The Metropolis-on-a-Hill Picture: Humility, Triumphalism, and the Lengthy Arc of American Historical past




A reader choosing up the brand new e book by Daniel T. Rodgers is likely to be forgiven for pondering, “Hasn’t this e book already been written?” In spite of everything, “everybody is aware of” about essentially the most well-known metaphor in American cultural historical past: the notion of a metropolis on a hill, that lodestar of the early New England elite and archetype for a lot that got here later, from high-minded aspirations to chauvinistic nationwide self-promotion. However what, actually, do we all know? In As a Metropolis on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Well-known Lay Sermon, Rodgers units out to reconstruct Winthrop’s textual content in addition to its cultural afterlife. The Bancroft Prize winner and Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of Historical past at Princeton takes us deep into each the Mannequin itself and the explanations for its persevering with rhetorical energy. 

It is likely to be useful first to revisit what “everybody is aware of.” Aboard the passenger ship Arabella in 1630, fleeing an England that they have been certain was due for God’s punishment, and the place they discovered it unattainable to dwell godly lives, a gaggle of Puritans sure for the Massachusetts Bay Colony assembled to listen to their Governor, John Winthrop, preach a sermon. That sermon, the “Mannequin of Christian Charity,” hit its rhetorical excessive be aware by figuring out the yet-to-be-founded settlements within the New World with the “metropolis on a hill” of Matthew’s gospel: an instance for the world to see and, ideally, imitate. In doing so, Winthrop gave voice to a collective craving that may resonate down by the years, shaping the younger nation a century and a half later and offering an mental foundation for People’ burgeoning sense of their nation’s place within the historical past of human freedom.

Of the well-known story I’ve simply recounted, Rodgers states merely: “Most of it is a fashionable invention and far of it’s unsuitable.” The Mannequin was by no means talked about by Winthrop, both in his well-known Journal or wherever else. A member of England’s landed gentry who was skilled as a lawyer, Winthrop was not a member of the clergy, so his handle to his fellow colonists absolutely shouldn’t be known as a sermon. And though sure passages of the Mannequin do brim with the arrogance of a folks satisfied of their very own chosenness, there was in it quite a lot of uncertainty and concern, as nicely. Excess of its latter-day cheerleaders would admit, Winthrop’s Mannequin pulses with the concern that, when it got here to God’s favor, as Rodgers places it, “all the things was conditional. . . . if God may select a spot and a folks, may he unchoose them?”

New England and Past

The primary part of the e book, “Textual content,” focuses on the Mannequin itself, which, as Rodgers factors out, emerged from Winthrop’s efforts to salvage the Massachusetts Bay Firm’s affairs a yr earlier than the migration. Because the historian places it: “the majority of the Mannequin got here to Winthrop… amidst the industrial tensions of a London enterprise assembly.” Readers are taken by the attainable circumstances of its supply, and two issues that we usually take with no consideration are rapidly dominated out: that it was given orally, and that it was given on board the Arabella. Rodgers explores the Mannequin’s concepts about social and financial relations and feedback on the bodily doc itself, which at the moment resides on the New York Historic Society. 

The New England settlers’ dedication to their very own exceptionalism was hardly, so to say, distinctive. Colonization was nicely underway, by folks from a number of European powers, by the point the Winthrop fleet (of which the Arabella was the principal ship) sailed. A spread of Spanish, Jesuit, and Dutch settlements, to say nothing of rival English ones, predated the Bay Firm. Prefer it, just about each a type of different settlements held out “hope that they stood on the rim of recent sacred and human potentialities,” writes Rodgers. Moreover, regardless of the euphoria with which Winthrop’s Mannequin concludes, the inconvenient reality stays that for a lot of the New England settlements’ first half-century, the eyes of the world have been most emphatically not on Boston and its environs. Developments within the mom nation (civil conflict, regicide, army rule) led many to forsake New England and return throughout the Atlantic to take part in occasions that portended the success of long-held apocalyptic hopes. After the Stuart Restoration of 1660, the publicity generated by the colony’s harsh punishment of dissenters additional hampered New England’s efforts to proclaim itself a godly commonwealth worthy of imitation. 

The truth is, as Rodgers factors out, it’s removed from clear that the “metropolis on a hill” metaphor deserves all the eye that has been lavished on it through the years. Within the Mannequin, the picture arrives solely on the very finish of a textual content largely taken up with articulating a self-sacrificial politics of affection and charity. The majority of the textual content has rather more to do with the ethics of mutual obligation towards one’s fellow group members than it does with the problem of whether or not the world is watching; the passage Winthrop is most involved with is, in Rodgers’s view, “not an ocean passage however a passage from self to others.” 

In Half II, “Nation,” Rodgers leaves the Puritans behind, transferring from Winthrop’s 17th century “we”—“we will be as a metropolis on a hill”—to Thomas Jefferson’s 18th century “we”—“We maintain these truths to be self-evident.” (He doesn’t, however may need, added a 3rd “we”: “We the folks,” which adopted the Declaration by a few dozen years.) The character of these invoking the first-person plural pronoun had modified, writes Rodgers, from a “consensual . . . voluntary firm of ‘godly’ English Protestants” to “an altogether totally different world experiment in nation making.” 

From this level onward we start to see daylight between the city-on-a-hill metaphor and Winthrop’s textual content, which languished till nicely into the 20th century, confined to literary anthologies and little identified exterior the rarefied firm of Northeastern historic fans. As such, not one of the main developments in 19th century American historical past—westward enlargement, constructing of the railroads, industrialization, the Native American genocide—drew any of their energy or pathos from Winthrop’s Mannequin. When People entered the imperial sport (buying management, for instance, over Hawaii and the Philippines), they’d theories of cultural and racial supremacy prepared handy and didn’t want Winthrop’s Mannequin. Certainly, they barely knew about this textual content.

The Mannequin’s picture of a metropolis on a hill, in contrast, was completely ubiquitous. Rodgers reveals simply how widespread it was for communities to say distinctive standing for themselves: not solely American luminaries like Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston, but additionally 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. Everybody, apparently, was chosen—not less than based on them.

The 19th century appropriation of the metaphor had one casualty: the morally fraught nature of Winthrop’s unique invocation, the anxiousness that inhered within the Mannequin’s understanding of a watchful deity judging human conduct. City-on-a-hill invocations grew more and more assured of American chosenness, and ever extra desirous to subjugate much less “chosen” populations—at the same time as dissent from this triumphalism may very well be heard from such figures as Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, and the Whig-turned-Republican Abraham Lincoln, who famously described People as “nearly chosen.”

Rediscovery by 20th Century People

The ultimate part of the e book, “Icon,” returns to the Mannequin itself. It opens with the primary look of Winthrop’s “metropolis on a hill” reference earlier than a common viewers: at Boston’s 1930 tricentennial celebration, on the reverse facet of the “Founders Memorial” erected close to Boston Frequent. The 1930s additionally noticed broader efforts to say New England’s cultural distinctiveness, “to insist that the nation itself—or not less than its greatest and most necessary traits—had been shaped from seeds planted first in New England.” On this process, New England’s boosters have been aided by Alexis Tocqueville, who professed to “see the future of America embodied within the first Puritan who landed on these shores.” (If a extra preposterous sentence was ever written about the US, I can’t recall it offhand.) 

From right here, Rodgers continues the story of the Mannequin’s regular progress as an American cultural touchstone, specializing in the pioneering work of Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan, Daniel Boorstin, and Sacvan Bercovitch, every of whom noticed in New England one thing foundational to American nationwide character. Invocations of Winthrop turned de rigeur amongst U.S. politicians, from John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and naturally, Ronald Reagan, who, in an “extraordinary act of simplification . . . gave the Mannequin its fashionable public life.” 

The story of Winthrop preaching on board the Arabella match nicely with Reagan’s “cinematic nationalism,” although Reagan revised it, omitting Winthrop’s anxiousness about ending up on the receiving finish of God’s wrath, and turning the Massachusetts Bay Colony right into a “shining” metropolis—a key ingredient of his “rhetoric of reassurance.” After Reagan, the Mannequin continued to be invoked by Republicans and Democrats alike, and later turned intertwined with one other rising metaphor: that of American “exceptionalism,” a parallel set of myths that Rodgers handily, if extra cursorily, dispatches in Chapter 18.

Winthrop the Forgotten Man

An fascinating growth famous by Rodgers is that, because the picture has waxed, references to its writer have waned. “In secular histories of the US and analyses of American political tradition,” he writes, the Mannequin “occupies an indispensably central place. In explicitly Christian histories it doesn’t.” Why not? He argues that at the moment’s evangelicals, involved as they’re with cementing the connection between Christianity and the American Revolution and 1787 Structure (and thus legitimating a set of 21st century political positions), and pessimistic as they’re concerning the ethical trajectory of the nation, are comparatively much less enamored of Winthrop and his imaginative and prescient.

Fairly merely, As a Metropolis on a Hill is a superb e book. Erudite and sweeping in its focus, it ranges with ease from Winthrop’s Puritans to the Trump administration. It’s elegantly written and studded with insightful anecdotes. That mentioned, it’s truly two books in a single: a historical past of a metaphor, and a historical past of the textual content from which the metaphor got here. Sometimes the 2 foci change into unmoored from one another. There’s, at occasions, some slippage between the 2 books throughout the e book, since, as Rodgers makes clear, we can’t assume that customers of the metaphor essentially have something to do with Winthrop or his textual content.

Certainly Rodgers skillfully emphasizes the ubiquity of the metaphor in contexts far faraway from Winthrop’s personal, by people who may have had no data of his Mannequin. Even on the shores of West Africa, the place “the ‘metropolis on a hill’ motif flourished extravagantly,” there’s “no proof that any of the venture’s founders had learn” the textual content. Nor ought to we overlook the truth that “nearly not one of the writers” chargeable for American imperial enlargement “had learn—or may have learn—Winthrop’s Mannequin.” Furthermore, regardless that Woodrow Wilson “believed deeply within the historic future of the American nation,” it stays the case that “neither Winthrop’s textual content nor Winthrop’s dream of discovering refuge from the world was the wellspring from which he drew it.” 

However what may it say about People if their “most well-known” lay sermon was unknown for many of their nation’s historical past? (Relatedly, one may ask about different potential candidates for “America’s most well-known lay sermon,” such because the Gettysburg Handle. However pursuing that query would take us far afield.)

That means of the Metaphor

Even the that means of the ever present metaphor seems to be extra advanced than it would seem. Gone, for many 21st century People, is the dialectical interaction of confidence and satisfaction on the one hand, and anxiousness and concern on the opposite. Reagan’s metropolis on a hill may need been shining; however Winthrop’s was uncovered and weak, open to the watchful eyes not simply of the world however of God himself. “There was a terror beneath the arrogance of ‘A Mannequin of Christian Charity,’” Rodgers writes, “and warning beneath its benedictions.” Thus are we compelled to reckon with the stark distance between the world Winthrop inhabited and our personal. Rodgers concludes the e book by noting that, after its apogee underneath Reagan, the cultural cachet of Winthrop’s Mannequin may need nowhere to go however down, significantly underneath a President tired of both the Biblical passage that gave us Winthrop’s metaphor or the divine judgement so central to his textual content.

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