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.