Daniel Rodgers on As a City on a Hill

Rodgers“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” John Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans at New England’s founding in 1630. More than three centuries later, Ronald Reagan remade that passage into a timeless celebration of American promise. How were Winthrop’s long-forgotten words reinvented as a central statement of American identity and exceptionalism? In As a City on a Hill, leading American intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers tells the surprising story of one of the most celebrated documents in the canon of the American idea. In doing so, he brings to life the ideas Winthrop’s text carried in its own time and the sharply different yearnings that have been attributed to it since.

How did you come to write this book? 

Like many book projects, this one began when with a sense of surprise. “We shall be as a city on a hill” has been part of the core rhetoric of American nationalism since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan began using it as a signature phrase in his speeches. In modern times, it is virtually impossible to discuss the “American creed” and the main themes in American civic culture without it. Like other teachers of American history, I had taught the Puritan text from which Reagan had taken the phrase to hundreds of students. “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop had titled his “lay sermon” in 1630. Here I said, with the confidence of repeating a rock-solid certainty, lay the origins of the idea of special, world-historical destiny that had propelled American history from its very beginnings.

But I was wrong. The closer I looked at the text that speechwriters, op-ed contributors, preachers, historians, political scientists, and so many others thought they knew so well, the more I began to realize that the story of Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” held a string of surprises. Rather than running as a continuous thread through American history, Winthrop’s text had almost immediately dropped out of sight where it stayed, unread and unimportant, for generations. When historians and social commenters revived it two and a half centuries after its writing, they did so in the act of making it into a radically different document than it had been at its origins. Winthrop had placed a plea for charity and intense mutual obligations, not greatness, at the heart of his “Model.” How had this core meaning been lost? How had Winthrop’s sense of the acute vulnerability of his project been replaced by confidence that the United States had a unique and unstoppable mission to be a model to the world? How had this story of forgetting and remembering, erasure and revision, reuse and contention actually unfold? It was when these puzzles began to accumulate in my mind that I realized this book about the continuous reshaping of the past needed to be written.

What exactly did John Winthrop mean by “a city on a hill,” then?

The chasm between Winthrop’s use of those words and what they were claimed to mean when his “Model of Christian Charity” burst into public notice in the mid twentieth century is immense. On the eve of the Puritan settlement of New England, Winthrop meant the phrase “we shall be as a city on a hill” as a warning. As he used the words, a “city on a hill” was a city exposed to the “eyes of all people;” it was a place of high conspicuousness. To live there was to live under the critical scrutiny of a God who might, in a moment, make it a “story and a byword through the world.” There was nothing comforting about it.

At its best and most demanding, Winthrop’s “Model” had urged, the mission of the Puritan project in America was to realize a mutual “charity” deeper than any modern society had yet achieved. It was to be a community where the temptations of unrestrained commerce and self-interest would be held in check by an ethic of love and mutuality. He and his fellow New Englanders fell short of that ideal, as the book’s sketches of some of the early New England recipients of Puritan public charity show. But Winthrop’s “city on a hill” promised, nonetheless, a radically different future than capitalist America was to realize.

When Winthrop’s phrase was reinjected into politics at the end of the twentieth century, it stood not for mutual love and obligation, not for the rules of fair lending and public responsibility for the poor, but for the cornucopia of goods and liberties that the United States was destined by history to spread to the rest of the world. It stood for the uniqueness of the United States among all other nations. It radiated the power of modern American capitalism. It reassured Americans in a globalizing world that their mission was timeless. How had a warning morphed into a conviction of enduring greatness?  How had a vision of a charitable society been reimagined as a celebration of American material abundance? How could a phrase be refilled with such radically different contents and yet, in the end, be made to appear as if it had been a stable foundation stone of the American “idea” from the beginning?  In the task of tracing that story across four centuries, in and beyond the United States, has been the challenge and the exhilaration of the book’s writing.

Many historians spell out powerful straight-line stories of America. You have said that you are more interested in the unexpected that lies, half-hidden, beneath the overly familiar stories we tell about our past.

All good history writing needs to hold both those impulses in play, but the past is often very different than the version that has been straightened out and encapsulated in public memory. Winthrop and his contemporaries were not the Founders of America as our linearized historical narratives routinely describe them. At the outset, they were English folk in flight from their worldly, commercial, and libertine culture. They had to be made post facto into founders of a nation they never envisioned. The “city on a hill” phrase did not have a continuous presence in American political rhetoric, as we conventionally assume; and it was in no way unique to Americans. You’ll find far more references to the phrase among the founders of Liberia (for good reason; they knew the world’s first black republic was going to be the object of intense critical scrutiny) than among the eighteenth-century founders of the United States (who rarely used it all). Although we conventionally describe a sense of uniquely high moral responsibility for the world as distinctive to Americans, it was not exceptional to them; they shared that sentiment with the peoples of almost all the great powers at the turn of the twentieth century. We associate the American sense of mission with the enduring force of the Protestant heritage in the American past. But among many contemporary evangelical Protestants the relationship of the “city on a hill” phrase to the nation of the United States is much more vexed and troubled than straight-line history imagines it.  

Part of the challenge of writing history is a willingness to take seriously these elements of strangeness, these crooked, disorienting departures from the expected and to follow them to the surprises toward which they lead. The other part is to puzzle out the processes by which this never-linear history, so full of close calls and contingencies, gets ironed out in the stories we tell about ourselves: how, under the pressures of nationalism, our history is made into something easier to swallow and more reassuring to live with.

Is the story of Winthrop’s sermon unique or are there similar examples of the invention of foundational documents in American history?

 No other text that we now think to be as fundamental to our statement of who we are went missing for as many centuries as John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” But many of the symbols of modern nationalism are much more recent than we imagine, and the meanings Americans have invested in them have changed almost as remarkably as in the case of Winthrop’s text. The Declaration of Independence is a critically important example. The Declaration that we know now, with its promise of equal rights and liberties to all, wasn’t a foundational document in its own time. At many July 4 ceremonies in the generation after 1776, those opening lines of the Declaration were not read at all. As the Declaration’s preamble began to be revived, contests over its meanings revived as well. The Declaration didn’t begin to be imagined as carrying a fundamental criticism of slavery until abolitionists read it again with a radically new moral urgency in the 1840s. It wasn’t imagined to carry the fully panoply of human rights that we now associate with it until the mid-twentieth century. It was a document continuously remade by those who used it. Those struggles and those reworkings—not the document itself—form our national story.  

John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, written in a moment of high anxiety, eclipsed by hundreds of other patriotic texts as the nation took shape, its core theme of mutuality forgotten and misremembered and the rest embraced as if it had been part of the unitary American consciousness from the beginning, is a story of the same sort. Its story is a history of struggles to remake and remember a civic culture. We live within these struggles now and within some of the terms that Winthrop himself wrestled with. As they are reminded of that, I hope readers will see themselves—as well as an unexpected America—in this book’s pages.

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.