The Rhetorical Roots Of American Exceptionalism

Reviewing historian Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill, Ben Wetzel traces the history of the now-famous phrase:

[Gamble] argues that the phrase “city on a hill” (found in Matthew 5:14) originally described the mission of the church, but that over time the secular state has come to exert a near monopoly over the image.

Gamble begins the book with surprising observations about [Puritan leader John] Winthrop’s famous discourse, A Modell of Christian Charity.  Much is unknown about the circumstances surrounding the sermon’s composition.  Indeed, since no one onboard the Arbella (the ship that transported the Puritans from England to Massachusetts) ever left any record of the message, and since Winthrop himself never mentioned giving the speech in his journal, Gamble concludes that it is possible that the governor never delivered the discourse at all.  In any case, Gamble points out, Winthrop could hardly have been envisioning the United States, whose tenets of toleration, individualism, and democracy the governor would have found appalling.

Proceeding in time, Gamble traces the fate of the “city on a hill” throughout American history.  Jonathan Edwards, for example, used the image in the 1730s to describe his Northampton congregation, but did so usually to chastise his church for failing to uphold true godliness.  When Edwards used the image, however, he was not alluding to Winthrop’s vision, because A Modell of Christian Charity was not published until 1838.  Few observers in the 1830s noted its appearing, and none thought they saw the origins of the American mission in its contents.  Indeed, over the next century, writers who quoted from the document almost never drew attention to the “city on a hill” passage at all.

That changed dramatically by the late 20th century:

[I]t was not an academic but a politician who first used the phrase in a more public setting.  And his name was not Ronald Reagan.  Instead, John F. Kennedy (reading a speech prepared by his aide Ted Sorenson) declared to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1961 that he “had been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.”  And then: “‘We must always consider’ [Winthrop] said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill–the eyes of all people are upon us.'”  Clearly, as Gamble points out, the Irish-Catholic Kennedy’s conception of the “city on a hill” was a far cry from what Winthrop would have envisioned in the seventeenth century, let alone what Jesus was describing in the gospel of Matthew.

It is unclear if Reagan learned of the phrase directly from Kennedy or picked it up elsewhere, but in any case the Great Communicator made the image his own in the last third of the twentieth century.  As with Kennedy, Reagan’s use of the “city on a hill” was largely devoid of any specifically Christian content.  Instead, as the high priest of America’s civil religion, Reagan deployed the image as a stand-in for a vague Americanism.  Although some critics of the president, such as New York governor Mario Cuomo, argued that there was a good bit wrong with the “shining city,” for the most part the phrase had been adopted by both parties and emptied of any prophetic content by the end of the twentieth century.