

        It was a very different world. Mortality rates and were very high and extreme poverty very common. Most people could not afford to be single their entire life or even for long after even a very beloved spouse died. Being a single adult generally meant a life of poverty for all but the wealthiest individuals, especially if you had kids to take care of. Quick remarriage was common because marriage was one of the best sources of security against poverty even if it was only limited. They might be fucked up in our early 21st century, wealthy democracy way of thinking but their world view made logical sense at the time.

        • I was talking about the stone they put up to shame the mistress and warn others.

          • Pseudonym

            Everybody must get stoned.

          • LeeEsq

            They took their religion very seriously.

  • Either that tombstone or someone’s fingers are lyingdissembling about Jay Dub’s yr. of birth.

    • skate

      How so? If you are complaining that he was actually born in 1587, that would probably be because he was born January 1587 O.S. (old style), i.e. when the first day of the year was considered March 25. (Which see.)

      On the other hand, I have to wonder when that stone was carved. The shift to the new style calendar and calling January 1 the first day of the year didn’t finally take hold until 1752.

      • And I quote:

        Born in 1578 in England to a wealthy family

        I was trying to figure how he’d come to America at 52, done all that crap, & died only nine yrs. later.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’d love to read a modern history of the Pequot War. Any suggestions?

    It’s all well and good to condemn Winthrop for supporting the war, but would be interesting to know if there were any Pilgrims who opposed it?

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