These trends should make Americans uneasy. But many Americans will be upset for the wrong reason: because they have imbibed a historical myth about the United States. That myth — that America was specially chosen to be the moral leader of the world — has contributed to an unrealistic and self-absorbed sense of themselves and the world around them.
The myth allegedly originated on the flagship of the Puritan expedition to New England where, in words which would become a household expression centuries later, Gov. John Winthrop exhorted his fellow voyagers that they would be “as a city upon a hill” in America. The “eyes of all people” would be upon them; they would be a magnet for the world’s imagination. Moral leadership of the globe, Winthrop is said to have announced, belonged to Americans by their very birthright.
Although it is widely known now, the story is a fable invented centuries after the fact. And it is a myth that distorts Winthrop’s words in ways that are crucial to remember when so much of the world has doubts about the United States.
At its heart, Winthrop’s text was not a sermon about future glory. It was a radical exhortation to love and fellow-feeling, a plea to lay aside self-interest when the social good demanded it. He had worked out its core phrases months before he boarded the ship, in a meeting of the projects’ investors where he had insisted that the normal rules of market capitalism should not apply to a venture as sacred and precarious as this. Most important, Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was not a site of radiance but a place of exposure, open to the sight of critics, where any slip would make the new settlement a “story and a byword through the world.” In Winthrop’s words of 1630, scrutiny was the condition of living in a city on a hill.
No one recorded hearing Winthrop’s now famous words. He sent a copy for circulation in England, but within a generation, his “Model of Christian Charity” had been forgotten.
In the era of the Revolution and afterward, Americans cast off many of Winthrop’s doubts and began to imagine their experience might, in fact, be a beacon to the world. “The birthday of a new world is at hand,” Tom Paine wrote in February 1776, pressing the case for independence 14 months after arriving in the colonies from London. By 1790, he had taken the same words and enthusiasm to France, whose revolution, unlike the American one, was truly a magnet for political imaginations from around the world.
But just as Paine traveled between nations and revolutions, so did aspirations for moral leadership. The 19th-century world of imperial nationalism reverberated with claims of nations’ divinely given missions. Americans’ talk of their “manifest destiny” to expand the benefits of civilization across the continent and seas fit into this pattern as wholly unexceptional.
While Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” was on no one’s mind, “city on a hill” was still a common phrase. To preachers, the words stood for the community of Christian believers. For newspaper writers, it stood for anything conspicuous by its example: a well-managed college on the positive side, a notorious tavern on the other. Former slaves brought the language of the “city on a hill” to Liberia, where they knew the capacity of African-descent people to construct a lasting republic would be under the severest scrutiny of a racist world. But in none of these cases was Winthrop’s text mentioned.
It was only in the 1950s that some historians began to treat Winthrop’s “city on a hill” speech as an important moment in American history. And not until the Cold War did any prominent political figure apply the phrase to the United States.
Only with Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the presidency in 1980 did the claim that Winthrop had anticipated the future leadership role of the United States become a central trope in American speech. Reagan had picked up Winthrop’s words in 1969 to rally support for a tougher stand against rebellious students at home and Communist aggression abroad. Reagan’s White House speechwriters would hone them into a synonym for American greatness and tagline for Reagan himself.
Reagan’s usage turned the concept of a city on a hill into a familiar part of patriotic speech. U.S. history textbooks now invariably include the story of Winthrop’s shipboard speech. Virtually all of Reagan’s successors latched onto this imagery, using the phrase “city on a hill” as words of reassurance long after U.S. global hegemony had peaked and begun to decline.
In the four decades since Reagan’s victory, conservatives and liberals alike have made it a rallying point. In 2010, now-national security adviser John Bolton chastised President Barack Obama for not understanding that the seeds of American exceptionalism had been sown in Winthrop’s prescient words of 1630. Four years earlier, however, in a speech in Boston, it was Obama himself, skirting by the other origin moments in American history — the Virginia settlements and their tobacco and slave labor foundations, the Spanish missions, the Dutch commercial traders — who told listeners: “It was right here, in the waters around us, that the American experiment began.” It was right here, he added, that the dream of building “a city upon a hill” took root.
But while used by writers and politicians of all persuasions, this resurrected city on a hill was not Winthrop’s. Gone were the doubts, the fear of the world’s scrutiny if the “city” erred, that had marked Winthrop’s actual speech. Instead, the city on a hill had become radiant, “shining,” a hopeful vision for all of humankind. In Reagan’s speeches it was “a tall, proud city” “teeming with people of all kinds,” a “light” and a “beacon,” a “magnet” for people “from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Like Winthrop’s call to critical self-scrutiny, his caution against love of self were also gone. His words had been forgotten, and then, in the act of rediscovery, had been filled with wholly new meanings. By the turn of the 21st century, they had become words of reassurance. They were a mythic way of imagining that the world’s admiration for which Americans longed and the position of moral leadership they increasingly feared was slipping away from them in a multipolar world — that all this was theirs, thanks to their history’s original promise.
All texts and phrases change meanings over time. What makes the story of Winthrop’s city on a hill significant is not simply what it reveals about the winding, unexpected paths of history. Winthrop’s “eyes of all people are upon us” should remind us what the sudden rise of the United States to world leadership in the generation after 1945 obscures: that the moral leadership of the world does not belong to Americans by right or inheritance. It is not a gift or a premonition of 1630. It must be earned though our actions now, in a world that, more than ever in recent memory, is skeptical of Americans’ capacity to do so.