A City but Not Upon a Hill

A City but Not Upon a Hill
AP Photo/Bill Sikes, File

The United States, people around the world say, was founded by Puritans. The Puritan colonists were inspired by ‘the magnificence of leading an exodus of saints to found a city on a hill [my emphasis], for the eyes of all the world to behold.’

Those are the words of Perry Miller, the 20th century’s pre-eminent scholar on the subject, interpreting John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, and author of this undying metaphor. Miller believed that Winthrop was ‘preternaturally sensing … the promise of America’. Politicians from Jack Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have exploited Winthrop’s image for their own visions of the promise of America, as have countless op-ed columnists and historians. It’s difficult to find an American history textbook today that does not claim that Winthrop spoke these words in a shipboard sermon to his fellow colonists crossing the Atlantic in 1630. But it’s not true.

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