The City-on-a-Hill Image: Humility, Triumphalism, and the Long Arc of American History

A reader picking up the new book by Daniel T. Rodgers might be forgiven for thinking, “Hasn’t this book already been written?” After all, “everyone knows” about the most famous metaphor in American cultural history: the notion of a city on a hill, that lodestar of the early New England elite and archetype for so much that came later, from high-minded aspirations to chauvinistic national self-promotion. But what, really, do we know? In As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, Rodgers sets out to reconstruct Winthrop’s text as well as its cultural afterlife. The Bancroft Prize winner and Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton takes us deep into both the Model itself and the reasons for its continuing rhetorical power. 

It might be helpful first to revisit what “everyone knows.” Aboard the passenger ship Arabella in 1630, fleeing an England that they were sure was due for God’s punishment, and where they found it impossible to live godly lives, a group of Puritans bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony assembled to hear their Governor, John Winthrop, preach a sermon. That sermon, the “Model of Christian Charity,” hit its rhetorical high note by identifying the yet-to-be-founded settlements in the New World with the “city on a hill” of Matthew’s gospel: an example for the world to see and, ideally, imitate. In doing so, Winthrop gave voice to a collective yearning that would resonate down through the years, shaping the young nation a century and a half later and providing an intellectual basis for Americans’ burgeoning sense of their nation’s place in the history of human freedom.

Of the well-known story I have just recounted, Rodgers states simply: “Most of this is a modern invention and much of it is wrong.” The Model was never mentioned by Winthrop, either in his famous Journal or anywhere else. A member of England’s landed gentry who was trained as a lawyer, Winthrop was not a member of the clergy, so his address to his fellow colonists surely should not be called a sermon. And although certain passages of the Model do brim with the confidence of a people convinced of their own chosenness, there was in it a great deal of uncertainty and concern, as well. Far more than its latter-day cheerleaders would admit, Winthrop’s Model pulses with the fear that, when it came to God’s favor, as Rodgers puts it, “everything was conditional. . . . if God could choose a place and a people, could he unchoose them?”

New England and Beyond

The first section of the book, “Text,” focuses on the Model itself, which, as Rodgers points out, emerged from Winthrop’s efforts to salvage the Massachusetts Bay Company’s affairs a year before the migration. As the historian puts it: “the bulk of the Model came to Winthrop… amidst the commercial tensions of a London business meeting.” Readers are taken through the possible circumstances of its delivery, and two things that we often take for granted are quickly ruled out: that it was given orally, and that it was given on board the Arabella. Rodgers explores the Model’s ideas about social and economic relations and comments on the physical document itself, which currently resides at the New York Historical Society. 

The New England settlers’ commitment to their own exceptionalism was hardly, so to say, exceptional. Colonization was well underway, by people from multiple European powers, by the time the Winthrop fleet (of which the Arabella was the principal ship) sailed. A range of Spanish, Jesuit, and Dutch settlements, to say nothing of rival English ones, predated the Bay Company. Like it, virtually every one of those other settlements held out “hope that they stood on the rim of new sacred and human possibilities,” writes Rodgers. Furthermore, despite the euphoria with which Winthrop’s Model concludes, the inconvenient truth remains that for much of the New England settlements’ first half-century, the eyes of the world were most emphatically not on Boston and its environs. Developments in the mother country (civil war, regicide, military rule) led many to forsake New England and go back across the Atlantic to participate in events that portended the fulfillment of long-held apocalyptic hopes. After the Stuart Restoration of 1660, the publicity generated by the colony’s harsh punishment of dissenters further hampered New England’s efforts to proclaim itself a godly commonwealth worthy of imitation. 

In fact, as Rodgers points out, it is far from clear that the “city on a hill” metaphor deserves all the attention that has been lavished on it over the years. In the Model, the image arrives only at the very end of a text mostly taken up with articulating a self-sacrificial politics of love and charity. The bulk of the text has much more to do with the ethics of mutual obligation toward one’s fellow community members than it does with the issue of whether the world is watching; the passage Winthrop is most concerned with is, in Rodgers’s view, “not an ocean passage but a passage from self to others.” 

In Part II, “Nation,” Rodgers leaves the Puritans behind, moving from Winthrop’s 17th century “we”—“we shall be as a city on a hill”—to Thomas Jefferson’s 18th century “we”—“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” (He does not, but might have, added a third “we”: “We the people,” which followed the Declaration by about a dozen years.) The character of those invoking the first-person plural pronoun had changed, writes Rodgers, from a “consensual . . . voluntary company of ‘godly’ English Protestants” to “an altogether different global experiment in nation making.” 

From this point onward we begin to see daylight between the city-on-a-hill metaphor and Winthrop’s text, which languished until well into the 20th century, confined to literary anthologies and little known outside the rarefied company of Northeastern historical enthusiasts. As such, none of the major developments in 19th century American history—westward expansion, building of the railroads, industrialization, the Native American genocide—drew any of their power or pathos from Winthrop’s Model. When Americans entered the imperial game (acquiring control, for example, over Hawaii and the Philippines), they had theories of cultural and racial supremacy ready to hand and did not need Winthrop’s Model. Indeed, they barely knew about this text.

The Model’s image of a city on a hill, by contrast, was utterly ubiquitous. Rodgers shows just how common it was for communities to claim exceptional status for themselves: not only American luminaries like Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston, but also partisans of the Union, partisans of the Confederacy, and supporters of the Tuskegee Institute, to say nothing of British, Dutch, Russians, Liberians, French, and Germans. Everyone, apparently, was chosen—at least according to them.

The 19th century appropriation of the metaphor had one casualty: the morally fraught nature of Winthrop’s original invocation, the anxiety that inhered in the Model’s understanding of a watchful deity judging human conduct. City-on-a-hill invocations grew increasingly confident of American chosenness, and ever more eager to subjugate less “chosen” populations—even as dissent from this triumphalism could be heard from such figures as Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, and the Whig-turned-Republican Abraham Lincoln, who famously described Americans as “almost chosen.”

Rediscovery by 20th Century Americans

The final section of the book, “Icon,” returns to the Model itself. It opens with the first appearance of Winthrop’s “city on a hill” reference before a general audience: at Boston’s 1930 tricentennial celebration, on the reverse side of the “Founders Memorial” erected near Boston Common. The 1930s also saw broader efforts to assert New England’s cultural distinctiveness, “to insist that the nation itself—or at least its best and most important characteristics—had been formed from seeds planted first in New England.” In this task, New England’s boosters were aided by Alexis Tocqueville, who professed to “see the destiny of America embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” (If a more preposterous sentence was ever written about the United States, I can’t recollect it offhand.) 

From here, Rodgers continues the story of the Model’s steady growth as an American cultural touchstone, focusing on the pioneering work of Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan, Daniel Boorstin, and Sacvan Bercovitch, each of whom saw in New England something foundational to American national character. Invocations of Winthrop became de rigeur among U.S. politicians, from John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and of course, Ronald Reagan, who, in an “extraordinary act of simplification . . . gave the Model its modern public life.” 

The story of Winthrop preaching on board the Arabella fit well with Reagan’s “cinematic nationalism,” though Reagan revised it, omitting Winthrop’s anxiety about ending up on the receiving end of God’s wrath, and turning the Massachusetts Bay Colony into a “shining” city—a key ingredient of his “rhetoric of reassurance.” After Reagan, the Model continued to be invoked by Republicans and Democrats alike, and later became intertwined with another emerging metaphor: that of American “exceptionalism,” a parallel set of myths that Rodgers handily, if more cursorily, dispatches in Chapter 18.

Winthrop the Forgotten Man

An interesting development noted by Rodgers is that, as the image has waxed, references to its author have waned. “In secular histories of the United States and analyses of American political culture,” he writes, the Model “occupies an indispensably central place. In explicitly Christian histories it does not.” Why not? He argues that today’s evangelicals, concerned as they are with cementing the connection between Christianity and the American Revolution and 1787 Constitution (and thus legitimating a set of 21st century political positions), and pessimistic as they are about the moral trajectory of the nation, are comparatively less enamored of Winthrop and his vision.

Quite simply, As a City on a Hill is a wonderful book. Erudite and sweeping in its focus, it ranges with ease from Winthrop’s Puritans to the Trump administration. It is elegantly written and studded with insightful anecdotes. That said, it is actually two books in one: a history of a metaphor, and a history of the text from which the metaphor came. Occasionally the two foci become unmoored from each other. There is, at times, some slippage between the two books within the book, since, as Rodgers makes clear, we cannot assume that users of the metaphor necessarily have anything to do with Winthrop or his text.

Indeed Rodgers skillfully emphasizes the ubiquity of the metaphor in contexts far removed from Winthrop’s own, by individuals who could have had no knowledge of his Model. Even on the shores of West Africa, where “the ‘city on a hill’ motif flourished extravagantly,” there is “no evidence that any of the project’s founders had read” the text. Nor should we overlook the fact that “almost none of the writers” responsible for American imperial expansion “had read—or could have read—Winthrop’s Model.” Moreover, even though Woodrow Wilson “believed deeply in the historical destiny of the American nation,” it remains the case that “neither Winthrop’s text nor Winthrop’s dream of finding refuge from the world was the wellspring from which he drew it.” 

But what might it say about Americans if their “most famous” lay sermon was unknown for most of their nation’s history? (Relatedly, one might ask about other potential candidates for “America’s most famous lay sermon,” such as the Gettysburg Address. But pursuing that question would take us far afield.)

Meaning of the Metaphor

Even the meaning of the ubiquitous metaphor turns out to be more complex than it might appear. Gone, for most 21st century Americans, is the dialectical interplay of confidence and pride on the one hand, and anxiety and fear on the other. Reagan’s city on a hill might have been shining; but Winthrop’s was exposed and vulnerable, open to the watchful eyes not just of the world but of God himself. “There was a terror beneath the confidence of ‘A Model of Christian Charity,’” Rodgers writes, “and warning beneath its benedictions.” Thus are we forced to reckon with the stark distance between the world Winthrop inhabited and our own. Rodgers concludes the book by noting that, after its apogee under Reagan, the cultural cachet of Winthrop’s Model might have nowhere to go but down, particularly under a President uninterested in either the Biblical passage that gave us Winthrop’s metaphor or the divine judgement so central to his text.