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COLLECTION Identifier: HUM 69

Papers of James Winthrop


James Winthrop (1752-1821), son of famous colonial scientist John Winthrop, served as Butler and Librarian of Harvard College, Justice of the Peace of Middlesex County, Register of Probate, and Judge in the Court of Common Pleas, among other roles. This small collection contains a notebook on logarithms he created as a student at Harvard around 1765, a journal created after his death to record the division of books he bequeathed to Thaddeus Mason Harris and Harriet H. Peck, a notebook he kept about cases he heard as justice of the peace between 1784 and 1795; and two guardianship certificates signed by Winthrop in his capacity as register of probate in 1804 and 1812. This notebook contains valuable information not only about the nature of the crimes being committed in post-Revolutionary Cambridge, but also the names and occupations of those accused and their victims.


  • 1765-1826

Researcher Access

The Papers of James Winthrop are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


.17 cubic feet (one half document box)
This collection contains five items, described in greater detail below. They are a mathematical notebook from Winthrop's student days at Harvard; a notebook filled with entries about cases he heard as a justice of the peace in Middlesex County (Massachusetts), between 1784 and 1795; two guardianship certificates signed by Winthrop in his capacity as register of probate for Middlesex County in 1804 and 1812; and a journal created after his death to assist in the distribution of some of his books to Thaddeus Mason Harris and Harriet H. Peck.

Biographical Note

James Winthrop (1752-1821; Harvard AB 1769), son of Harvard Professor John Winthrop, served as Butler and Librarian of Harvard College, as the Register of Probate for Middlesex County, as a Justice of the Peace, and as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas. Although once described as "among the most learned, useful, and patriotick citizens of Massachusetts," by the end of his life he felt sufficiently alienated from Harvard and Massachusetts that he bequeathed much of his own and his father's libraries to the newly founded Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

James Winthrop was born on March 28, 1752, to Rebecca Townsend and John Winthrop. His mother died the following year, and in 1756 his father remarried to Hannah Fayerweather. James was a capable student and entered Harvard College in 1765, at the age of thirteen. He excelled particularly in mathematics, classics, literature, Hebrew, and modern languages, and he received an A.B. from Harvard in 1769 and an A.M. in 1772. He was appointed as "substitute librarian" of the Harvard College Library in December of 1769, the same time he was appointed College Butler. In 1772 he ceased his duties as Butler and became the College's Librarian and Keeper of its Museum. During the American Revolution, Winthrop briefly served as postmaster (from May through July 1775) but resigned because he considered his salary insufficient. When his father was appointed Judge of Probate for Middlesex County in September 1775, he appointed James as his Register. James would serve in this role far longer than any other; he did not resign from it until 1817.

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 from the staff.

Winthrop was appointed Justice of the Peace for Middlesex County in 1783 and served in that role until 1790, when he was promoted to the Quorum of the Court of General Sessions and made a special justice of the Court of Common Pleas. In 1791 he was appointed to the bench of the Court of Common Pleas by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock, a longtime friend and ally. He served until 1805, when he was replaced by a trained lawyer (Winthrop had no formal legal training), and his dismissal appears to have been a great disappointment and source of shame for him. In the last decades of his life, Winthrop felt increasingly alienated, and much of his time and attention was focused on a series of books he published on esoteric Biblical topics.

In addition to his own large library, James had also inherited his father's books and pamphlets. This combined collection totaled more than 3,300 volumes, with tremendous financial as well as educational value. Disgruntled with his treatment in Massachusetts generally, and with Harvard in particular, he decided to bequeath almost all of the books in his possession to Allegheny College, whose first president, Timothy Alden, was a longtime friend. Winthrop also served as a charter trustee at Allegheny. James Winthrop died, following several years of illness, on September 26, 1821.


Items in this collection are arranged chronologically.

Acquisition information

One item within the papers of James Winthrop was donated by Charles Holt Taylor in 1928; two items were donated by Jeremiah Colburn in 1882; and two items were purchased through the Minot Fund in 1880. Provenance information is noted at the item level in this finding aid.

Online access

All of the papers have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives
  1. Catalogue of books bequeathed by James Winthrop to Allegheny College (HUG 1878.211).
  2. Harvard University. Library. Binding papers, 1775-1928 (UAIII 1
  3. Harvard College Library. Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library, 1723-1822 (UAIII 50.15.30):
  4. Papers of James Winthrop related to the Harvard College Library, 1780-1781 (UAIII 50.27.72):
In the Harvard Law School Library
  1. Massachusetts. Probate Court (Middlesex County). Citation to the heirs of James Winthrop, 4 October 1821 (Small Manuscript Collection / Special Collections).
In Houghton Library, Harvard University
In the Harvard Map Collection
  1. Plan of Cambridge, adapted to the year 1635 drawn by James Winthrop (MAP-LC G3764.C2:2H25 1635 .W5 1801).
In the Gutman Library, Harvard University
  1. behalf of the Middlesex Auxiliary Society for Educating Pious Youth for the Gospel Ministry by James Winthrop and Joseph Chickering (LC564.M5 W5).
In the Massachusetts Historical Society
  1. Barometrical observations [made during a tour of Lake Champlain, Vermont by James Winthrop], 23 August 1786 (Misc. Bd. 1786 August 23).
  2. Deeds for land in Boston, Mass., 1781-1788 (Ms. S-853).
  3. Winthrop family papers II, 1578-1977 (Ms. N-268).


  • "Notice of Judge Winthrop" in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. X, 2nd series. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1823.
  • Shipton, Clifford K. "Class of 1769: James Winthrop." In Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College in the Classes 1768-1771. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1975.

General note

This document last updated 2018 November 27.

Processing Information

The first three items in this collection were previously cataloged individually, with very little description. In January 2011, it was decided to unite them to form a single collection. This involved re-housing each item, conducting research into the items' contents, and creating this finding aid. Two additional items were added to this collection in June 2012.

This finding aid was created by Laura Morris in January 2011.

Preservation and description of the papers of James Winthrop was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Link to catalog
Winthrop, James, 1752-1821. Papers of James Winthrop, 1765-1826: an inventory

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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