Which Way to the City on a Hill?

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tags: Christianity, John Winthrop, Colonial History

Marilynne Robinson is the author, most recently, of the essay collection What Are We Doing Here? and Lila, a novel.
 (July 2019)

Recently, at a lunch with a group of graduate students, conversation turned to American colonial history, then to John Winthrop’s 1630 speech “A Modell of Christian Charity,” associated now with an image borrowed from Jesus, “a city on a hill.” This phrase has been grossly misinterpreted, both Winthrop’s use of it and Jesus’. In any case, the students pronounced the speech capitalist, with a certainty and unanimity that, quite frankly, is inappropriate to any historical subject, and would be, even if the students, or the teachers who gave them the word, could define “capitalist.” Because I encounter variants of this conversation in such settings all over the country, I should not be heard as criticizing any particular university when I say that such certainty is not the product of good education. Indeed, it is distinctively the product of bad education.

This characterization of Winthrop’s speech had the finality of a moral judgment, which is odd but, again, typical. For these purposes, capitalism is simply what America is and does and has always done and will do into any imaginable future. A dark stream of greed flows beneath its glittering surface, intermingling with its best works, its highest motives, and it is naive to think otherwise. Like the country itself, it is a rude, robust intrusion of unbridled self-interest upon a world whose traditional order was humane—in the best sense, civilized. Capitalism is, by these lights, original with and exclusive to us, except where Americanization has extended its long reach. This is believed so utterly that the fact that Marx was making his critique of the mature industrial/colonial economy of Britain is overlooked or forgotten. My point here is not to defend capitalism, but to say that as the word is used critically it functions as a final, exhaustive interpretation of any text, and of the work of any writer whose culture is described as capitalist, which is fairly exclusively this one. And it is as if naive to see it otherwise.

The brutal system Marx describes depended on the British Poor Laws, which adapted serfdom to the needs of primitive industrialism. The Poor Laws restricted the movement of those who lived by their labor to the parish where they were born, making them in effect outlaws if they left. Vagrants could be hanged, and sometimes, especially under Henry VIII, they were hanged in great numbers. At the same time, the clearances pulled down or burned rural villages and seized what had been common land, so the poor were forced to leave their parishes and go to the cities to find work. They were, as we say, undocumented, and so they made up a cheap, docile, defenseless workforce. Here comparisons with the present situation of immigrants throughout the West are appropriate.

In New England, the colonies that had greater control over their own social order, there was no real equivalent for these Poor Laws. In the South, whose laws came from England, slaves lived under many of the same constraints on movement as the English poor. There also, laws forbade gatherings of three or more men, or the possession of anything that could be used as a weapon. In pre-modern Britain, the poor were the great majority of the population, as they were throughout Europe.

It was a commonplace of classic British political thought that societies were divided into two classes, the rich and the poor. The strictures and deprivations imposed on the poor, and the fact that their status in law enforced their poverty, meant that they were a stable class through the generations, a virtual race, not simply people who had fallen on hard times. The marks of poverty were a stigma comparable in some of their effects to the marks of race under slavery or Jim Crow, or apartheid. Like Jim Crow and apartheid, the laws that specifically determined their lives remained in effect into the twentieth century. I suspect Americans are ignorant of these laws and this history because their Anglo-Saxon heritage is very likely indeed to trace back to some desperate, bewildered bloke with a cropped ear, cast off at the edge of the Earth as an undesirable, for whose bare survival they are existentially in his debt. Emma Lazarus could well have taken the phrase “wretched refuse” from the theory of British colonization.

Winthrop and those who traveled with him were exceptions, having in general left for North America voluntarily. He was an educated man, speaking to people who were untypically educated or literate for the time. He speaks to them as potentially the founders of a new civilization. And he begins by granting as a first premise the commonplace that societies are divided by God into rich and poor. This granted, what follows? He says, crucially, that this inequality exists because God considers himself “more honoured in dispensing his gifts to man by man, than if he did it by his owne immediate hands.” That is, inequality is the divinely created occasion for liberality. Winthrop preaches an ethic of profound generosity that would effectively nullify this ancient, entrenched, deeply consequential distinction. His speech is not an argument but a series of conclusions, all solidly based in Scripture, more absolute as he proceeds. Rather early on he says, “Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.” This is a paraphrase of the verse in the Book of Acts describing the practice of the early Church, more succinctly and famously paraphrased by Karl Marx as “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” Perhaps it echoes Shakespeare’s language in King Lear—“shake [down] the superflux”—or simply reflects a shared tradition.

Winthrop is proposing a society based on Christian love, an old dream of a British radicalism disseminated from Oxford in the fourteenth century, centered in the work of John Wycliffe, a professor and writer known throughout Europe as one of the great philosophic minds of his time. Wycliffe was indignant at the treatment of the poor—he wrote, for example, that

lords many times do wrongs to poor men by extortion & unreasonable [fees] and unreasonable taxes, & take poor men’s goods…& despise them & menace them & sometime beat them when they ask their pay. & thus lords devour poor men’s goods in gluttony & waste and pride, & they perish for mischief, & hunger & thirst & cold, & their children also…[they] withhold from poor men their hire, for which they have spended their flesh & their blood. & so in a manner they eat & drink poor men’s flesh & blood & are mankillers…

and more to the same effect.

Read entire article at The New York Review of Books