A Footnote on Reagan’s “City on a Hill” Phrase

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.

“Cultural lag” and simple obstinacy, not to mention a continuing revisionism of American history, have prevented the more accurate picture of John Winthrop’s Boston from becoming the prevailing view of Puritanism. Hence, it is likely that whoever first gave President Reagan this quotation did not know the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans. Or, more likely, this person thought that using the name Puritan would undermine whatever positive message the “city on a hill” phrase had. In that case, replacing Puritan with the more positive “little band of Pilgrims” designation made sense for rhetorical purposes. Why the other speakers, eulogizers, and network pundits did not correct this error, or point it out in good humor, only they would know. For the record, however, lets give credit where it is due: John Winthrop, author of the “city on a hill” phrase, was a leading Puritan founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.