The ‘City on a Hill’ Cliche : Puritans’ Winthrop Was No Advocate of Liberty

<i> Cynthia Harrison is a historian in Washington and the author of "On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945-1968" (University of California Press, 1988)</i>

History provides both inspiration and instruction. Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan frequently invoked historical refrains to illustrate his vision of the American experience. In his final televised address, he warned that we are not doing an adequate job of teaching America’s children “what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world. . . . that America is freedom--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise.” He followed with an evocation of the gallant John Winthrop.

The first governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, Winthrop headed the delegation of Puritans that arrived in 1630 to establish what he described as a “city upon a hill.” President Reagan explained that Winthrop’s vision was important “because he was . . . an early ‘Freedom Man.’ ” He came here, the President continued, “looking for a home that would be free.” The President went on to say that when he himself saw that “shining city” in his mind, it was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace--a city with free ports that hummed with commerce . . . (with doors) open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” And, he assured us, that “city on a hill” is “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling . . . toward home.”


In order to comprehend the diversity of the American past, to know all the things that being an American can mean, we do need to know about the experience of John Winthrop. But his “city upon a hill” was not the template for modern America. In fact, Winthrop presided over a government that sought more control over the lives of its citizens than has any American government since.


Freedom had nothing much to do with it, and certainly not freedom of speech or religion. To quote Perry Miller, the pre-eminent historian of Puritan New England: “Puritan opinion was at the opposite pole from Jefferson’s feeling that the best government governs as little as possible. . . . The state to them was an instrument of leadership, discipline, and where necessary, of coercion; it legislated over any or all aspects of human behavior.”

The Puritans had come to North America to purify the English church through the example of a community run strictly according to God’s law. Only members of the church could vote and church attendance was compulsory, even for non-members. If a person expressed a differing view, he or she was instructed to leave. And if dissenters came back to Massachusetts after having been cast out, they were hanged. Other offenses punishable by death included idolatry, adultery and cursing a parent by a child more than 16 years old. Blasphemers had their ears amputated; “witches,” of course, were burned.

One of the most famous dissidents was Anne Hutchinson, whose “heretical” beliefs about salvation attracted numerous followers. She was tried for sedition, excommunicated and banished.

To John Winthrop and his fellows, religious toleration was simply unthinkable. The Puritans had left England seeking not freedom but the right to establish, as Miller described it, “a society in which the one and only truth should reign forever. . . . To allow no dissent from the truth was exactly the reason they had come to America.” When toleration gained currency at the end of the 17th Century, Miller wrote, their puzzlement was “almost pathetic.”


If endorsement of free religion and free speech were not features of this city upon a hill, neither was free trade as we conceive it. Puritans had no qualms about regulating the economy of Massachusetts Bay, granting monopolies to shoemakers, establishing fees for bricklayers, wheelwrights, porters, draymen, ferrymen, smiths and millers--efforts that generally failed because of the scarcity of labor. Sumptuary laws enjoined people from purchasing certain kinds of goods, partly in order to fulfill Winthrop’s injunction that “we . . . abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities,” but also to ensure that no one pretended to a more exalted station than befitted him.

Still, we ought not fault President Reagan for including Winthrop in his pantheon of America’s heroes. We remember the Puritans for the sense of mission they bequeathed to us--the sense thathuman society can be reconstructed from scratch in a new and better way than had been done before. If our “city upon a hill” is a democracy rather than a “Bible Commonwealth,” we still measure ourselves against an ideal that we continue to strive for.

We continue to uphold the Puritan notion of a government by contract, a written agreement among the governed about what a government might and might not do. Puritan distrust of clerical hierarchies meant that both their government and their churches were run by the laity. We continue the tradition that they began of representative government. We admire and endorse the Puritan commitment to education. We can rightly envy their sense of fellowship and mutual responsibility.


The American experience has been diverse. For this one group of early arrivals, being American meant living in a highly stratified, theocratic and tightly knit community where every human action was subject to governmental scrutiny. Massachusetts Bay colony was only one of many attempts to establish a utopia on this continent, and utopias were only one of many kinds of communities that Americans, native and immigrant, have established in the nation’s history.

But the free society that Ronald Reagan celebrated comes to us not from John Winthrop and his “city upon a hill.” It descends to us more directly from the spirit of individual rights incorporated in the Bill of Rights 161 years after John Winthrop’s exercise in theocracy began. The very first amendment to the new Constitution recognized that the American “experiment” would best be served by both free speech and free expression of religious belief.

The “informed patriotism” that President Reagan commended to us will come from studying the American experience in all its variety. That study must include both the lurching struggle for individual rights and our effort to recapture as well the sense of community that existed in the “city upon a hill.”