‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” So remarked
in “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon given in 1630 aboard the Arbella as it sailed to the New World. Winthrop, the great Puritan leader and early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, understood from the start that America was to be a monumental experiment in freedom for the rest of the world to observe and follow.
That, in any case, is what political commentators, politicians and historians have led us to believe over the past half century. The words “city upon a hill” showed up most famously in
1989 farewell address. “The phrase comes from John Winthrop,” Reagan said, “who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.” Wrong on two counts. The phrase comes from Jesus: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). And Winthrop had no notion of America as a nation.
In his 2012 study “In Search of the City on a Hill,”
Richard M. Gamble
documented the curious life of this biblical phrase in American politics. It lay almost completely forgotten from the time Winthrop first used it until 1930, when a slightly fuller version of the quotation was carved on a monument in Boston Common to commemorate the city’s 300th anniversary. Three decades later, in January 1961, President-elect
John F. Kennedy,
perhaps having seen the engraved monument, used Winthrop’s sermon in a speech in Boston bidding farewell to his home state. Since then the phrase, usually attributed to Winthrop rather than Jesus, has become an easy rhetorical device for any American pundit or officeholder wishing to convey the notion that America has a transcendent mission to model and spread political freedom around the globe—the chief version of an idea commonly termed “American exceptionalism.”
Daniel T. Rodgers
expanded on Mr. Gamble’s analysis with “As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon” (Princeton, 355 pages, $29.95). Mr. Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, offers tantalizing but inconclusive evidence that Winthrop’s “sermon” was never preached, on or off the Arbella, and emphasizes the ways in which Winthrop’s words contributed to the “invented foundation” of American nationalism. Now
Abram C. Van Engen
has published “City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism” (Yale, 379 pages, $30). Mr. Van Engen’s study is a hefty work of scholarship, involving a close exegesis of Winthrop’s sermon and other related texts, an account of the antiquarians unwittingly responsible for preserving his sermon and the scholarly debate over the extent to which American culture is a product of New England Puritanism.
Mr. Van Engen, an associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, raises two main objections to the modern political use of Winthrop’s famous sermon. He insists, first, that Winthrop’s “city” was not a nation or any other kind of worldly polity, but the church, as he understood it. “For most of American history,” the author observes, “when people heard the words ‘city on a hill,’ they were discussing discipleship, not citizenship.” Winthrop meant to exhort his fellow dissenting Puritans to a life of love and solicitude, not to impress upon them a sense of their historical importance as founders of a new nation.
I take his point, but Mr. Van Engen judges political rhetoric too fastidiously. Political pronouncements are not elucidations of ancient texts but evocations of images and sentiments. Hermeneutic slapdashery is a part of the game. I wonder, in any case, if the interpretive jump from Winthrop’s “city” to American exceptionalism is really so great. Let’s assume for the moment, pace Mr. Rodgers’s argument, that Winthrop did in fact preach “A Model of Christian Charity,” or relayed some part of it, to his fellow emigrants. If so, he addressed it to some of the New World’s earliest inhabitants and warned them not to make a mess of things because if they did the world would scorn the whole enterprise. That strikes me as conceptually related to modern America’s self-appointed but noble mission in the world. If I were a politician, I’d use it.
Mr. Van Engen objects, second, to the assumptions, as he sees them, behind the misuse of Winthrop’s sermon. His book chronicles the ways in which intellectuals and historians—
Alexis de Tocqueville,
Max Weber, the historian
the literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch—have portrayed the United States as having begun with the Puritans of New England. I find Mr. Van Engen’s analysis of these figures and their works engaging and substantive. He is a careful scholar and does not offer facile summaries (his demolition of Bercovitch is deftly done).
Yet it’s never clear what all the fuss is about. Why are we mistaken to think of America as, in chief respects, an outgrowth of 17th-century Puritanism? Mr. Van Engen more than once raises the chronological objection: The Spanish in Florida, the settlers of Jamestown and of course Native Americans were all present in North America before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620. Well, OK. But surely it’s too obvious to argue that Plymouth was the first Anglophone colony to survive in the New World, and that New England went on to exercise an unrivaled cultural and economic influence over the rest of the nation.
I’m even more puzzled by the book’s penultimate chapter, an insightful essay on
nonuse of Winthrop’s lines and concomitant rejection of American exceptionalism. Unlike other politicians, liberal and conservative, Mr. Trump almost never speaks of America’s Puritan origins or its unique role in the world. “He has offered no story or memory of the nation at all, apart from a vague notion of lost greatness.” The president speaks instead of American “sovereignty,” a word his presidential precursors almost never used about the United States. It’s an excellent point, but it is plain from Mr. Van Engen’s language that we are not to deduce from it that Mr. Trump’s vision of the world is the truer one. We’re left to conclude that all those politicians who badly misinterpreted John Winthrop’s sermon nonetheless had the better argument. The Gipper, though technically wrong, was basically right.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8