THE CHIEF STEWARDS OF THEOCRACY
MASTER JOHN COTTON
THE most authoritative representative in New England of the ideal of
priestly stewardship was the excellent John Cotton, first teacher to the church at Boston. While pastor of the church of St. Botolph, in old Boston, he had dreamed of a Utopia of the Saints, unharassed by tyrannous prelates; and while sweetening his mouth with a morsel of Calvin, as he was fond of doing, no doubt he turned over in his mind the plans and specifications of that Utopia. "When God wrappes us in his ordinances," he said in his sermon to Winthrop's company on the eve of its departure from England, "and warmes us with the life and power of them as with wings, there is the land of Promise." Left behind by the departing brethren, he lingered for a while in an England that was every day becoming colder for such as dreamed of other Canaans than Laud's, until urged by many invitations, at the age of forty-six he followed overseas to devote his remaining life to the great work being done there. For more than a score of years he labored faithfully, and the New England which the emigrant generation bequeathed to its sons bore upon it the marks of John Cotton's shaping hand more clearly than those of any other minister.
It is not easy today to judge fairly the life and work of John Cotton. No
adequate biography has been written, and his dreams
and aspirations lie forgotten in the grave of lost causes and forsaken faiths. But to the Boston freemen of his own day, Master
John Cotton was a very great man. Of excellent family and sound
university training, he was both a notable theologian and a courteous gentleman. "Twelve hours in a day he commonly studied, and would call that a scholar's day" his grandson reported of him.
From the hour when he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at
the age of thirteen, to his death in 1652, he was a bookman, and in
sheer bulk of acquisition probably no man of his time outdid him. In Cotton Mather's judgment he was "a most universal scholar, and a living system of the liberal arts, and a walking library." His intellectual equipment was so highly regarded that many excellent persons "believed that God would not suffer Mr. Cotton to err"; and that "if ever there be any considerable blow given to the Devil's kingdom," Master Cotton was the man for the business. No other New England champion was so renowned for "beating out the truth in controversie"; and when he turned to the work of answering Roger Williams, the latter exclaimed: "I rejoice it hath pleased [God] to appoint so able, and excellent, and conscionable an Instrument to bolt the Truth to the bran." But though he was bred in Elizabethan days and entered college in the year when Shakespeare's Henry IV and Jonson's Every Man in his Humour first appeared on the stage, there is no touch of Renaissance splendor in his crabbed style and ascetic reasoning. That was early washed out of him by the rising tide of Hebraism which was slowly submerging the England of poets and playwrights.
But however much he loved cloistered scholarship, the immediate source of his great influence was the spoken rather than the written word. By the universal testimony of his generation he was "a soul-melting preacher," whose reasoned eloquence swayed congregations trained to solid argumentative discourse. When he ascended the pulpit on Sundays and lecture days, he spoke as a prophet in Israel; and on occasions of public ceremonial, or when dissensions arose touching the polity of church or state, he was summoned by the magistrates to convince with his logic and persuade with his eloquence. The strong-minded Anne Hutchinson was but one of many who chose exile in New England rather than lose the edification of Mr. Cotton's preaching. Good men were drawn to him by his sweetness of temper, and evil men were overawed by his venerable aspect. He seems to have been an altogether lovable person, with white hair framing a face that must have been nobly chiseled, gentle-voiced, courteous, tactful, by nature "a tolerant man" who placidly bore with a dissentient and gladly discovered a friend in an antagonist. If his quiet yielding before opposition suggests that he may have been given to opportunism, or his fondness for intellectual subtleties drew from his grandson the comment "a most excellent casuist," we must not too hastily conclude that he served the cause of truth less devotedly than the cause of party.
For a score of years before his coming over, his position in the rising Puritan party had been honorable. Few among the dissenting ministers were better known, none more esteemed. He had shone as an intellectual light at the university, he had long been pastor of one of the loveliest churches in England, he counted among his friends some of the ablest contemporary Englishmen. To Cromwell he was one "whom I love and honour in the Lord"; to Lord Say and Sele, to the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Lincoln, and a notable company of Puritan gentlemen, he was a trusted friend and lieutenant; to thousands of the substantial burgesses who were drawing together to form the new Puritan-Whig party, he was "a fixed and conscionable light." That such a leader should have been received with thanksgiving by the Boston congregation was to be expected; that he should have taken high place at once among the members of the Massachusetts oligarchy was equally to be expected. Thenceforth his busy career was no more than a reflection of the ambitions of the theocracy.
Unfortunately his daily contact with narrow-minded and intolerant men gave an unhappy bias to his later career. Cotton seems to have been something of a Puritan intellectual, with an openminded curiosity that made him receptive to new ideas and tempted him to play with doctrines that were intolerable to his bigoted associates. It was possibly this native sympathy with free speculation that drew him into the camp of Mistress Hutchinson with her doctrine of the inner light. When the schism became serious, dividing the commonwealth into warring camps, Cotton seems to have become frightened and broke with the Boston Antinomians. In this matter he came near to being a shuffler. The Hutchinson trial with its resulting banishments was the turning point of his
career in America as it was a crisis in the history of early New England. He was not a man to persecute and harry, nor was he one to stand in isolated opposition to associates whom he respected, and he allowed himself to be coerced by narrower-minded men
like Endicott and Dudley. After 1637 the better nature of John Cotton was submerged by the rising intolerance, and "the most tolerant, as he was the ablest of the Massachusetts divines," was brought so low as to defend the meanest and cruelest acts of the oligarchy. He descended to disgraceful casuistry in defense of the first whippings of the Quakers, and he urged the death penalty upon King Philip's son and the enslavement of the remnant of Philip's tribe, against the plea of John Eliot that "to sell soules for mony seemeth to me a dangerous merchandize." The sins of the oligarchy rest in large measure on the head of John Cotton, and the judgment of the most recent historian of New England must stand:
With a broader mind and wider vision than any of the other clergy of the colony, he had not the courage to stand alone, beyond a certain point, against their unanimity in intolerance. The higher promptings of his nature were crushed by the united voice of the priesthood, as Winthrop's had been so short a time before, and the noblest of the colony's leaders, lay and clerical, from that time tended to sink to the lower level of their fellows.1
An apologist - and whoever has felt the charm of John Cotton's personality easily becomes an apologist - will perhaps find some grounds of excuse for his later conduct. He was in an unhappy position. He was ill at ease in his mind, and his frequent tacking in the face of adverse winds was characteristic of the intellectual who sees all sides of a question. He heartily approved of the theocratic ends that his associates were seeking, and his influential position made him the defender of acts which his better nature must have disapproved. The historian, however, will seek a more adequate explanation in the roots of his environment. The idealism of John Cotton was the fruit of his training, and his theocratic dreams were conditioned by the facts that he was both a Calvinist and a Carolinian gentleman. The fusion of these two influences resulted in the unique political theory of an ethical aristocracy, consecrated to moral stewardship in the state. A lifelong student of Calvin's Institutes, he found there a system of social organization that responded to every demand of the theologian and the aristocrat. The very texture and pattern of Cotton's political philosophy is exemplified in such a passage as this, over which he must have brooded much:
When these three forms of government of which philosophers treat, are considered in themselves, I, for my part, am far from denying that the form which greatly surpasses the other is aristocracy, either pure or modified by popular government; not indeed in itself, but because it very rarely happens that kings so rule themselves as never to dissent from what is just and right, or are possessed of so much acuteness and prudence as always to see correctly. Owing therefore to the vices or defects of men, it is safer and more tolerable when several bear rule, that they may thus mutually assist, instruct, and admonish each other, and should any be disposed to go too far, the others are censors and masters to curb his excess. This has already been proved by experience, and confirmed also by the authority of the Lord himself, when he established an aristocracy bordering on popular government among the Israelites, keeping them under that as the best form, until He exhibited an image of the Messiah in David.2
As a Carolinian gentleman, this was as far as Cotton would go on the
path of liberalism. The elders were responsible to God for the spiritual well-being of the people, and the state must aid and not hinder them in their leadership. The doctrine of unlimited popular sovereignty was for him no other than a thistle in the garden of the Lord. The desire for liberty he regarded as the sinful prompting of the natural man, a denial of the righteous authority of God's chosen rulers. If democracy were indeed the best form of government, was it not strange that divine wisdom should have failed to discover the fact? In the history of the chosen people nowhere does God approve the democratic as the best form, but the theocratic; was He now to be set right by sinful men who courted popularity by appealing to the selfishness of depraved hearts? To the scripturist the logic of his argument was convincing:
It is better that the commonwealth be fashioned to the setting forth of God's house, which is his church: than to accommodate the church frame to the civill state. Democracy, I do not conceyve that ever God did ordeyne as a fit government eyther for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors, who shall be governed? As for monarchy, and aristocracy, they are both of them clearely approoved, and directed in scripture, yet so as referreth the soveraigntie to himselfe, and setteth up Theocracy in both, as the best forme of government in the commonwealth, as well as in the church.3
If John Cotton, like other Carolinian gentlemen, was a confirmed aristocrat, he was at the same time a social revolutionary, who would substitute an aristocracy of the Saints for the landed aristocracy, and refashion society upon ethical rather than economic lines. At what time the ideal of a Presbyterian Bible commonwealth took shape in his mind, it is impossible to determine; but it was a natural outcome of his most cherished beliefs. A devout scripturist, he accepted the Bible as a rule of universal application, perfect and final. The sufficiency of the Scriptures to all social needs was axiomatic with him; "the more any law smells of man the more unprofitable," he asserted in his draft of laws offered for acceptance by the commonwealth; and at another time he exclaimed, "Scripturae plenitudinem adoro." He chose exile rather than yield to what he regarded as the unscriptural practices of Laud, and now that he was come to a new land where a fresh beginning was to be made, was it not his Christian duty to "endeavour after a theocracy, as near as might be, to that which was the glory of Israel, the 'peculiar people'"? The old Common Law must be superseded by the Mosaic dispensation; the citizen of the commonwealth must become the subject of
Jehovah; the sovereignty of temporal authorities must serve the higher sovereignty of God.
Holding to such views the duty devolving upon him was plain: to
assist the magistrates in checking the dangerous drift towards a democratic organization of church and state, which the new environment encouraged; and to defend the theocratic ideal against all critics. The first he sought to accomplish by creating a more perfect theocratic machinery. As we catch glimpses of him moving tactfully back and forth through the brisk little scenes, he seems always to have a finger in some magisterial affair. Three months after his arrival in Boston he preached a sermon, the purport of which Winthrop noted in his Journal:
After much deliberation and serious advice the Lord directed the teacher Mr. Cotton, to make clear by the scripture, that the minister's maintenance, as well as all other charges of the church , should be defrayed out of a stock, or treasury, which was to be raised out of the weekly contribution: which accordingly was agreed upon.4
In his first election sermon, preached in the May following, he joined issue with the democratic spirit of the deputies, by supporting a principle which was flagrantly oligarchical:
That a magistrate ought not to be turned into the condition of a private man without just cause, & to be publicly convict, no more than the magistrates may turn a private man out of his freehold, etc., without like public trial, etc.4a
Unrebuffed by the rejection of this curious doctrine of the freehold tenure of magistrates, Cotton made a more ambitious attempt to theocratize the state, when at the October court of 1636, in response to the persistent pressure for a fundamental law, he
presented his code for adoption by the commonwealth, the scriptural origin of which is revealed in the title, "Model of Moses his Judicials." Cotton Mather tells of this venture in constitution making, in the following glowing but inaccurate words:
On Mr. Cotton's arrival he found the whole country in a perplexed & a divided state, as to their civill constitution . . . . It was then requested of Mr. Cotton that he would, from the laws wherewith God governed his ancient people, form an
abstract of such as were of a moral and a lasting equity; which he performed as acceptably as judiciously. But inasmuch as very much of an Athenian democracy was in the mould of the government, by the royal charter . . . . Mr. Cotton effectually recommended it unto them that none should be electors, nor elected therein, except such as were visible subjects of our Lord Jesus Christ, personally confederated in our churches. In these, and many other ways, he propounded unto them an endeavour after a theocracy, as near as might be, to that which was the glory of Israel, the "peculiar people." 5
Cotton's code was rejected in favor of one, somewhat less Hebraic, prepared by Nathaniel Ward, but he continued to be the chief guide and mentor to the magistrates in political as well as theological matters, and his theocratic philosophy determined in large measure the policy of the oligarchy. To found an Hebraic state in which political rights should be subordinate to religious conformity, in which the magistrates should be chosen from a narrow group, with authority beyond the reach of the popular will, and with the ministers serving as court of last resort to interpret the divine law to the citizen-subjects of Jehovah - this was the great ambition of John Cotton; and the untiring zeal and learned scriptural authority which he dedicated to that ambition justify us in regarding him as the greatest of the New England theocrats. In the categories of the Puritan philosophy of ethical stewardship there was no recognition of the profane doctrine of natural rights. Freedom was the prerogative of righteousness;
the well-being of society required that the sinner should remain subject to the Saint. Nowhere does he lay down this principle more unmistakably than in an important state paper:
Now if it be a divine truth, that none are to be trusted with public permanent authority but godly men, who are fit materials for church membership, then from the same grounds it will appear, that none are so fit to be trusted with the liberties of the commonwealth as church members. For, the liberties of this commonwealth are such, as require men of faithful integrity to God and the state, to preserve the same . . . . Now . . . these liberties are such as carry along much power with them, either to establish or subvert the commonwealth, and therewith the church, which power, if it be committed to men according to their godliness . . . then, in case worldly men should prove the major part, as soon they might do, they would readily set over us magistrates like themselves, such as might . . . turn the edge of all authority and laws against the church and the members thereof, the maintenance of whose peace is the chief end which God aimed at in the institution of magistracy.6
This, quite evidently, is the negation of democracy, and it has been freely charged against his reputation by later critics. But in fairness it must be added, that it is equally the negation of the principle of hereditary aristocracy; and to reject the latter was a severer test of his integrity than to deny the former. He wanted neither a democracy nor an aristocracy to control the church-state. "Hereditary honors both nature and scripture doth acknowledge," he argued cautiously in reply to "Certain Proposals made by Lord Say, Lord Brooke, and other Persons of quality, as conditions of their removing to New-England." "Two distinct ranks we willingly acknowledge . . . the one of them called Princes, or Nobles, or Elders (amongst whom gentlemen have their place), the other the people." To the former he willingly accorded the right of rulership so long as they were of approved godliness, faithful to their stewardship. But "if God should not delight to furnish some of their posterity with gifts fit for magistracy, we should expose them rather to reproach and prejudice, and the commonwealth with them, than exalt them to honor, if we should call them forth, when God doth not, to public authority." It must be set down in John Cotton's accounts that he discouraged the transplanting of English aristocracy to the soil of Massachusetts.
There remains to consider how he conducted himself in another weighty matter that was laid upon his shoulders - the defense of the New England polity against old-world critics. Congregationalism had been somewhat caustically handled by the English Presbyterians, as smacking both of democracy and Separatism; and John Cotton was called to justify to them the apparent innovations. His most notable work in this field was his celebrated volume, The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared, a treatise crammed, in the language of a contemporary admirer, with "most practical Soul-searching, Soul-saving, and Soul-solacing Divinitie"; "not Magisterially laid down, but friendly debated by Scripture, and argumentatively disputed out to the utmost inch of Ground." Into the subtleties of this learned work we need not enter; its main thesis alone need detain us, and that thesis was an implied denial of the democratic tendencies of the "New England way." Cotton was greatly concerned over the charge of Joseph Baillie, a vigorous Scotch Presbyterian, that Congregationalism was only a different form of lower-class Brownism, "a native branch of Anabaptism"; and that in resting ecclesiastical sovereignty upon "the particular, visible Church of the Congregation," it was Separatist in principle as well as in practice. The charge was true, but John Cotton was too thoroughly a Jacobean gentleman to concede it; dishonor would come upon the New England churches, he believed, if it were conceded. So he was driven to casuistry: " No marvall, if Independents take it ill to bee called Brownists. . . . He separated from Churches and Saints: we, onely from the world, and that which is of the world"; and then to a categorical denial, "for New England there is no such church of the Separation at all that I know of." 7 From this it was a natural step to a downright rejection of the democratic principle of Congregationalism:
Neither is it the Scope of my whole Book, to give the people a share in the Government of the Church. . . . Nay, further, there be that blame the Book for the other Extreme, That it placeth the Government of the Church not at all in the hands of the People, but of the Presbyterie.8
The same note of disingenuous casuistry runs through his well-known controversy with Roger Williams over the question of toleration. In seeking to parry the thrust that the Saints, after quitting England to escape persecution, had themselves turned persecutors, he argued: "There is a vast difference between men's inventions and God's institutions; we fled from men's inventions, to which we else should have been compelled; we compel none to men's inventions." From which it followed, that "if the worship be lawful in itself, the magistrate compelling him to come to it, compelleth him not to sin, but the sin is in his own will that needs to be compelled to a Christian duty."9 The brethren of Massachusetts were not singular in believing that they were very near to God and privy to His will; nor were the dissenters to their policy singular in their skepticism concerning such infallibility; and when skepticism blows its cold breath upon it, the logic of John Cotton turns to ashes. Not freedom to follow the ways
of sin, but freedom to follow the law of God as he expounded that law - such was Cotton's restriction upon the "natural liberties" of the subject of Jehovah. Let there be freedom of conscience if it be under no error, but not otherwise; for if freedom be permitted to sinful error, how shall the will of God and John Cotton prevail upon earth?
After the battle has been fought and lost it is easy to see the strategic mistakes; but it is not so easy to keep one's head in the thick of the struggle. As John Cotton looked overseas at the social revolution then threatening to submerge, not only Presbyterianism, but the very social order in which he had been nurtured; as he considered the logical implications of the strange, heretical doctrines that were bandied about in pamphlet and sermon, he was put almost in a panic. The solid foundations of church and state were threatened by mischievous men, not only in England but in the new Canaan which had cost so much in prayer and sacrifice; should he keep silent while, in the name of toleration, the gunpowder was being put in place for the work of destruction? Even today we can feel the anxious concern of John Cotton's mind in such a vibrant passage as this:
I confesse we . . . have cause to admire, and adore the wisdome, and
dreadfull Justice of God herein, That seeing Mr. Williams hath been
now as a branch cut off from the Church of Salem these many yeares, he should bring forth no spirituall good fruit: and that in such a season, when the Spirit of Error is let loose to deceive so many thousand soules of our English Nation: So that now their hearts are become as Tinder, ready to catch and kindle at every sparke of false light. Even so, O Father, because thy good pleasure is such, to let loose this Spirit of Error in the mouth of this Backslider, in the very houre and power of darknesse: for these are the dayes of vengeance: when the Antinomians deny the whole law; the Anti-sabbatarians deny the Morality of the fourth Commandement; the Papists deny the Negative part of the second Commandement. It is a wofull opportunitie that God hath left Mr. Williams to, now to step in . . . . For, take away (as Mr. Williams doth) all instituted
worship of God, as Churches, Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons, Members, Publick Ministery of the Word, Covenant, Seales of the Covenant (Baptisme, and the Lords Supper), the Censures of the Church, and the like, what is then left of all the institutions, and Ordinances of God, which the Lord established in the second Commandement, against the Institutions, Images and Inventions of men in his worship.10
How easy it is for good men, in presence of the new and strange, to draw back in timid reaction; and failing to understand, or fearing for their prestige, to charge upon the new and strange a host of evils that exist only in their panic imaginations! In this great matter of toleration of conscience, it is quite clear today that the eyes of the troubled theocrat, "so piercing and heavenly (in other and precious Truths of God) " - as Roger Williams acknowledged - were for the moment sadly "over-clouded and bloud-shotten." For this the age was more to blame than the man. It was no fault of John Cotton's that he was the child of a generation reared under the shadow of absolutism, fearful of underling aggression, unable to comprehend the excellence inhering in the democratic faith. He reasoned according to his light; and if he rather too easily persuaded himself that the light which shined to him was the single divine light, he proved himself thereby an orthodox Puritan if not a catholic thinker. It is a pity that the priest in his later years overcame the intellectual, nevertheless the epitaph carved on his headstone does no violence to truth:
To have been accounted by his fellows first among the notable company of Puritan emigrants was no slight testimony to the sterling qualities of Master John Cotton.
Cujus Ultima Laus est,
Quod fuerit inter Nov-Anglos Primus.
If John Cotton embodied the ideal and polity of the theocratic ministry, John Winthrop represented the ideal and polity of the theocratic magistracy. Rulership in the new church-state, while nominally the function of lay officers, in reality was quite
as much ecclesiastical as political. The civil authorities were chosen by a narrow body of orthodox electors with a single view to theocratic ends. To the traditional conception of magistracy, in which the gentlemen of the Migration had been reared, was now added a special function, the care of the church, "the maintenance of whose peace," John Cotton asserted, "is the chief end which God aimed at in the institution of magistracy." The career of John Winthrop in Massachusetts must be judged, therefore, from this twofold point of view. He was not exclusively, or chiefly, a civil governor, but a magistrate-elder; and his political conduct was determined by this dual character of his office. Unless one keeps in mind the theocratic framework of the early Massachusetts commonwealth, one cannot understand the limitations of his authority, or judge his conduct intelligently.
John Winthrop was a skillful executive upon whose shoulders largely rested the success or failure of the undertaking during the difficult early years. But he was very much more than that; he was a Puritan steward of temporal affairs, who accepted his stewardship as a sacred duty lying upon his conscience. A cultivated gentleman, "browghte Up amonge boockes & learned men," with a tender and sympathetic nature - inclining overmuch to mildness, as he confessed apologetically - by every right he belongs with that notable group of Puritans, with Eliot and Vane and Hutchinson and Milton, in whom the moral earnestness of Hebraism was tempered to humaner issues by a generous culture. There was in him not a little fruitful sap of Elizabethan poetry to quicken his thought, lifting him out of the petty world of Jacobean lawyer and landed gentleman, and opening his eyes to a vision of the future significance of the great venture to which he dedicated his later years. Grave and dignified, he looks out at us from his portrait with a certain stoic calm not untouched with sadness, as if this life had proved a serious business, filled with responsibilities and weighty matters, and darkened by sorrow and disappointment. The pagan joie de vivre of Elizabethan times is gone, and in its stead is a serious intelligence that must grapple with realities and shape them to its will.
He had lived amply in England before his removal, with much that was feudal lingering in the habits of his patriarchal household; and in the little village of Boston he kept twenty male servants, some of them heads of families. A decay of fortune had come upon him during his last years on the family estate, and the hope of recouping his losses may have been an additional reason for venturing to remove to the new world. In his Considerations for J. W. he explains that "he cannot live in the same
place and calling (as before) and so, if he should refuse this opportunity, that talent which God hath bestowed upon him for publick service were like to be buried." Something to the same purpose is suggested in another passage, which touches upon the economic disturbances of the time, with the attendant extravagance and ostentation of the new rich:
This Land growes weary of her Inhabitants . . . . We are growne to that
height of Intemperance in all excesse of Riott, as noe man's estate
allmost will suffice to keepe saile with his aequalls . . . . The
ffountains of Learning & Religion are soe corrupted as - men straine at
knatts & swallowe camells, use all severity for mainetaynance of cappes & other accomplyments, but suffer all ruffianlike fashions & disorder to passe uncontrolled.11
Writing to his wife Margaret in 1629, he gave expression to apprehensions that were very likely quickened by his own failure to keep pace with his neighbors:
My dear wife, I am veryly persuaded, God will bringe some heavye Affliction upon this lande & that speedylye . . . . The Lorde hath admonished, threatened, corrected, & astonished us, yet we growe worse & worse, so as his Spirit will not always strive with us, we must needs give way to his furye at last.12
But material considerations alone scarcely suffice to explain the motives of one who wrote: "It were happy for many if their parents had left them only such a legacy as our modern spirit of poetry makes his motto, Ut nec habeant, nec careant, nec curent." Such consolation - that the Christian should possess nothing, desire nothing, trouble about nothing - may have been only the refuge of the stoic from the impending loss of material possessions; but the conscious discipline in ascetic Hebraism which was to change the Jacobean gentleman into a militant Puritan had already created a temper to which such stoic abnegation must appeal. Winthrop's diary, running from his fourteenth to his thirty-second year, is a homely record in self-discipline, not
unlike Bunyan's Grace Abounding. It is introspective and tediously moralizing, but it reveals how long and arduous was the training before he felt confident that he was "improved in all the points of experimental Godliness."
But Winthrop was the child of a great age before he was born into the fellowship of the Saints; and when we come upon the natural man beneath the theological wrappings, we discover a many-sided, rich and sympathetic human nature. He had gone to school to the English Bible, and the noble Hebrew poetry stirred the poetic imagination that was his Elizabethan birthright. Like so many of his fellow Puritans he delighted in the Book of Canticles, and the rich oriental imagery flowed easily from his pen. In one of his last letters before he quitted the old home, he took leave of a friend in these words:
It is time to conclude, but I know not how to leave you, yet since I must,
I will put my beloved into his arms, who loves him best, & is a faithful
keeper of all that is committed to 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 mayest possess us as thine own, in the kindness of youth, and the love of marriage - Seal us up, by that holy spirit of promise, that we may not fear to trust in thee - 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 souls of thy servants, thus united to thee, make us one in the bonds of brotherly affection - let not distance weaken it, nor time waste it, nor changes dissolve it, nor self-love eat it out; but when all means of other communion shall fail, let us delight to pray for each other: and so let thy unworthy servant prosper in the love of his friends, as he truly loves thy good servants . . . and wishes true happiness to them and to all theirs - Amen.13
When his heart was touched Winthrop's tenderness flowed out in a wealth of affectionate sympathy, that lends a rich and lovely cadence to his English prose. To a sister who had suffered the loss of her husband, he wrote:
Go on cheerfully (my good sister), let experience add more confidence still to your patience. Peace shall come. There will be a bed to rest in, large and easy enough for you both. It is preparing in the lodging appointed for you in your Father's house. He that vouchsafed to wipe the sweat from his disciple's feet, will not disdain to wipe the tears from those tender affectionate eyes. Because you have been one of his mourners in the house of tribulation, you shall drink of the cup of joy, and be clothed with the garment of gladness, in the kingdom of his glory. The former
things, and evil, will soon be passed; but the good to come shall neither
end nor change.14
At another time, writing to his son of the death of his father, Adam Winthrop, he said:
He hath finished his course; and is gathered to his people in peace, as the ripe corn into the barn. He thought long for the day of his dissolution and welcomed it most gladly. Thus is he gone before; and we must go after in our time: This advantage he hath of us-he shall not see the evil which we may meet with ere we go hence. Happy those who stand in good terms with God and their own conscience: they shall not fear evil tidings; and in all changes they shall be the same.15
A lovable man was John Winthrop, richly endowed and admirably disciplined, gracious in manner, persuasive in speech, generous in action - in all England there could scarcely have been found a leader better equipped for the work in hand, when at the age of forty-three he became head of the emigrant church-state, which by reason of its charter and the removal of the corporation to New England, was become effectively an independent commonwealth, free to shape its domestic polity as seemed best. During the score of years that remained to him, he was the guiding spirit of the Massachusetts settlements, impressing his will upon others by sheer force of character. It was inevitable that in so strange and unprecedented an experiment, undertaken in an environment so unfamiliar, serious and often bitter divisions would arise touching the fundamental principles of government. In the frequent discussions Winthrop bore a leading part; he marshaled his arguments with the skill of a lawyer; he separated the broad principle from the special circumstance; and in the end he usually carried the assent of his fellow counselors to his proposals. His social and political philosophy, in consequence, greatly influenced the development of Massachusetts Bay during the early years when its institutions and polity were taking shape, and throws much light on the spirit and purpose of that development.
Winthrop's political bias was unconsciously shaped by his experience, of which the determining fact was the principle and practice of Jacobean magistracy. As an English squire he had long served as magistrate, and this experience he brought to New England as a legacy from an autocratic past. In that old world the magistrate exercised a patriarchal police power well?nigh absolute, sanctioned by ancient custom, upheld by the church, and acquiesced in by subjects well trained in subordination. Transported to New England and adapted to theocratic ends, the principle of magistracy was both augmented in power and ennobled in conception. To the police power over things temporal was added a police power over things spiritual. In the Bible commonwealth the legislative function was regarded as of minor importance. The law being already set down in the Scriptures, the chief authority in the commonwealth naturally rested with the magistrates who were responsible for its strict fulfillment. As stewards intrusted with a divine stewardship, they exercised absolute legislative and judicial powers; in their councils the ministers were summoned to participate, but no others. It was the duty of the magistrates to debate and determine, and the duty of the people to obey.
To a modern this is no other than sheer absolutism, but it was deeply embedded in Calvinistic theory and practice, and was justified by the Puritan principle of special talents. God calls to the post of duty those best fitted to serve. As a devout follower of Calvin, Winthrop must have often pondered upon the passages in the Institutes which set forth the nature of magistracy and the duties of the magistrate, and in particular this: "If they remember that they are the vicegerents of God, it behooves them to watch with all care, diligence, and industry, that they may exhibit a kind of image of the Divine Providence, guardianship, goodness, benevolence, and justice." 16 To a devout Jacobean like Winthrop, this patriarchal conception of stewardship would appear as a noble ideal, worthy of a Christian. The potential absolutism implied would scarcely trouble one who had grown up in a society where absolute authority was interwoven with everyday life. The Christian magistrate was still a magistrate, but with the great difference that his hands must be kept clean and his conscience clear. This nobler spirit of Calvinistic stewardship is revealed in Winthrop's Modell of Christian Charity, written on shipboard during the voyage out. A sense of profound responsibility devolving upon the leaders imparts dignity to the thought: they must bear and forbear, knitting themselves together in a common purpose, and seeing that "the care of the public" should "oversway all private interests." And this "care of the public," remained in theory if not always in practice, the guiding principle of Winthrop's official activities.
The bearing of this doctrine of magistracy upon the early movement of democracy in Massachusetts is not far to seek. If magistracy was a duty laid upon those of fit talents, they would serve God ill who should turn a willing ear to popular protests against magisterial policy. On this point Winthrop was adamant. He would have no meddling on the part of those who had not been called. When it was attempted to bring him to account before the congregation for an unpopular judicial decision, he denied the competency of the congregation in such matters, and then as he often did in cases of doubt, he made a "little book" in which he elaborated the thesis, "That a Church hath not Power to call any Civill Magistrate to give Account of his Juditiall proceedings in any Court of Civill 'Justice: and what the Church may doe in such Causes."17 The shoemaker should stick to his last, Winthrop believed, and he would suffer no interference by the congregation with his duties as magistrate... On another occasion when difficulties had arisen in certain negotiations with the Connecticut settlements, he noted in his journal:
These and the like miscarriages in point of correspondency were conceived to arise from these two errors in their government: I. They chose divers scores men, who had no learning nor judgment which might fit them for those affairs, though otherwise men holy and religious. 2. By, occasion hereof, the main burden for managing of state business fell upon one or other of their ministers, (as the phrase and style of these letters will clearly discover), who, though they were men of singular wisdom and godliness, yet stepping out of their course, their actions wanted that blessing which otherwise might have been expected.18
The political philosophy which underlay Winthrop's theory and practice of magistracy, was a Puritan modification of the commonly accepted English theory of a "mixt aristocratie." He had been trained in the law but was little given to speculative thought. There is evidence that he read somewhat in the fast accumulating political literature of the times, but little indication that his reading modified his theory or influenced his conduct. He was an administrator rather than a philosopher, and from the fragmentary records that have survived it is difficult to piece together a consistent political theory. As a magistrate under the dominance of the English Common Law, he seems to have accepted the constitutional theory of Coke, who sought to interpose the
customary and ancient law of the land between the growing absolutism of the Crown, and the increasing importunity of the Commons, with sovereignty inhering in the judiciary. As a Puritan, however, he superimposed the law of Moses on the law of the land, and by ignoring the King on the one hand, and denying power to the representatives of the people on the other, he created the framework of a magisterial theocracy.
The two chief sources to which we must turn for his political
views, in addition to his letters and journals, are: A Replye to the
Answ: Made to the Discourse about the Neg: Vote, and Arbitrary
Governmt Described: & the Governmt of the Massachusetts Vindicated from
that Aspersion, both of which have been preserved in the form of heads
of argument.19 The principle that underlies these skeleton arguments is
the theory of a state held static by exact constitutional arrangements. King and people represent the great supplementary functions of constitutional government, sovereignty and liberty; both are necessary in a well ordered society, and neither may encroach upon the other. This Winthrop regarded as the vital principle of the English constitution, which had been embodied in the government of Massachusetts.
The Government of the Massachusetts consists of Magistrates & Freemen: in the one is placed the Auth'ye, in the other the Lib'tye of the Com: W: either hath power to Acte, both alone, & both togither, yet by a distinct power, the one of Lib'tye, the other of Auth'ye: the Freemen Acte alone in all occurrences out of Court: & both Acte togither in the Gen'll Court: yet all limited by certaine Rules, bothe in the greater & smaller affaires: so as the Governm't is Regular in a mixt Aristocratie, & no wayes Arbitrary.20
In settled times and places this nice balance between sovereignty and liberty is maintained by use and wont; but in periods of disturbance, such as then existed in England, and in new experiments, such as marked the setting up of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, there was certain to be much pulling and straining between these antagonistic principles; and his refusal to accept this fact, and his stubborn insistence on transferring to New England the old English static order, brought on Winthrop's head
many of the difficulties that greatly troubled his administration. Both in the old world and the new, the principle of liberty was encroaching on feudal authority. With the rise of the middle class, many Englishmen, and particularly the colonial New Englanders, were fast outgrowing the old paternalisms, and coming to regard them as no other than tyranny. The freemen of the Massachusetts towns were restive under the strict rule of the magistrate-elders, and a growing party of democratic deputies was eager to try its hand at government. All such democratic pretensions Winthrop held in contempt, although he was at pains to deny the arbitrary nature of magisterial rule.
Some of the deputies had seriously conceived, that the magistrates
affected an arbitrary government . . . . For prevention whereof they
judged it not unlawful to use even extrema remedia, as if salus
had been now the transcendent rule to walk by, and that magistracy must be no other, in effect, than a ministerial office, and all authority, both legislative, consultative, and judicial, must be exercised by the people in their body representative.21
If government were regular it could not be arbitrary - this was Winthrop's brief reply to the deputies. In his arguments he deliberately avoided the difficult question of sovereignty; in part, no doubt, because of the delicate situation resulting from fear of royal interference, but chiefly because he was unwilling to bring into jeopardy the unlimited powers of magistracy. That he denied sovereignty to the people is abundantly clear from his actions, as well as from specific comment. By the law of the
corporation, namely, the written terms of the charter, authority was vested in a limited body of freemen; and he saw no reason in expediency or otherwise to extend that authority. Thus he argued, "it is well proved & concluded by a late Juditious writer, in a booke newly come over, intituled an Answ: to Dr Ferne, that thoughe all Lawes, that are sup'structive, may be altered by the representative bodye of the Com:w: yet they have not power to alter anythinge w'ch is fundamental."22 What delimitations were to be drawn between "superstructive" and "fundamental," he was not careful to make clear; but it is certain that he regarded as fundamental not only the charter terms and the British constitution but the will of God. Doubtful as this last may seem to students of political science, and difficult to determine, it was neither doubtful nor difficult to Winthrop and his fellow magistrates and ministers. The Mosaic law was specific. Back of the citizen-legislator was the subject of Jehovah, and he was politically free only to do the will of God. There must be divine sanction for all human law; lacking such sanction all majority votes and legislative enactments were null and void. Sovereignty inheres finally in God, and it is by his fundamental law that all superstructive laws and institutions must be judged.
In theocratic philosophy, therefore, the magistrate became no other than God's vicegerent, with authority beyond popular limitation or control. No English squire presumed to exercise the magisterial powers which Winthrop and his associates quietly usurped. Among other innovations they early claimed the right of veto on the acts of the deputies, and in reply to the dissatisfaction voiced at such arbitrary encroachment, Winthrop argued that the magisterial veto was no infringement on the liberties of the people, but was a means to "preserve them, if by any occasion they should be in danger: I cannot liken it better to anythinge than the brake of a windmill: w'ch hathe no power, to move the runninge worke: but it is of speciall use, to stoppe any violent motion, w'ch in some extraordinary tempest. might endanger the wholl fabricke."23 The convenient weapon of divine sanction Winthrop did not scruple to use at need. Thus when a petition was presented for the repeal of a law which arbitrarily decreased the number of deputies, he denied the lawfulness of the procedure:
When the people have chosen men to be their rulers, now to combine together . . . in a public petition to have an order repealed . . . savors of resisting an ordinance of God. For the people, having deputed others, have no right to make or alter laws themselves, but are to be subject.24
The old English right of petition, in short, was not a right in theocratic Massachusetts, and any unauthorized joining together of citizens for political purposes was a conspiracy against the will of God. The practical result of this doctrine of magisterial vicegerency was that a small group of freemen set up an unlimited oligarchy over some four or five thousand of their fellow Englishmen, even going so far as to advance the novel doctrine of a freehold tenure of power.
Winthrop's extreme jealousy of popular power cannot be explained away by the doctrine of stewardship. Hooker of Hartford had no such distrust of the people, but he was not a gentleman, like Winthrop, and had not grown up with an aristocratic contempt for democracy. The preposterousness of democratic aspiration was a stock jest among English gentlemen, and in seeking to refute the arguments of the deputies for greater popular power Winthrop did little more than give a Hebraic twist to his aristocratic prejudices:
Where the chief Ordinary power & administration thereof is in the people, there is a Democratie . . . the Deputies are the Democraticall p'te of o'r Governm't. Now if we should change from a mixt Aristocratie to a meere Democratie: first we should have no warr'nt in scripture for it: there was no such Governm't in Israell. 2: we should heerby voluntaryly abase o'rselves, & deprive o'rselves of that dignitye, w'ch the providence of God hath putt upon us: w'ch is a manifest breach of the 5th Com't: for a Democratie is, among most Civill nations accounted the meanest & worst of all formes of Governm't: & therefore in writers, it is branded w'th Reproachfull Epithets as Bellua multoru capitu, a monster, &c: & Historyes doe recorde, that it hath been allwayes of least continuance & fullest of trouble.25
In an often quoted letter to Thomas Hooker, then engaged in erecting a democratic commonwealth in Connecticut, Winthrop diplomatically moderated his terms and put the aristocratic doctrine in more attractive form. "I expostulated about the unwarrantableness & unsafeness of referring all matter of counsel or judicature to the body of the people, quia the best is always the least, & of that best part the wiser part is always the lesser."26
But he must have agreed heartily with another English gentleman, who writing to Winthrop under date of July 9, 1640, remarked pithily:
I say agayne noe wise man shoud be soe folish as to live whear every man is master, & masters must not correct theyr servants: Where wise men propound & fooles determine, as it was sayde of the citties of Greece.27
As the responsible steward of God's plan for New England, Winthrop would not flatter the people by pretending to the doctrine of vox populi, vox dei. The multitude he regarded as factious, overswayed by expediency and self-interest, incapable of governing wisely. Law, by its nature, was ethical, the expression of God's absolute and just will; and this law, the magistrates were called of God to enforce.
From this conception of the absolute nature of law, came the famous
discussion of liberty and authority, known as the "little speech," which is the most highly praised of Winthrop's utterances. In a certain police-court matter that had loosed the class prejudices of all parties, he had held against the popular feeling, and was impeached before the general court. Upon his acquittal he rose and addressed the court in words which he afterwards set down in his journal. No other episode in his varied career reveals so well the admirable poise of the man - the dignity, the self-control, the fair-mindedness, despite an attack that hurt him to the quick.
For the other point concerning liberty, I observe a great mistake in the country about that. There is a twofold liberty, natural (I mean as our nature is now corrupt) and civil or federal. The first is common to man with beasts and other creatures. By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority. The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil, and in time to be worse than brute beasts: omnes sumus licentia deteriores. This is that great enemy of truth and peace, that wild beast, which all the ordinances of God are bent against, to restrain and subdue it. The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal; and it may also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law, and the politic covenants and constitutions amongst men themselves. This liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your goods, but) of your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this, is not authority, but a distemper thereof. This liberty is maintained and exercised in a subjection to authority; it is of the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free . . . . On the other side, ye know who they are that complain of this yoke and say, let us break their bands, etc., we will not have this man to rule over us. Even so, brethren, it will be between you and your magistrates. If you stand for your natural corrupt liberties, and will do what is good in your own eyes, you will not endure the least weight of authority, but will murmur, and oppose, and be always striving to shake off that yoke; and if you will be satisfied to enjoy such civil and lawful liberties, such as Christ allows you, then will you quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you, in all the administrations of it, for your good. Wherein, if we fail at any time, we hope we shall be willing (by God's assistance) to hearken to good advice from any of you, or in any other way of God; so shall your liberties be preserved, in upholding the honor and power of authority amongst you.28
The doctrine of aristocratic stewardship has never been more skillfully presented. It is John Cotton's reply to Roger Williams, translated into political terms; the philosophy of natural rights whittled down to a covenant between God and man. It rests on the assumption of an absolute law, superior to expediency. But may not honest men disagree as to what constitutes the good, just, and honest? and may not godly authority imperceptibly slide over into plain tyranny? Although the Saints may have professed themselves satisfied with Winthrop's doctrine, the pages of early Massachusetts history bear ample record of the dissatisfaction of the sinners. Most of the difficulties experienced by Winthrop in his administration of the commonwealth had their root in this assumption of arbitrary power, the immediate outcome of which was a spontaneous development of incipient democracy. How far such an assumption of divine custodianship may lead a generous man from the path of justice, appears in his summing up of the case against Mistress Anne Hutchinson, who because she insisted upon her own interpretation of the good, just, and honest, was adjudged "A woman not only difficult in her opinions, but also of an intemperate spirit." "The ground work of her revelations is the immediate revelation of the spirit, and not by the ministry of the Lord . . . and this hath been the ground of all these tumults and troubles; and I would that those were all cut off that trouble us." The kernel of the offense for which Mistress Hutchinson was banished, is then laid bare: "We see not that any should have authority to set up any other exercise beside what authority hath already set up."29
In this arbitrary judgment of Winthrop's - the natural fruit of the
tree of theocratic stewardship - the "little speech" discovers its
suitable commentary. Urged on by his bigoted associates, the kind-hearted
governor descended to their level, and began the unhappy business of playing the tyrant under pretense of scourging God's enemies. The lords-brethren served notice upon all dissenters that henceforth there must be no dissent in New England. The admirable courage of Mistress Hutchinson availed no more against the magisterial interpretation of the good, just, and honest, than the boldness of Roger Williams before her; or later, the zeal of the Baptists who were sent away by Endicott; or later still, the piety of the Quakers, who were whipped at the cart-tail and hanged, men and women both. The policy of the political stewardship of the best and wisest never had fuller trial, with abler or more conscientious agents, than in Massachusetts Bay; and its failure was complete. Such progress as Massachusetts made towards freedom and tolerance was gained in the teeth of theocratic opposition; New England democracy owes no debt to her godly magistrates.
Bred up in a half-feudal world, the leaders of the Migration remained patriarchal in their social philosophy, unable to adapt old prejudices to new conditions. Human motives are curiously mixed, human actions rarely consistent; and if the shortcomings of John Winthrop show blacker by contrast with the excellence of the ideal which he professed, the fault must be charged against his time and associates and not against his manly, generous nature. Most English gentlemen of his day were steeped in a sodden Toryism, yet he earnestly desired to be a faithful steward of church and state. If as a gentleman he held firmly to the privilege of rulership, as a Christian he endeavored to rule honorably and in the fear of the Lord. If he followed the beaten path and tried to shape the great experiment by the traditional principles of his class; if his zeal at times led him into indisputable tyrannies; it was because he was led away from the light, not because he sought selfish ends. Godliness has its own special temptations, and it would be ungenerous to bear ill-will against so lovable a man.
1 James Truslow Adams, The Founding of New England, p. 170.
2 Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XX, Paragraph 8.
3 "Letter to Lord Say and Sele," in Hutchinson, History of
Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. I, p. 497.
4 Vol. I, p. 116.
4a Ibid., Vol. I, p. 125.
5 Magnalia, Vol. I, p. 265. Compare with this Cotton's own
words: "The law, which your Lordship instanceth (in that none shall be chosen to magistracy amongst us, but a church member) was made and enacted before I came into the country; but I
have hitherto wanted sufficient light to plead against it" (Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. I, p. 498).
6 Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. I,
7 See Narragansett Club Publications, Vol. II, p. 203.
8 Ibid., Part II, p. 15.
9 See Hutchinson, Papers, Vol. II, pp. 131 ff.; quoted in Adams, Founding of New England, p. 261.
10 "Master John Cottons Answer to Master Roger Williams," in Narragansett Club Publications, Vol. II, pp. 22-23.
11 Life and Letters of John Winthrop, Vol. I, p. 310.
12 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 296.
13 Life and Letters, Vol. I, pp. 397-398.
14 Ibid.,Vol. I, p. 288.
15 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 179.
16Book IV, Chapter XX, Paragraph 6.
17 The heads of argument are given in Life and Letters, Vol. II, pp. 211-214.
18 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 236.
19 Both are given in the appendix to Vol. II of the Life and
20 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 454.
21 Journal, Vol. II, p. 240.
22 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 438.
23 Discourse about the Neg: Vote, Life and Letters, Vol. II,
25 Life and Letters, Vol. II, p. 430.
26 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 237.
27 Letter of Lord Say and Sele, in ibid., Vol. II, p.
28 History of New England, Vol. II, pp. 279-282.
29 Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. II,