A “city on a hill” is a phrase used to refer to America’s supposed standing in the world, as a “beacon of hope” which other nations can look to for moral guidance.
The phrase can be traced back to the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount (as recounted in the book of Matthew), Jesus tells his followers:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good.
John Winthrop, who helped found the Massachusetts Bay colony, was the first person to apply the phrase to America. In 1630 Winthrop and a group of his fellow Puritans traveled from England to the New World, in order to found a colony near Plymouth. While aboard the Arabella, Winthrop delivered a speech which has become known as the “city on a hill” sermon.
Winthrop told his fellow Puritans that they would have to work hard, sacrificing their own personal desires for the good of the community and for the sake of their religion: “for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
In 1961, president-elect John F Kennedy told the people of Massachusetts that, as he prepared to assume the presidency:
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 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 on a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.
A few decades later, Ronald Reagan made frequent references to the “city on the hill.” Reagan made John Winthrop and the “shining city” the centerpiece of his farewell speech to the nation, at the end of his second term:
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…
And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.