September 28, 2012, New York Times

Who Built This City?


Could it be that one of the most famous speeches in American history was never delivered?

That tantalizing possibility is suggested, if not quite confirmed, by the circumstances surrounding a manuscript that lies deep within the catacombs of the New-York Historical Society. “A Modell of Xtian. Charity. Written On Boarde ye Arrabella On ye Atlantick Ocean! By the Honorbl. John Winthrop Esq.” is the title of a sermon written out over 20 leaves measuring 5 by 7 inches, with writing covering 39 sides, on paper that came from Holland in the 17th century. It purports to be the celebrated oration given by the Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop in 1630, as he led a large migration of Puritans from Old England to New, where they would found “a City upon a Hill.” The famed phrase is right there, three lines from the bottom, in a cribbed Puritanical hand.

How many cities have been built since then! Especially in this season of endless political speechifying when the City on a Hill is often used to describe the perfect place we are trying to become (it’s a steep hill). Winthrop’s phrase is especially popular on the political right. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum both used it liberally, as it were, during primary season. So did Ronald Reagan, who spoke of the City on a Hill in speech after speech, from his rise as a conservative outlier in 1964 to his farewell address in 1989. He invoked his imaginary city so vividly that he seemed to see it — he even added the word “shining,” as if standing before the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz.”

But the fabled city also beckons to Democrats, especially when they come within range of Boston, the real city most closely linked to it. Barack Obama glimpsed it in 2006, when he spoke at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and John F. Kennedy summoned Winthrop memorably in 1961, when he addressed the Massachusetts Legislature on a real hill — Beacon — just before his inauguration.

So who owns the City on a Hill? Normally, going back to the original document clarifies misinterpretations and the extra growths that can attach themselves, like fungi, to a well-turned phrase. But in this case, searching for Winthrop’s original intent only raises more questions. We do not know where, exactly, he gave the speech — in England, aboard his flagship as his fleet was preparing to depart; or on board the Arabella as the New World and its hills came into view. We do not know, with certainty, that Winthrop ever gave the speech at all.

Consider the evidence. Throughout the spring of 1630, Winthrop kept a detailed diary describing every mundane event connected with the trip to America, and never once mentioned the speech. He never cited it later, in any of his letters. And there is not a single eyewitness account describing what was presumably a major address to hundreds of settlers at a seminal moment in their lives.

The mystery deepens when one realizes that the only copy of the speech (presented to the New-York Historical Society by a Winthrop descendant in 1809) was written in two hands, neither of which belongs to Winthrop himself. One hand wrote out the laborious title; the other, the manuscript itself: handsome and durable after crossing an ocean and more than a few centuries. It was very likely produced well after 1630, since its title page refers to the “brave leader” and “famous Governor,” in language he would never have used.

Do we need to know with certainty when, where and whether Winthrop gave the most famous speech of 17th-century America — one that continues to resonate hundreds of years later? It is disconcerting not to have the exact coordinates. But history depends more than we care to admit on the survival of fugitive pieces of paper, and in this case all we have is one fragile document guarding its secrets. We can work only with what we have.

Whatever its provenance, the address eloquently expresses the aspiration of the settlers departing England forever to start new lives in America. They would work together (“We must be knit together, in this work, as one”). They would try a new approach of self-government (“a due form of government, both civil and ecclesiastical”). And whatever they did would be important (“We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us”). This sermon remains a classic statement of the global ambitions underlying American Puritanism — of what used to be called the “errand into the wilderness,” in the historian Perry Miller’s phrase. With preposterous audacity, it announces the world’s transformation, simply as a result of their arrival on these shores. Which is more or less exactly what happened.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1630, but we have never escaped this powerful idea. There were echoes of Winthrop when Lincoln called America “the last best hope of earth.” There were echoes again when Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded the troops setting out for Normandy, in the very waters plied by Winthrop’s fleet, that “the eyes of the world are upon you.”

Other sections of the document are not likely to be cited anytime soon. It is hardly a paean to democracy. Winthrop insists with Romneyesque clarity that “in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.” But that severe judgment is softened in other places. In this season of discord, it is almost quaint to reread these words from Winthrop: “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.”

Of course, there is another famed speech, even older, that dispenses advice from a hilltop: the Sermon on the Mount. As with Winthrop’s oration, the Sermon survives because of frail bits of papyrus, vellum and paper, lovingly preserved, and before that, perhaps, a manuscript that no longer survives — the putative Q source that may have recorded sayings directly from Jesus, before flowering into the Books of Matthew and Luke. Appropriately, when Ronald Reagan died, Senator (and ordained Episcopal priest) John Danforth read from Matthew, where the city and its hill are found in 5:14.

Discussing Afghanistan policy in 2011, the ambassadorial nominee Ryan Crocker took an unusually realistic tack when he said, “We’re not out to, clearly, create a shining city on a hill.” Yet neither reality nor gravity is likely to deter Americans, ever optimistic, from wanting to mount the hill once more. We may never solve the mystery of when this charming elevation was first glimpsed. But in our lack of certainty, we may have found the perfect sound bite. Drawing equally from the Left, the Right and the Omnipotent, our shining city continues to bedazzle Americans from all walks of life. Perhaps it is our endless desire to talk about ourselves that truly makes us exceptional. At any rate, neither we, nor our city, will be going away anytime soon. As Matthew reminds us, “a city set on a hill cannot be hid.”

Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, was until recently the director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.