When John Winthrop arrived on the rocky shores of the New World in 1630, he wasn't thinking about a new nation. He did preach a sermon entitled, "A Modell of Christian Charity," exhorting the community of fellow exiles to love one another in practical ways in order to survive the challenges ahead.
There certainly were challenges. Hundreds died that first year, including one of his adult sons. Food supplies ran low that winter. Governor Winthrop proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, but a ship showed up laden with two hundred tons of food and supplies, changing the day to one of thanksgiving.
Why were they even there? Why did they flee Britain to settle in a harsher climate? Many of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were tradesmen or gentlemen, not used to getting their hands dirty.
Winthrop did get his hands dirty. That first year, especially, he was everywhere--helping the rest get settled, building shelters and plowing fields. The settlers took courage that this godly man gave of himself--and of his goods--to help others.
He was the governor of a "company" which resembled a modern corporation. It had the explicit stamp of approval of the king. So it wasn't just a business venture. It was a joint venture of a community of like-minded individuals who shared their resources--and their money--to embark on a huge and scary project: a "plantation" in the New World.
Ironically, King Charles hated Puritans. At first, he thought the company would be one way to get rid of them. He reconsidered the whole idea later, but the enemies of the Puritans never were able to gain the upper hand in regards to the company's charter. Persecution against Puritan preachers in England waxed hot, though, and many fled for Massachusetts. Thousands poured into the Boston area in a single decade.
Ostensibly, John Winthrop was loyal to the king. He stated so in a document written at the time of his departure. I think he really meant it, in the way that David acknowledged King Saul in Bible days. David refused to touch "the Lord's anointed," even when Saul was hunting David to kill him.
But the fact of Puritan flight was obvious. They weren't going to lie down and die. And Winthrop treasured a hope that is remembered even today. The paragraph containing his "city on a hill" phrase much quoted today is a little misunderstood. It wasn't a political statement. Winthrop was an Englishman in exile. He was thinking of the Church. The Church of England was messed up. The Puritans, by definition, didn't want to leave the Church, they wanted to purify it. Keep the Reformation going.
Perhaps, Winthrop was thinking, their little band could so love one another that they could shine the light of Christ in such a way that even those back home would sit up and take notice. Maybe, just maybe, fleeing the situation could benefit everyone in the end.
I think Winthrop was right to some degree. But he accomplished some other things he probably didn't view as important. He led the other magistrates in amending the structure of the charter to allow "freemen" to vote for the council members (the "Assistants." Almost everyone who owned property--most men--could become a "freeman." With a stroke, local representative government was born in the New World. The government in Massachusetts150 years later would be similar, the structure we might call today as "town hall" government. And Sam Adams took full advantage of it.
There are things we could look at and criticize about early Massachusetts. But viewed while understanding the context--the fight for the Reformation at the tail end of the Medieval period--what Winthrop did was amazing.
He is, as his biographer Francis Bremer calls him, America's forgotten Founding Father.