John Winthrop was forty-two years old when in 1630 he joined the Puritans who left England in order to create a godly commonwealth in the new world. Behind him lay a modest life of gentlemanly accomplishment in the Suffolk countryside. Ahead lay the wilderness, but also the vision of an entire social order organized for fellowship with God and with God’s people. For most of the remaining nineteen years of his life, Winthrop served as the governor of Massachusetts Bay; for all of those years he was the heart and soul of the enterprise.
When Winthrop and the first substantial body of Puritans arrived in North America, a smaller colony to the south of Massachusetts Bay had already been in place for a decade. The Plymouth settlement, with more modest goals and a more modest sense of itself, was the outpost of a separatist Puritan movement. Unlike the Massachusetts Puritans, who always claimed to be only reforming the established Church of England, the Plymouth separatists had given up on official Anglicanism. In search of free space in which to pursue their less comprehensive vision of what the Lord desired, these separatists in 1608 had departed for the greater tolerance found in the Netherlands. But after watching their children take on Dutch ways, they looked farther afield for a place where they might be left alone. After contracting with London merchants for transport and supplies, about forty of the separatists (with sixty others to fill up the ship) embarked on the Mayflower for an ill-defined North American destination.
They arrived at Cape Cod Bay in November, and before the first winter was past about half of their tiny band, including the governor, John Carver, had succumbed to cold or disease. As the new leader for their struggling venture, the colonists chose a farmer-weaver, William Bradford, who in 1621 was thirty-one years old. Until his own death in 1657, Bradford would serve nearly continuously as governor of this colony. For many of these years he occupied his scant leisure hours in writing a history of the settlement. Perhaps even more than Winthrop for Massachusetts, William Bradford for Plymouth was the one necessary person.
The nearly simultaneous publication of two solid books on Winthrop and Bradford—Francis J. Bremer’s John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father and Douglas Anderson’s William Bradford’s Books: Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word—offers an unusual opportunity to reconsider the leaders who more than any others insured that their settlements would not fail. Bremer’s comprehensive biography of John Winthrop rests on prodigious research in both English and American sources and is a fitting climax to a productive academic career. Douglas Anderson’s volume is a substantial analysis of the form and content of Bradford’s history of Plymouth studied against the era’s reading practices, publishing conventions, and scriptural interpretations.
In different ways, these books describe leaders of rare quality. But were Winthrop and Bradford more than just effective colonists? Were they, in fact, “American founding fathers,” as the claim made for Winthrop in Bremer’s subtitle suggests? The question of what Bradford and Winthrop offer the American polity now depends on what they were then.
First, however, it must be noted that authors who write on Winthrop and Bradford know that they face daunting competition. For Winthrop, a short study by Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma, published more than forty years ago, remains a model. Morgan could not deal comprehensively with all particulars of Winthrop research, but he wrote with unusual wisdom and grace (“the central Puritan dilemma [was] the problem of doing right in a world that does wrong”; and of Winthrop’s death in 1649, “On March 26 he reached what in life he had never sought, a separation from his sinful fellow men”). The result is an intimidating standard.
For Bradford, the competition is provided by published versions of his own manuscript. That work was known to early Massachusetts historians, but then was lost during the American Revolution, only to be discovered during the early 1850s in the library of the Bishop of London. A published edition soon followed, and then in 1952 Samuel Eliot Morison brought out a version entitled Of Plymouth Plantation, which has been read with much appreciation, primarily because of how clearly it presents Bradford’s extraordinary combination of personal qualities—matter-of-fact, pious, humble, observant, wise, magnanimous, and persistent.
Competition duly appreciated, Bremer and Anderson have nonetheless succeeded in their own efforts. Bremer in particular has rendered an especially useful service for the more than two-thirds of Winthrop’s life spent in England. Most important, Bremer shows how clearly the type of society Winthrop tried to build in Puritan Massachusetts was modeled on what he had experienced in Puritan Suffolk. Winthrop’s grandfather, a successful cloth maker in London, had purchased monastic lands northeast of London, on the far side of the Stour River, when Henry VIII secularized England’s monasteries as part of his break from Rome. Winthrop’s father had become a substantial country gentleman, while retaining legal and business connections in London, and this was the path followed by his son.
Most of all, John was pointed toward the reform of the Anglican church and the pursuit of godliness through his family’s extended Puritan connections. “Puritan,” then as now, was an ill-defined word that covered many kinds of reformers, a fact that became obvious in Massachusetts when those who had united in opposing King Charles I strained against each other in efforts to get reform right in New England. In Suffolk’s Stour River Valley there flourished a steady and determined, but also moderate, variety of Puritanism, one marked by eager cooperation between magistrates and ministers, a basic confidence in the precedents of English common law, and an expectation that God-given charity could effectively shape a godly society. In other words, as Bremer shows in great detail, Winthrop’s Massachusetts mirrored one of the most thoroughly, but also one of the most humanely, Puritan regions of England.
Along the way Bremer multiplies reasons for regarding Winthrop with great respect. People who still take their cues from such misguided authorities as H. L. Mencken and Vernon Louis Parrington and think of the Puritans as desiccated killjoys just don’t get it. Or at least they have never tried to get John Winthrop. When in his last decade he was impoverished by the chicanery of his steward, Winthrop went on without complaint in much humbler circumstances than he had known in either England or the Bay. During the trying days of early settlement, he gave away corn and other food with no thought of repayment. In handling the disputes of which daily life in Massachusetts was full, he was unfailingly humble, flexible, lenient, charitable, and fair. What he proclaimed about “Christian Charity” in a famous sermon preached as the Puritans set off to New England (and often quoted out of context to invoke an exceptionalist American “city on a hill”), he exemplified year after year in his faithful service to the colony.
The Winthrop of Bremer’s biography is not markedly different from the figure portrayed in Edmund Morgan’s landmark volume. Only we have more Winthrop here, more insight into the rock from which he was hewn, more reasons to admire his wisdom in directing Massachusetts Bay, and more opportunity to reflect on Puritanism at its best.
Douglas Anderson’s treatment of William Bradford is concerned with a narrower set of questions, but it too serves its purposes well. The manuscript that Anderson presents as Of Plimmoth Plantation (with spelling following Bradford’s own usage) was the fruit of a life given over to words as well as deeds. Bradford was not among his era’s educated elite, but he shared with many other separatists a lifelong devotion to the Bible and an intense engagement with theological literature. Anderson shows well how works like John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs outlined a literary path for earnest lay Puritans such as Bradford to follow. According to Foxe, “God hath opened the presse to preach,” or in Anderson’s paraphrase, “Books are opened, presses print, and preachers preach.” For reformers like Foxe and Bradford these various activities were easily amalgamated. And so Anderson interprets Of Plimmoth Plantation as a book intended for edifying instruction, and as a work that developed from the preaching and reading of Scripture, particularly the Geneva Bible. By making sense of Bradford’s manuscript, Anderson brings Bradford himself closer.
But should Winthrop and Bradford be considered American founding fathers, especially since they presided over societies that were mostly pre-republican, pre-democratic, pre-egalitarian, and by modern standards not pluralistic at all? To be sure, Puritan fear of arbitrary government did anticipate later republican fears of unchecked political power. Puritan insistence upon predestination and election did create a certain democracy of sanctity, since divine grace stood as near to the lowliest peasant as to the loftiest lord. Plymouth also featured equal opportunity, equal access, and equal treatment under the law in rare measure for the seventeenth century. And by allowing Rhode Island to exist as unregulated free space, the Puritan colonies acknowledged, if they did not approve, the existence of an unusually bold experiment in freedom.
Yet in their main efforts, the colonies led by Winthrop and Bradford resisted what have become American commonplaces. The Puritan distrust of unchecked authority was Augustinian and grew out of suspicion of human nature; it was not humanistically republican and oriented toward the potential of human self-creation. As for democracy, Winthrop boldly asserted during one of many public standoffs on how to run Massachusetts what most of his respected peers also believed: the liberty that Massachusetts sought was the freedom to do “that only which is good, just, and honest.” It was a freedom “maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority.” With respect to egalitarianism, no one in the Puritan world held that personal rights were more important than the orderly godliness of the community as a whole. And pluralism? The whole purpose of braving the perils of the deep and of the American wilderness was to build a unitary society for people of like mind. If you dissented from the will of such a community, you could in fact exercise a “negative freedom,” but only to take off for Rhode Island.
From another angle, however, both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth eventually succeeded in large part because they mastered the art of self-government. What now is described as “civil society” was taking shape remarkably in these Puritan colonies. Winthrop’s dislike for carefully codified legal systems grew from his belief that God’s rule of His people could lead them to social harmony, but only if the godly got to work in voluntarily attending to their own problems. The driving force behind the Plymouth colony was Bradford’s similar trust in God’s sovereign rule, linked with confidence in the godly themselves to do what was needed for a healthy society to emerge. In these terms, the Puritan colonies remain relevant to the American present, at least to the degree that self-government remains important in America.
Once we have glimpsed a connection between ideals of self-government promoted in seventeenth-century New England and the twenty-first-century United States, however, a further question of great moment arises. Does the relative success that the Puritans achieved in self-government require or depend on their self-consciously religious (or with greater historical accuracy, self-consciously Christian) convictions? That is the kind of thought-provoking question that must be addressed in order to decide whether John Win-throp and William Bradford should be considered “American founding fathers.” It is a question now made much more approachable because of the estimable labors of Douglas Anderson and Francis Bremer.
Mark Noll, Professor of History at Wheaton College, is the author most recently of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press).