City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism

City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism

A fresh, original history of Americas national narratives, told through the loss, recovery, and rise of one influential Puritan sermon from 1630 to the present day In this illuminating book, Abram Van Engen shows how the phrase City on a Hill, from a 1630 sermon by Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, shaped the story of American exceptionalism in the twentieth...

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Title:City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism
Author:Abram C. Van Engen
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City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism Reviews

  • Kimba Tichenor

    In this meticulously researched monograph, Abram C. Van Engen details how against the backdrop of the Cold War, a once obscure document -- John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" -- became a key component of the narrative of American exceptionalism. As Van Engen shows, this sermon attracted little attention at the time it was first delivered. The now famous sermon in which John Winthrop uttered the words, "for we must consider that we should be as a city upon a hill" would

    In this meticulously researched monograph, Abram C. Van Engen details how against the backdrop of the Cold War, a once obscure document -- John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" -- became a key component of the narrative of American exceptionalism. As Van Engen shows, this sermon attracted little attention at the time it was first delivered. The now famous sermon in which John Winthrop uttered the words, "for we must consider that we should be as a city upon a hill" would not appear in print in America or England for over 200 years after Winthrop first uttered those words as part of this sermon. And even then, when the incomplete sermon was first published in 1836 as part of an anthology, the sermon received little attention. There were other documents, such as the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the now long-forgotten Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England (1643) that at that time were considered much more essential to the origin story of the United States. In fact, it was not until 1979 that American literary history had any use for this obscure document that most of us today remember as required reading in either high school or college.

    And just as that text remains required reading in most American literature classes today, so too should Van Engen's monograph become required reading for all students of American history, because it offers a fascinating and eye opening look into the politics of collective memory and the ways in which history has been mobilized to support one particular narrative of America -- that of American exceptionalism -- at the expense of other possible narratives that might have been more inclusionary, The rise of the narrative of American exceptionalism meant that the importance of people and events that did not fit that narrative had to be marginalized or consigned to the dustbins of history. So for example, Native Americans had to be recast as a people without a culture, and the Spanish and Dutch settlement of America, both of which pre-dated Anglo-Saxon settlement in New England, had to be shown as an inferior and different type of settlement from what came later. These transformations and re-imaginings did not take place overnight, nor were they always the product of pre-meditation; luck came into play on multiple occasions in the rise of this particular narrative. As the author shows the sermon, which was originally a religious text having nothing to do with nationalism, had to undergo multiple transformations before Ronald Reagan in his 1984 farewell address famously used it to support a narrative of American exceptionalism and of American individualism.

    This process of transformation is still ongoing, as the author makes clear. At the funeral of George Bush Sr., the reference to Winthrop's "city on a hill" seemed for the first time, personal, in that it was used to describe the behavior of one man, rather than to depict the calling of a nation: "And it seemed to mourn, along with other speeches of that day, the passing of a time -- regardless of politics, when the elected representatives of the nation might garner some basic sense of respect for their hill." In short, its usage in this setting, seemed to signal new values, those of decorum, stateliness, grandeur, and the dignity of office that with any luck a future president will again model. For as the author notes, Trump's "America First" narrative is the exact opposite of the narrative of American exceptionalism. In this new narrative, the United States is just another nation among many nations, whose goal is to pursue its self-interests and win (with winning defined as having the most wealth/material acquisition. It is a narrative and worldview "based in the utter absence of any higher moral good" -- one in which "the rich get richer; the poor stay poor; and the bonds between individuals remain abstract, insubstantial and unimportant." In short, it advances a modern-day "survival of the fittest" in which those who are weak both within the nation and across the globe are left behind, as there is no longer any moral imperative or responsibility as part of the national story.

    This is not to say that the narrative of American exceptionalism is without hazards. As the author is quick to point out, the narrative of American exceptionalism contained an implicit expansionist thread that created an "unwillingness or inability to recognize the civilization, culture, or contributions of other peoples; and an extension of American interests dressed up in the guise of being good for all the world." But understanding the hazards of each narrative and the context in which different meanings of America emerge, perhaps allows us to stumble into the future as a people a bit less blindly.

    Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher, and author for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

  • Bob

    On April 8, 1630, the Arbella stood off Massachusetts Bay, part of a fleet of Puritan-filled ships organized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop elected as their first governor. Governor Winthrop preached a sermon titled "A Model of Christian Charity" that called upon the company to embrace the virtue of charity in the

    On April 8, 1630, the Arbella stood off Massachusetts Bay, part of a fleet of Puritan-filled ships organized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop elected as their first governor. Governor Winthrop preached a sermon titled "A Model of Christian Charity" that called upon the company to embrace the virtue of charity in the community they would found, a mutual care for each other. He concluded with this peroration describing the consequence of such charity:

    As significant as the sermon would later become, it appears it was more or less forgotten in the concerns of settlement. It's survival in handwritten manuscript form is a story in itself. In fact, it was forgotten for two hundred years, and only came into political parlance in the 1960's when the "city on the hill" portion was first quoted by John F. Kennedy. In succeeding years it would turn up in the speeches of nearly every American president. Until President Trump.

    Abram C. Van Engen traces the fascinating story of this sermon from its beginnings to the present in his new work, City on a Hill. He considers its initial import as a call to loving community among the Puritans. He follows the history of the manuscript, how it existed in obscurity among papers from the colony's early years. He profiles archivists like Jeremy Belknap at Harvard and Ebenezer Hazard in New York, who passionately, tirelessly, and often at personal cost collected and contributed these materials at some of the earliest examples of the preservation of historical materials in Harvard and at the New York Historical Society. It was in New York that the sermon was stored, but not noticed for many years.

    Van Engen considers the decision to center this historical archival work around the Puritans, rather than earlier arrivals to North America--the Pilgrims, the Dutch in New York, the Jamestown settlers, the French, the Spanish, and the Native peoples. The account was a New England account, a religious account focused on God's providence. It shaped first the New England consciousness, and then a wider American consciousness, even while the sermon, apart from brief notice in the 1830's continued to be ignored. He explores why it remained obscure as a lengthy sermon as opposed to a concise statement like the Mayflower Compact. 

    He then introduces the scholars that brought this Puritan heritage to national notice from Weber to Perry Miller to his successor Sacvan Bercovitch. An striking part of this account are his chapters on Perry Miller, who was concerned about the materialism that arose from Puritan values, and held up "A Model of Christian Charity" as the epitome of the spiritual values that even atheist Miller wanted to see embraced, incorporating it into anthologies used in teaching American history. I hope some day Van Engen follows up with a full-length study of Miller, a brilliant and tragic figure.

    Miller's work was the likely source of Kennedy's use. Van Engen then follows its usage through successive presidents, culminating in Ronald Reagen who more than anyone appropriated the image for the country's exceptionalist destiny, no where more movingly than his Farewell Address on January 11, 1989:

    As Van Engen concludes this book, he notes President Trump's lack of use of this language and contends that it represents a significant shift from rhetoric focused around American ideals to American interests. He argues that our current president focuses not on what makes us exceptional but on what we have in common with all nations--that we put our interests first. The vision of exceptionalism is one of being first. Van Engen wonders whether this shift in rhetoric is a longer term shift or one confined to this administration, acknowledging the flaws in each approach.

    This is an important work in so many ways, from tracing the sermon's origins and after history, to the ways the sermon has been misappropriated, ignoring the body of Winthrop's appeal, to exploring the ways a focus on Puritan origins has blinded us to other aspects of the American story--the Native peoples, African slaves, settlement in other parts of the country, and the ways the religious focus of the message has been transformed into a founding document of America's civil religion. 

    Within this narrative, Van Engen also highlights both the significant contribution and blind spots of archivists and curators in American historiography. Van Engen shows how our histories are shaped by what is collected. In the process, Van Engen also faces us with crucial questions of the substance of the rhetoric we use to describe our sense of national purpose and character at a time where we may be witnessing a sea change in that sense.

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    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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