A Single Southern Guy In America

January 19, 2005

Who Said It First?

Rob pointed me towards a post discussing the French Revolution series on the History Channel. He poses a challenge of putting the following into chronological order: French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and American Revolution. My answer is in the extended entry.

That's not my point though. When the spinning belle and I read the post over at Mostly Cajun, something struck us. This quote:

"Ronald Reagan is right. We ARE a bright shining city on a hill."

Now, particularly in a post discussing a History Channel series, we were intrigued, because while Reagan did make a compelling and famous speech about the U.S. being a shining city on a hill, we both knew that he was not the origin of that phrase. The actual origin of the phase is from the Bible, in Matthew Ch. 5:14:

"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid."

She noted that one of her issues with bloggers is that they do not have editors that can catch such mistakes. Of course, we bloggers have heard such complaints from mainstream media types for years now. I told her, "we have a different kind of editor, I'll edit this one to illustrate." What I did not anticipate was the investment of time I would make to "edit" the post. That being said, let's "edit."

Now the first reference to that verse describing America (or a part of America) in such terms is not from Ronald Reagan. It actually originated from a sermon by John Winthrop while he was still en route to America. The sermon was entitled, "A Model of Christian Charity."

In the second to last paragraph, about two-thirds through, we find:

"We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." 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.

Ed. Note: Bold from original.

Now, it is probably safe to say that Reagan's speech, "A City Upon A Hill," is responsible for our modern familiarity with the phrase. The speech was originally delivered to the inaugral CPAC conference meeting in 1974. In it he says:

"Standing on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast, John Winthrop said, “We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we 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 byword throughout the world.” Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom."

Now several sources cite his 1976 speech at the GOP convention as that speech. Now, when you visit the Reagan Foundation's website and read the '76 Convention Closer speech, there is no mention of a "a city upon a hill."

Fast forward to 1979 when he announces his candidacy for President and we find this phrase:

"We who are privileged to be Americans have had a rendezvous with destiny since the moment in 1630 when John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the tiny Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts, told the little band of Pilgrims, "We shall be 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 byword throughout the world."

A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and--above all--responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill."

And finally, we can turn to his farewell speech when he returns once again to the reference.

"And that's about all I have to say tonight. Except for one thing. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still."

ALL THAT BEING SAID.....

Let's return to the original offending phrase--

"Ronald Reagan is right. We ARE a bright shining city on a hill."

I suppose he was, especially since he always quoted John Winthrop. The question remains whether we're right to ask whether Reagan or Winthrop was right.

American, French, Russian.

Posted by Adam H at January 19, 2005 01:39 PM ~ Link Cosmos | Trackbacks (0)
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