“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
These are the tired words of John Winthrop in his famous “City upon a Hill” speech where he holds up Massachusetts as a model for all societies throughout the world. Good Christians were meant to turn the untamed, savage Americas into a land of prosperity, hard work and piety for all Christians. “The city upon a hill” quickly became a metaphor for the entire United States, and the focus on piety and serving God shifted to holding up America as the exemplar of liberty and democracy throughout the world.
Everybody reading this is smart enough to know that the idea of the “city upon a hill” and the belief system it plays into, that of American exceptionalism, is not a very accurate or historically-based vision of the United States. While there are certainly things that make the U.S. exceptional as a nation, few have to do with the total liberty enjoyed by all its citizens. Just in the past six months, the United States has seen laws specifically designed to disenfranchise large portions of the electorate for no credible reason, and to call the U.S. a shining beacon of democracy has always been a stretch.
In describing the United States’ democracy, I’d like to turn to Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator and author of the first essay of the 1619 Project, who essentially argues there have only been two real periods of American democracy: the early phases of Reconstruction, and the period after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hannah-Jones’ version of democracy is clearly a participatory one with a large electorate able to express their interests through the vote without significant barriers to political action. According to her interpretation of America’s supposed founding ideals, the United States’ democracy requires extension of the franchise, and the U.S. should prioritize keeping the franchise extended as one of its primary goals. This is what the U.S. must do in order to maintain some semblance of being the shining city on a hill.
The mismatch between the ideals the U.S. was founded on and its political development as a state has created and continues to create much of the friction in American politics. Now this is not to say that other nations have not had colossal mismatches between their professed ideals and the realities in their nations. The current Chinese state certainly doesn’t honor many of the rights it claims to extend to its citizens, nor did European colonizers conquer swathes of Africa so they could merely “civilize” the natives. In the case of the United States though, Enlightenment era thought proved to be the justification for the new state. The Enlightenment stressed the importance of religious toleration, reason, freedom of speech and rationalization of laws, and these ideals provided the ideological justification for the revolt of a largely bourgeois class in the U.S. Discontent over taxation, tariffs, free trade, and representation quickly turned into calls for the U.S. to be freed from its slavery to the U.K.
It is precisely because of this rhetoric that the United States’ ultimately conservative settlement after the Revolution seems so jarring and blatantly unexceptional. For all the rhetoric about the uniqueness of the United States, much of its early history plays out like a standard case of a coalition of liberals splitting in victory. Despite the practical hero worship of the founding fathers, there were also another group of founding fathers that stood in direct opposition to the principles the revolution was supposedly fought for. Very few of the elite class that ended up forming the earliest congresses of the U.S. were interested in letting commoners vote, much less women or slaves. The early state proved to express egalitarian ideals while establishing a heavily elitist democracy which stubbornly guarded property rights as a prerequisite for political participation in fear of the mob.
The claim of American exceptionalism stands on nothing. There is no “city upon a hill” in terms of moral superiority, political flexibility, social mobility or any number of metrics. How can there be a city upon a hill when any substantial number of people, in recent years as high as 30 percent, continue to claim that states’ rights was the main cause of the Civil War? How can there be a city upon a hill when our political system is purposefully set up to mitigate the people’s impact on their own government? How can there be a city upon a hill in a state that only removed a legalized second-class status for millions of citizens 70 years ago?
I probably sound angry in this piece—and I am. There’s no denying that. The U.S. and large amounts of its citizenry love to preach American exceptionalism, and I’ve grown tired of it. We are not that special. We live in one of many states in the world. That state has failed to uphold its guiding principles, and I am tired of conservatives and many liberals acting like the history of this country is something worth being a nationalist over. You do not have to feel shame at this nation’s history, but the blind pride that American exceptionalism drills into people is dangerous. Surely institutional racism doesn’t exist because how could it in the city upon a hill? There’s no way the city upon a hill committed mass genocide repeatedly and refusing to acknowledge that these events happened, preventing historians and normal citizens from investigating them in a critical manner. In effect, we are trying to have a debate while American exceptionalism keeps creating its own facts.
When I think of American exceptionalism, I am reminded of Voltaire’s novella “Candide” ( a wonderful, short read, incidentally). In it, the optimistic Dr. Pangloss consistently claims he lives in the best of all possible worlds while his disciple Candide ends up being enslaved, captured, stranded and robbed before finally returning to his home. When Candide arrives back home with his lover disfigured, he does not quite address the “best of all possible worlds” remark, instead exhorting that “we must cultivate our garden.” Perhaps now, with vigilance and political awareness, those of us who care about this nation’s history can cultivate our own garden. One that will overgrow the city upon the hill.