Back in 2008, I was watching the Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin when then-Governor Palin made an obviously scripted comment about her "world view."
That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights. Those things that we stand for that can be put to good use as a force for good in this world.
By now I was jumping out of my chair. CITY ON A HILL?? REAGAN!?!? THAT WAS JOHN WINTHROP IN 1630!!
Seriously, Winthrop was the original Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of its most important leaders, and a dedicated Puritan. He was, to put it mildly, a figure of some historical consequence.
But here I found, along with the rest of the country, his most famous utterance emerging from the mouth of the 40th President.
This mangling of history in public debate has only gotten worse in the years since then. Political pundits, talking heads, and media-seeking politicians all attempt to harness the authority and legitimacy of the past. Most don't succeed, and some really screw things up. The worst offenders, though, threaten to reshape our collective memory through clumsy or cynical revisionism.
This blog is an attempt to set things right, or at least, to question historical claims in the public sphere and put the past in its proper context. Along the way, there will be room for reflection on the meaning and practice of History itself.
Please feel free to send me examples of mangled history, even if you're not quite sure what's wrong. And also send questions about the historical claims of public figures.
Oh, and as a historian, I'm really into footnotes. So, for a transcript of the 2008 VP debate, check out this transcript. Or, if you really have time on your hands, watch it here.
In Winthrop's original text, prepared as a kind of sermon aboard the Arrabella en route across the Atlantic, Winthrop offered a hopeful vision of the new colony:
for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty vpon a Hill, the eies of all people are vppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee haue vndertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from vs, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake euill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy seruants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses vpon vs till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are goeing
For Winthrop's "A Modell of Christian Charity," find a copy, with minor orthographic modernizations, here.
Reagan did, in fact, speak of America as a "city on a hill," and he did so in my own home of Cleveland in 1988 (but he at least put the phrase in quotation marks):
The changing economic realities—in which products are increasingly information and can be transmitted around the world at the speed of light—these new economic realities dictate a world economy. Because of our experience with a continental economy, we are uniquely situated to lead the world into a new era of economic cooperation, to make this "city on a hill" that is America, a global city. The watchword of this new era will be freedom—free enterprise, free trade, freedom to travel, freedom of emigration. Freedom—the emancipation of peoples' creative energies around the world. That's the challenge that has opened up to us in the 1980's. All we need is the courage to meet it.