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City upon a Hill

A City upon a Hill is a phrase from the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, he tells his listeners, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." It has become popular with American politicians.


  • A model of Christian charity 1
  • Use in American politics 2
  • Use in Australian politics 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5

A model of Christian charity

The phrase entered the American lexicon early in its history, in the Puritan John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity". Still aboard the ship Arbella, Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be "as a city upon a hill", watched by the world — which became the ideal the New England colonists placed upon their hilly capital city, Boston.[1] The Puritans' community in New England would set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world, or if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant of God, "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world" of God's judgement. Winthrop's sermon gave rise to the widespread belief in American folklore that the United States of America is "God's country" because metaphorically it is a "Shining City upon a Hill", an early example of American exceptionalism.

Use in American politics

In the twentieth century, the image was used a number of times in American politics. On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy returned the phrase to prominence during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:[2]

...I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us". Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required...[3]

President Ronald Reagan used the image as well, in his 1984 acceptance of the Republican Party nomination[4] and in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:

...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....[5]

Reagan countered President Jimmy Carter's rhetoric about a national "crisis of confidence" with paeans to American greatness during the presidential campaign. "I've always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way," Reagan later explained. The final days of the Cold War raised the prospect that the American model could become the norm, not the exception:

"...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..."

In 1996, President Bill Clinton declared that:

..."America remains the indispensable nation" and that "there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression"...

During the struggle for the Republican nomination in 1999, Gary Bauer used the same image and explicitly presented himself as a Reagan devotee;[6] he used the phrase three times during his stump speech, and according to The New York Times simply stole them from Reagan.[7] President Reagan's adopted son Michael Reagan wrote a book entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan's Vision for America (1997).

In 2000, Weekly Standard article that there are two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the "'global multilateralism' of the Clinton-Gore Democrats" vs. the "'American exceptionalism' of the Reagan-Bush Republicans".[8]

In 2004, President George W. Bush said:

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America...[9]

In his commencement address on June 2, 2006, at the University of Massachusetts Boston,[10] then Senator of Illinois Barack Obama developed his ideas on the topic:

...But of course, America is an unlikely place - a country built on defiance of the odds; on a belief in the impossible. And I remind you of this because as you set out to live your own stories of success and achievement, it's now your turn to help keep it this way. It's your turn to keep this daringly radical but unfailingly simple notion of America alive - that no matter where you're born or how much your parents have; no matter what you look like or what you believe in, you can still rise to become whatever you want; still go on to achieve great things; still pursue the happiness you hope for. Today, this dream sounds common - perhaps even cliche - yet for most of human history it's been anything but. As a servant of Rome, a peasant in China, or a subject of
  1. ^ A Model of Christian Charity—Governor John Winthrop (1630 on board the Arbella)
  2. ^ "The President-Elect: City Upon a Hill". Time. 1961-01-20.  
  3. ^ Address of President-Elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  4. ^ Remarks Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas
  5. ^ Farewell Address to the Nation, Oval Office, January 11, 1989
  6. ^ Crabtree, Susan (8 November 1999). "The long shot Gary Bauer talks about why he's running for president".  
  7. ^ Bruni, Frank (17 August 1999). "Gary Bauer, No. 4 in Iowa Poll, Casts Himself as Heir to Reagan".  
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Commencement,University of Massachusetts at Boston Commencement,2006


See also

In Australian politics, the similar phrase "The light on the hill" was famously used in a 1949 conference speech by then Prime Minister Ben Chifley, and as a consequence this phrase is used to describe the objective of the Australian Labor Party. It has often been referenced by both journalists and political leaders in that context since this time.

Use in Australian politics
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