A “city on a hill” is 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 has significant historical and political resonance.
Origin of “City on a Hill”
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.”
“City on a Hill” and the Vision Thing
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, President Ronald Reagan made frequent references to the phrase.
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.
President George H.W. Bush flopped when trying to evoke similar imagery and ended up calling it the “vision thing.”
Use of “City on a Hill” in a sentence:
- The phrase “city on a hill” is often invoked in political rhetoric to symbolize the idea of the United States as a shining example to the world, a beacon of hope and freedom. It represents a vision of American exceptionalism, where the nation’s values, principles, and achievements are meant to inspire and guide others.
- Politicians frequently refer to America as a “city on a hill” to highlight the nation’s moral and democratic leadership, emphasizing the responsibility to uphold and promote these ideals globally.
- By framing the country as a “city on a hill,” political leaders aim to inspire patriotism, unity, and a sense of purpose among citizens, urging them to strive for greatness and work towards creating a more perfect union.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.