When asked for the origin of their nation, many Americans turn to the Pilgrims, who are commemorated every year at Thanksgiving. Yet this claim makes little sense. Pilgrims were not the first people here, nor the first Europeans, nor the first English, nor did they establish an independent country. So why do they get prioritized? The answer has to do with how they have historically been used. Beginning in the early 1820s, Pilgrims have enabled Americans to define their nation not as the outcome of events, but as the fruition of ideals.
For most of its history as a public text, John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, has supported precisely such a story. This sermon, we are often told, commences the epic tale of a nation called to serve as a beacon of liberty, chosen by God to spread the benefits of self-government, religious liberty and free enterprise to the entire watching world. For the past several decades, America has been called a “city on a hill” so often in books, blogs, commentaries, and speeches that it might seem like it has always been this way. Yet Winthrop’s sermon—including his declaration that “we shall be as a city upon a hill”—came to fame only recently. It is, in many respects, an invented memory of the Cold War fit into a longstanding national tale. This talk examines how that tale was spun, and to what ends.