Extent.17 cubic feet (one half document box)
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.
- "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.
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.
- Winthrop, James, 1752-1821. Papers of James Winthrop, 1765-1826: an inventory
- EAD ID
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