Is America Still the ‘Shining City on a Hill’?

If the eyes of all people are upon America now, they are not witnessing an edifying spectacle.

An illustration of a landscape with circles on top.
Bequest of Sarah Ann Ludlum / Chad Wys

A shining city on a hill. Ronald Reagan loved the phrase. He used it over and over again, perhaps most notably in his 1989 presidential farewell address.

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.

Reagan usually clarified that he had not originated the “city on a hill” phrase, that it derived from a 17th-century Puritan sermon. But Reagan made the phrase his own, imbuing it with his vision of America as an example to the world.

That was a different and more self-assured era. The latest leader of Ronald Reagan’s party emphatically and repeatedly repudiated the idea of America as an example to anyone. In a 2014 interview, Donald Trump explained that he did not like the phrase American exceptionalism, because it offended Vladimir Putin: “Well, I think it’s a very dangerous term in one way, because I heard Putin saying, 'Who do they think they are, saying they’re exceptional?’”

Trump often repeated the point in different ways and different contexts. We’re not so innocent either, he said, less as national self-criticism and more as an expression of his self-image as a ruthless player in a world of ruthless players.

Now Americans are transiting to a new political chapter. They may want their city to shine again. How can they reconnect to their historical vision of their country’s special mission? Thankfully, a fascinating guide for that task is right at hand, an elegant piece of historical detective work by a young English-literature professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Abram Van Engen.

Van Engen’s book bears the to-the-purpose title City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism. But what that book does is something much more wonderful than to-the-purpose. City on a Hill grasps a phrase you may think you understand—and then it turns that phrase to open the door to a huge room of rediscovered knowledge.

Readers look to historians to answer the question: What happened before us? When historians talk among themselves, however, they must address a prior question: How do we know what happened before us? Van Engen does both jobs at once, bringing to deserved attention a small group of careful conservators of the American past, who in the early years of the 19th century devoted themselves to discovering, preserving, editing, and publishing every document connected in any way to the founding of Puritan New England. New scholarship about colonial America rests on the labor Van Engen so vividly memorializes in the middle parts of City on a Hill—and then redeploys to tell a story of his own.

Van Engen’s story starts in the year 1630. A group of would-be settlers is about to depart England for Massachusetts Bay. There, they will found the city of Boston. Before they embark, their leader preaches to them about the new society they hope to build. It will be a society built on the principles of Christian charity: mutual care, but also mutual surveillance to enforce a stricter and purer version of their faith. That leader, John Winthrop, would become the first governor of the new colony.

English people had been settling in North America for decades before Winthrop’s company boarded their ship, the Arbella. English fishermen had been landing on the island of Newfoundland at least since the 1490s to dry their catch. Jamestown had been founded in Virginia in 1607, following a doomed earlier attempt to establish a colony in the 1580s. Extreme religious dissenters had landed at Plymouth, south of Boston, in 1620. The English slave plantations in the Caribbean dated to the 1620s as well.

So the Winthrop settlement could not claim to be any kind of “first.” For a long time, it was regarded by non-Bostonian Americans as very much an addendum to the foundational events at Jamestown and Plymouth. Since about 1950, however, the voyage of the Arbella has received more and more attention—not so much because of the things the voyagers did, but because of something their leader said.

In the course of expounding his vision of a new social order, Winthrop spoke the following words: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people will be upon us.”

As Van Engen notes, those words did not spark excitement at the time. In the 200 years from 1630 to the 1830s, nobody is recorded to have ever cited or even mentioned them. Then one of Van Engen’s antiquarians unearthed the sermon—mislabeled as having been delivered aboard the Arbella rather than (as Van Engen shows) before embarking. The sermon was published in 1838, then immediately forgotten again. In 1930, Winthrop’s two “city on a hill” sentences were quoted on a monument raised to the 300th anniversary of Boston’s founding. Oblivion followed once more—until, in the later 1930s, the most acclaimed modern scholar of Puritan New England, Harvard’s Perry Miller, began arguing for Winthrop’s text as America’s founding moment.

Thanks to Miller, the phrase abruptly entered American civic discussion. Van Engen posted a chart of use of the “city on a hill” phrase, from almost none before 1950 up, up, up a rocket ride of quotation after 1980. John F. Kennedy was the first president to quote it, but it was Reagan’s creative misquotation—he inserted the “shining”—that affixed Winthrop’s words to the American creed.

Modern Americans are used to interpreting the “city on a hill” phrase as a premonition of America’s greatness, an early statement of the new nation’s providential mission. But as Van Engen shows, that’s not what Winthrop meant at all. Winthrop was not talking about America to Europeans. He was talking about Protestantism to other Protestants—and, for good measure, refuting and taunting his Catholic adversaries and enemies.

It’s often pointed out that Winthrop’s language referenced a passage in the New Testament, verses 14 and 15 of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus there says, as the King James Version renders it:

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

In Winthrop’s day, this passage was widely regarded as a devastating proof text for Catholics against Protestants.

Van Engen explains the Catholic view:

Jesus’s true followers were “set on a hill” to be seen by all. Since Protestants first appeared in the 1500s—since they had been effectively non-existent, invisible, unknown, or unseen for over a millennium—how could they argue that they were descended from the life and teachings of Christ? … The true church, Catholics proclaimed, was “hid from no man’s eyes.” … In Matthew 5:14, Jesus promised perpetual visibility to his true followers … and the only church perpetually visible since the time of Christ was theirs.

That polemical blow landed hard, and Protestants summoned all their ingenuity to refute it. They were obliged to develop a new idea of what was meant by “the city on a hill”—as not one place, but many; not an unchanging institution, but a human activity in time. Wherever true Christians congregated, that place would become the city on a hill imagined by the Book of Matthew.

And the surest proof that this “city on a hill” could appear literally anywhere was Winthrop’s claim that it might appear in so remote, obscure, and unimportant a place as the northwest coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

We know that Winthrop and company were on their way to raising one of the first cities of what would become the mightiest economic and military power in human history. But they, of course, did not know that. They could never have imagined it. To claim in 1630 that the “eyes of all people” would be fixed on one bit of shore along Massachusetts Bay would have seemed facially crazy even to the most messianic Puritan. Massachusetts would instead be the most extreme example of a broader general idea: The church of Christ could be brought into view anywhere—even the wilds of America.

Nineteenth-century New Englanders and Americans did not care about the religious controversies of the Counter Reformation era. They fixed their attention on the two earlier settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth. It was the 200th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in 1820, not the bicentennial of Winthrop’s sermon, that inspired one of Daniel Webster’s greatest orations on the American founding. The 300th anniversary of the Mayflower landing became the occasion for even more splendid commemorations in 1920, headlined by Governor Calvin Coolidge, vice-president elect of the United States. By contrast, the ceremonies in Boston in 1930 involved only municipal dignitaries and addressed a local audience.

But for post–World War II Americans, both Jamestown and Plymouth became increasingly “problematic,” to adapt later language. The Plymouth story had become indelibly connected to ethnic exclusion and social snobbery. The original Pilgrims were dissidents and refugees. But over the centuries, a cult of social and ethnic superiority had accreted about them. By 1950, the large majority of Americans were descended from people who had very much not “come over on the Mayflower”—and who chafed against the pretensions of those whose ancestors had. The Jamestown story fared even worse. At least the Pilgrims of Plymouth were impelled by spiritual beliefs. The settlers at Jamestown had come for easy wealth, and they rapidly turned to the enslavement of others to gain it. Cold War America’s communist enemies sneered that all the country’s idealistic pretensions thinly veneered a society built on exploitation. Jamestown seemed to prove the communists right.

And here is where Harvard’s Perry Miller enters Van Engen’s story.

Born in 1905, Miller rebelled against what he perceived as the materialistic society of the 1920s. In his own life, Miller was a fierce anti-Puritan who ultimately drank himself to death before his 60th birthday. Yet he found in the legacy of Puritanism a source for the idealism that he believed American society needed. Not a religious man himself, Miller’s voracious scholarly energy early grasped Winthrop’s neglected sermon as the great credo for his vision of American nationhood.

Van Engen quotes from one of Miller’s lectures: “A society that is both clear and articulate about its intentions is something of a rarity in modern history.” Miller cited Winthrop’s sermon as evidence that America met his standard of clear, articulate intention. “The great uniqueness of this nation,” Miller wrote in a private letter, “is simply that here the record of conscious decision is more precise, more open and explicit than in most countries.” The friend to whom Miller wrote that letter was the poet Archibald MacLeish—like Miller, a passionate New Dealer and social reformer. MacLeish perceived in Miller’s idea of American purpose a justification for an ambitious style of political leadership. Because America was based on articulate texts by which it could judge itself, MacLeish wrote to an agreeing Miller, “an American leader has the prophet’s role to play as well—or should.”

The murder of one of those prophet-leaders, John F. Kennedy, seems to have propelled Miller into his final, lethal drinking binge. But the prophetic text that Kennedy was the first president to cite survived as Miller’s legacy.

Through the mid-twentieth century, American literary history had no place in it for this 1630 sermon. After Miller died, Winthrop’s sermon gradually became the key text for defining and explaining the development of American literature from its origins to the present day. Percolating through new editions and anthologies of American literature, rising in prominence as scholars continued to wrestle with Miller’s work, by 1979 it opened and anchored The Norton Anthology of American Literature, the most dominant anthology on the market. A few years before, Norton had not included Winthrop’s sermon at all. Almost in a flash, it became the foundation of American literature.

Miller was a liberal, not a conservative; a domestic reformer, not a Cold Warrior. But the “city on a hill” language Miller publicized was brilliantly adapted to the rhetorical needs of Cold War America. That nation regarded itself both as the center of events and as a society profoundly vulnerable to external shocks. “The eyes of all people will be upon us”—and those eyes could condemn as well as approve. The city on a hill could fail. That defeat would drag all humanity to “take the last step into a thousand years of darkness,” as Ronald Reagan warned in the 1964 speech that launched his national political career.

Ronald Reagan seems never to have appreciated his debt to Miller, which was only fair, because Miller probably would have had little good to say about Reagan. Miller might have been especially offended that Reagan amended Winthrop’s biblical phrase to meet Reagan’s different purposes. Along the way to the presidency in 1980, Reagan dropped the apocalyptic terror of a “thousand years of darkness” and instead brightened Winthrop’s “city on a hill” into a “shining city on a hill.” That creative misquotation changed the meaning of the phrase in potent new ways. The destiny of the city on a hill was uncertain. But if the city was already shining, then its destiny had been achieved. Hopes had been fulfilled, the dream had been realized, and now the task shifted from creation to preservation, or possibly restoration—to scrub off any grime that dimmed the shine.

The city on a hill does not seem very shiny in the year 2020. Pandemic, economic crisis, and an incumbent president attempting to overthrow the democratic election he undoubtedly lost by a large margin: If the eyes of all people are upon America now, they are not witnessing an edifying spectacle. Yet hope always remains, and that is how Van Engen wraps up his wonderful archaeology of an American idea.

In his final paragraphs, Van Engen cites an important and more recent use of the New Testament text from which Winthrop drew in 1630, the funeral of former President George H. W. Bush on December 5, 2018. The dean of the Washington National Cathedral, Randolph Hollerith, read from the Book of Matthew. Like Winthrop and all those who borrowed from him, Hollerith started at 5:14, the familiar “city on a hill” verse. Hollerith continued to read 5:15, the bit about the lamp and the bushel. Then he pressed on to 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before men so that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.”

Adding that subsequent verse to the famous quotation changes its meaning from boast to injunction. The subsequent verse challenges Americans as individuals and as a people to accept their own responsibility to restore their city’s gleam. The city does not shine magically, but because of human effort. It shines not by the lights we have heard so much about over the past five years—wealth and weapons—but by moral worth.

Modern minds cannot think like Winthrop’s. But they can, just as Perry Miller hoped, learn from Winthrop an idealism adapted to the more secular beliefs of their own times. The city on a hill can at last glow again, if lit by better deeds and more concern for the regard of the rest of humanity.