Daniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?
DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.
I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?
DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.
JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?
DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.
At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.
JF: What is your next project?
DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!