Blogs > Cliopatria > Reagan's 'City On A Hill' Corrected

Jun 25, 2004 3:47 am

Reagan's 'City On A Hill' Corrected

L. John VanTil, in the (June 19 2004):

In recent days many Americans were deeply moved by the week-long farewell ceremony in honor of President Ronald Reagan. Among the many tributes were frequent references to his vision for America. Numerous speakers, including Vice President Cheney and Supreme Court Justice O’Connor, specifically referred to, and even quoted, John Winthrop’s lay-sermon on board the Arbella in 1630 as the prime example of President Reagan’s vision for America. Winthrop challenged his fellow settlers to work hard, to do the right thing and to carry out the purpose of their mission as they settled in New England. And why? Because, he said, “we shall be as a city upon a hill,” continuing with the observation that all the world would be watching to see how they did in their little experiment in America, ready to mock them if they failed. The networks replayed President Reagan’s delivery of this quotation many times during the week and numerous pundits cited the line as well. Every one of the dozens who quoted or commented on Winthrop’s phrase during the memorial events referred to him as a “Pilgrim” leader.

In the interest of historical accuracy it must be pointed out that John Winthrop was not a Pilgrim and that stating so on any decent history test would result in points being lost. Well, then, who was Winthrop if not a Pilgrim? It is no small point to state that he was, in fact, a Puritan and that Pilgrims and Puritans were not the same settlers at all. And, it must be said that Pilgrims are admired by Americans, even admired in some history texts, while queries about Puritans generally result in a frown and a negative opinion.

The Pilgrims were a small band of dissenters who decided that with the arrival of King James from Scotland to occupy the English throne, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, they had to leave England to worship as they saw fit. They first moved in 1606-1607 to Holland, which had freedom of religion. By 1620 they decided that they would be better off in America and so it was that after a stopover in England, they sailed for America in the Mayflower, arriving late in the fall. Their principal leader was William Bradford, who later wrote an account of their early days in his famous “Of Plymouth Plantation.” A singular characteristic of the Pilgrims was their separatism — they thought pure worship could occur only when separated from the Church of England.

The Puritans, on the other hand, were a very large group of people who decided to settle in America in 1628, sending an advance party that year under the direction of Governor John Endicott. A year and a half later, another contingent set sail — some 700 people at once — under the leadership of a new Governor, John Winthrop. In the next few years over 20,000 people came to the Bay Colony under the Puritan banner. Winthrop’s famous lay-sermon, which included the phrase “we shall be as a city on a hill,” was uttered near the end of this voyage in 1630. Winthrop was Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, as it was called, for most of the next decade, ruling with a firm hand. It was from this colony that America received the flavor of Puritanism, not from the small band of Pilgrims who landed a decade before Winthrop in another corner of what would later become the Bay State.

If Winthrop was not a Pilgrim, how did it happen that he came to be called one by President Reagan and then by dozens who quoted him or quoted Winthrop from their own experience during the memorial ceremonies? The likely answer to this question involves a long-standing erroneous reputation of the Puritans.

During the first half of the twentieth century, history textbooks that commented on Puritans and Puritanism had a decidedly negative tone in their interpretation. This negative tone probably arose from the writer’s personal dislike for the strict Christian views held by the Puritans, but that is a topic beyond the scope of this piece. Puritanism has been rehabilitated by an outstanding group of Harvard and Yale historians beginning with the work of Samuel E. Morison in the 1930s(“The Builders of the Bay Colony”), continuing with major works by Perry Miller (“The New England Mind”) and Yale historian Edmond S. Morgan (“The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop”). Their students and their students’ students have carried on this restoration of Puritanism, therein creating an accurate picture of it. Indeed, I would count my own “Liberty of Conscience: The History of a Puritan Idea” as a chapter in this reconstruction of Puritanism. In brief, it is clear that Puritans were generally witty, educated, hard working, and devout Christians. They certainly were not prudes as Edmond Morgan has pointed out....

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Langdon Wright - 7/31/2004

There is a passage in Winthrop's Modell of Christian Charity--the "city on a hill" speech--that I don't believe ever made it into Reagan's talks or any of the recent retellings: "Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. " Too bad: it's part of the most powerful section of the speech, and comes in the same paragraph.

"Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwrack [the punishments that will come if we violate the terms of our covenant],, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly [Page 47] affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other's conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it likely that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God's sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing."

HNN - 6/25/2004

I was glad to see you remember that the real Pilgrims of 1620 came to Massachusetts to escape religious persecution. In public elementary schools today, from coast to coast, they are portrayed as guys in funny looking hats who were taught to plant corn by the Indians.