Segment from City Upon a Hill

Invisible Cities, Continued

Peter continues his conversation with historian Mark Peterson about Winthrop’s sermon.

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PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th Century History Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century History Guy. Today on the show, we’re taking on the idea of American exceptionalism.

ED: Now, in case you need a refresher, American exceptionalism is the notion that, from the very beginning, the United States has had a special, and some might say superior role in the world.

PETER: Before the break, we were hearing from historian Mark Peterson about the true origins of the phrase city upon a hill. It’s one of the catch phrases of American exceptionalism. He was telling me that it’s author, Puritan John Winthrop, intended it not as prophecy, but rather as a sort of warning to his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world were upon them.

But the second interesting thing Peterson told me was that the text doesn’t show up at all in the historical record until 200 years later. That’s when a hand-written copy of it was found in a New York City attic.

BRIAN: This particular copy was discovered in the early 19th century, in the early 1830s, among a collection of papers that belonged to one of John Winthrop’s very distant descendents. In 1838, this document was published for the first time by the Massachusetts Historical Society, in their ongoing series of publications of important documents in Massachusetts history.

PETER: So why should the Massachusetts Historical Society and readers of this document think it was so prescient and prophetic? What was it about the 1830s that shaped the reception of this document?

MARK PETERSON: Well, this is a time in which there is a great deal of attention being paid in the United States to its earlier history– largely driven by the growing sectional conflict between the Northern and the Southern states at the time. And of course by the 1830s, with the rise of abolitionism in Boston, the publication of William Lloyd Garrison’s famous abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, the beginnings of major slave revolts in the south, like Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, these issues are becoming more and more inflamed. And as the two sides differentiate themselves from each other in political and intellectual terms, there’s a kind of contest to seize the mantle of history, to prove that one side versus the other is–

PETER: Well, slow down. Mark, Mark, Mark.


PETER: This is the great statement of American exceptionalism now, and modern American presidents invoke it all the time.


PETER: And you’re telling me it really comes out of a Yankee nationalism that is America is New England writ large?

MARK PETERSON: That’s exactly right. And in fact in the 19th century, after Winthrop’s text comes to light, it’s not something that’s embraced by Southern Americans by the future Confederacy. Rather, it’s part of the kind of historical mythology that New Englanders build around themselves. It’s of a piece with the development of Thanksgiving as first a regional and then, eventually, a national holiday. But, of course, as I assume your listeners will know, Thanksgiving is not a national holiday until President Lincoln declares it to be one in the midst of the Civil War in 1863. Before that, it had been pretty exclusively a New England regional celebration.

PETER: When do you think that that phrase became a patriotic nationalistic text that it is today? Was that in the 19th century, or is it only in the 20th century that it begins to take on that powerful meaning?

MARK PETERSON: Well, as far as I can tell, it really is a 20th century phenomenon. And part of the reason for that is that despite many of the efforts of 19th century sort of patriotic New England historians to promote the idea of kind of American origins in the founding of Massachusetts, there was a kind of equal and opposite fear of and loathing of and detestation of puritanism.

And so a lot of the scholarship of the 19th century tended to suggest that a lot of what more sort of progressive or liberal people thought was wrong with the American character could be traced to the sort of meanness and anti-life qualities, if that’s a phrase, of puritanism.

And so I think it was really with the scholarly recovery–

PETER: Interesting, yeah.

MARK PETERSON: –of the complexity and richness of puritanism in the 20th century that many of these texts like Winthrop’s came to the forefront. And so on this particular case, the city upon a hill phrase, I actually would have to pin the blame on Perry Miller, the great Harvard literary scholar.

PETER: Oh my goodness– one of our great historians, a literary scholar. Yeah.

MARK PETERSON: Right. But as brilliant as Miller was, this particular phrase he treated rather sloppily. And in an extremely influential and well-known essay that he wrote called “Errand into the Wilderness”, he actually suggested that John Winthrop, in using that phrase city upon a hill, he was quite literally suggesting that Winthrop was being prophetic. He said something like, here, John Winthrop had a preternatural sense of the future greatness of America.

He was wrong. He was not doing his homework on this particular text as well as he should have, but it is the case that Miller was the predominant intellectual figure interpreting American history and culture at the time that John Kennedy was a Harvard undergraduate.

PETER: That’s right.

MARK PETERSON: And so I’m not particularly surprised that Kennedy gave a famous speech in Massachusetts to his supporters in which he invoked that phrase in much the way that Perry Miller had used it.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella 331 years ago.

MARK PETERSON: And I think once Kennedy did it and it worked its way from there into politics, the media, journalists and the like, there was no turning back from that.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: –that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. Today–

PETER: That’s Mark Peterson. He’s an associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. We’ll post a link to the full text of Winthrop’s sermon at