Early in Volume I of “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville has a section considering the importance of the Puritan roots of American government. In one particularly striking line, he writes that Puritanism “was not only a religious doctrine; it also blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” Indeed, the Puritans believed that God had called them to form a new nation in order to fulfill his providential plan. They were to be the “chosen people” of the New World, and they were to establish a “covenant” with God to form the new Israel. They were to be, in the famous words of Massachusetts’ governor John Winthrop, a “city on the hill,” a “light to the nations,” “a model of Christ’s kingdom among heathens.” Church-state separation was the furthest thing from their minds.
Here is a new book that examines the history, and post-history, of Winthrop’s words and his vision, though it seems that the author also wants to make known his views about the words’ more recent uses. The book is As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, by Daniel T. Rodgers (Princeton University Press).
“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.
As a City on a Hill shows how much more malleable, more saturated with vulnerability, and less distinctly American Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” was than the document that twentieth century Americans invented. Across almost four centuries, Rodgers traces striking shifts in the meaning of Winthrop’s words—from Winthrop’s own anxious reckoning with the scrutiny of the world, through Abraham Lincoln’s haunting reference to this “almost chosen people,” to the “city on a hill” that African Americans hoped to construct in Liberia, to the era of Donald Trump.
As a City on a Hill reveals the circuitous, unexpected ways Winthrop’s words came to lodge in American consciousness. At the same time, the book offers a probing reflection on how nationalism encourages the invention of “timeless” texts to straighten out the crooked realities of the past.