J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

What Kind of Man Was James Winthrop?

James Winthrop (shown here) was a son of Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard College, one of the most respected New England men of his generation. James benefited from that connection with some appointments, first at Harvard and later within the Massachusetts government. But he doesn’t appear to have ever been content.

In 1786 John Quincy Adams wrote to his mother about Winthrop:
…the librarian, Mr. W.…is a man of genius and learning, but without one particle of softness, or of anything that can make a man amiable, in him. He is, I am told, severe in his remarks upon the ladies; and they are not commonly disposed to be more favorable with respect to him. It is observed that men are always apt to despise, what they are wholly ignorant of. And this is the reason, I take it, why so many men of genius and learning, that have lived retired and recluse lives, have been partial against the ladies. They have opportunity to observe only their follies and foibles, and therefore conclude that they have no virtues. Old bachelors too are very apt to talk of sour grapes; but if Mr. W. ever gets married, he will be more charitable towards the ladies, and I have no doubt but he will be more esteemed and beloved than he is now, he cannot be less.
Winthrop never married.

A Harvard library finding aid for a small set of James Winthrop papers states:
When his father died in 1779, James hoped to succeed him as Harvard’s Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. Samuel Williams was chosen instead, though, and it has been speculated that Winthrop’s intemperance and eccentric personality were the primary reasons he was overlooked. Although he participated in a scientific expedition with Williams and Stephen Sewall in October of 1780, he also attempted to damage Williams’ reputation as a scholar on several occasions.

Winthrop was widely known for making malicious comments about others, and as a result he appears to have been unpopular among his colleagues at Harvard. In 1787 he was removed from the librarianship as the result of a newly instituted rule preventing faculty members from holding civil or judicial office. This rule is believed to have been instituted for the sole purpose of removing Winthrop [a register of probate] from the staff.
The position of Hollis Professor became vacant shortly thereafter, but Winthrop was unwelcome. He eventually bequeathed his father’s impressive collection of books to tiny new Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

After leaving Harvard, Winthrop wrote some prominent essays against ratifying the new Constitution and some analyses of the Book of Revelations. He served many years as a low-level judge. In James Bowdoin and the Patriot Philosophers, Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel wrote: “Regarded as an intriguer, drunkard, and cynic, he was the misfit son of a gifted father, and tolerated out of respect for his ancestors.” But I suspect that the root of Winthrop’s problem wasn’t drinking or intriguing but just not being able to get along easily with people.

For that reason, I’m inclined to think that Winthrop’s writings about the Battle of Bunker Hill are reliable so far as they go, and frustrating because he didn’t grasp what people would be most interested in hearing.

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