a member of an English upper-class family, attended Cambridge and took his position in the English social scheme as lord of the manor at Groton and as an important lawyer. His Puritan sympathies worked against his success, however, and he determined to join the Massachusetts Bay Company. Selected as governor, he sailed on the Arbella (1630), affirming belief in Puritanism, and disclaiming any intention of separating from the Established Church. For nine of his remaining years he was governor, and during the other ten deputy-governor.
Since the charter of the company had been transferred to New England, and was not, as in other colonies, held by an English corporation, this Puritan commonwealth had in it the seeds of democracy. Winthrop and the other upper-class leaders, however, had their own ideas on how a democracy should operate, and they attempted to create a sort of benevolent despotism. Because of John Cotton, the company became increasingly an aristocratic theocracy. Winthrop indicated his views by proclaiming, “If we should change from a mixt aristocratie to a mere Democratie, first we should have no warrant in scripture for it: there is no such government in Israel … a Democratie is, amongst most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst forms of government.”
His most famous piece of writing is his Journal, of which the first two parts were published in 1790, and the complete work as The History of New England (2 vols., 1825–26). This important source book, begun on the Arbella voyage and continued intermittently until his death, is composed of brief jottings. It records not only the great events but also the minute happenings, for as a Puritan he conceived of formal history as specific and concrete anecdotes, all equally important, since all occur through the will of God. The Winthrop Papers, a scholarly edition of his Journal was published by the Massachusetts Historical Society (5 vols., 1929–47). Winthrop figures frequently in literature, as in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, “Howe's Masquerade,” and “Endicott and the Red Cross.”