A review of Richard M. Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. New York: Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.
Mythology, n. The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later. – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
“We live by myth,” writes Russell Kirk, and to appreciate fully the importance of Richard Gamble’s new book one must first grasp that he uses “myth” in the older and fuller sense in which Kirk and all the masters of the moral imagination used it. We are accustomed in this rather hollow age of imagination to think of myth the way it is used on the nightly news, as something contrary to fact. Even worse, the cosmopolitans of culture tell us that myths can be created by wielders of power or intellect (“Aryan,” “socialist man,” etc.) and are therefore always either useful or dangerous, depending upon who is manipulating them. While Richard Gamble understands myth in all its senses–one of the strongest elements of the book is his nuanced understanding of the interplay of myth and metaphor in history–he knows, with Kirk, that “‘Myth’ is not falsehood; on the contrary, the great and ancient myths are profoundly true…A myth may grow out of an actual event almost lost in the remote past, but it comes to transcend the particular circumstances of its origin, assuming a significance universal and abiding.” Another way to put this is that a real and living myth is too important and too true to be limited by mere fact.
The myth that Mr. Gamble’s book follows from Massachusetts Bay up to the present is the “City on a Hill,” often called the myth of the “Redeemer Nation.” It is one of several myths Americans have lived by for the better part of four centuries, almost as important during my lifetime as the myth of Opportunity and the myth of Equality. This book is the first to trace the origins and historical development and cultural significance of the city on a hill metaphor from when it was used to “describe something transcendent and theological,” to a more recent time when it became “something earthly and political.”
The story is that John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” eventually became the founding document and go-to source for Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” A Puritan lay sermon morphed into the mythical, metaphorical, rhetorical origin of the notion that American had from the beginning and still has a unique and covenanted mission to spread the God-blessed message of freedom and democracy to all points of the globe. It’s an exciting story (okay, maybe more to me and other historians who like ideas), but one with some surprising twists and turns. For example, there is only one copy of “Model” extant, and it is not in Winthrop’s handwriting. Furthermore, there is not one shred of evidence that he ever delivered it as a talk, on board the puritan flagship Arbella or any other place! And, except for a couple of obscure references, it was never mentioned in sources that are available to historians for 208 years after 1630. It was as if the Declaration of Independence were put into a cache to hide it from the British invasion in 1814, never again to surface until our own day. As it was, even the Declaration was not the American Scripture it became after the coming of Father Abraham–the Constitution was the secular scripture most discussed until then. “The past is a foreign country,” Mr. Gamble quotes L.P. Hartley, “they do things differently there.”
Mr. Gamble had to do considerable archival detective work as well as careful literary analysis to come to the conclusion that even after Winthrop’s speech was republished in 1838 and gradually became a part of the American literary canon, “I have not found a single historian before 1930, and really before the 1950s, who extracted the words “city on a hill” from Winthrop’s discourse as a key to the American mission.”
That does not mean that there was no widespread sense of mission in American politics and culture. The notion that we were set apart, and special in God’s plan, was never far from the surface as New England leaders from Jonathan Edwards through George Bancroft articulated a “messianic consciousness.” Mr. Gamble also traces the ideas through once popular but largely forgotten thinkers like Moses Coit Tyler and Joseph Hopkins Twichell. I would suggest, and the author has covered this in a previous book, that the South was not immune from this form of what most people have assumed was a puritan impulse. It was the southern progressive Woodrow Wilson, after all, who (without invoking Winthrop or using the city on a hill metaphor specifically) laid the foundation for American empire during World War I and after.
I should note here that his exposition of “A Model of Christian Charity” and his chapter on Ronald Reagan are alone worth the price of the book. The former is a model of how to read a document on its own terms and in its own context; the latter is a life-lesson in what can be done with a document for moral and/or political purposes. About his insight in this regard the author clearly (and cheerfully) announces his debt to the great historian John Lukacs: “Piecing this story together, I have been guided by a principle developed and refined over the last 50 years by the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs. Beginning in the 1960s [nb: actually, it was the 1950s] he urged historians to pay attention more to what people do to ideas than what ideas do to people. Ideas are not autonomous actors in history. Telling their story is nothing like tracing the migratory patterns of birds and fish. Ideas are acted upon, used, and changed.” This is a powerful point, and one that should be pondered by anyone who accepts the responsibility to interpret how we make use of or neglect history. Even the Bible is not merely a collection of books and ideas suspended in time. To separate and to understand what is permanent and what is contextual is a never-ending project. One of the uses to which I would like to see this book put, is for advanced history classes to grapple with what Lukacs/Gamble suggest.
So, what about the metaphor, and its attendant myth?
Up until about 1930, Winthrop’s “Model” was handled “in a way that Winthrop himself would have recognized as at least approaching his meaning,” that is, “they made no connection between the biblical metaphor and the American identity, no connection between the hilltop city and America’s mission, exceptionalism, or messianic consciousness.” Then it was transformed, through the “historical imagination…of Perry Miller and the political savvy of Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy.”
Miller reinvented Puritanism as a field of study in the 1930s and 1940s, although, as Alfred Kazin once put it, he was “personally unsummoned by religion.” Miller was also a left-New Dealer, and served with the Psychological Warfare Board of the OSS during World War II. He may have been drawn to study American Calvinists by his skepticism about human nature. Mr. Gamble calls him “a sort of Calvinist without the Calvinism,” a scholar who, “along with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and other public intellectuals–wanted all the analytical power of a theology of original sin without believing any of it.” “Rightly or wrongly,” says Mr. Gamble, “Miller hitched the theme of America’s Messianic consciousness to the city on a hill.”
Despite Schlesinger, Jr.’s insistence that there was something in the early Cold War called “The Vital Center,” the heavy-lifters of American exceptionalism were men and women of the cultural and political left. Liberal Internationalism, originally a creature of the Progressive Era, was elevated to political orthodoxy in NSC-68 (1950), which until about 1975 was the worst kept secret among all secret documents in the American archives. Even before JFK uttered a “farewell” address to his Massachusetts General Court in 1961and “launched the biblical, Puritan metaphor into contemporary American politics and culture,” the symbol that is now “ so closely identified with the populist Right, entered modern American politics as an emblem of the internationalist Left.”
Here we must take a step back, and view what comes next in Mr. Gamble’s argument from the cultural perspective of an extraordinary transformation that was settling into America in the 1950s, but which wasn’t much noticed until the 1980s, except by a few lonely voices on the Right.
Progressives had been saying for many years that the United States was based on an “idea.” Very few Americans would have argued seriously that this notion had no truth—after all, the myth of Opportunity had been widespread since at least the late 1600s. Ben Franklin was the “first American,” and his autobiography pretty much closed the question on how powerful the myth could be. It wasn’t until the New Deal, however, that the myth of equality (although also traceable way back) came to mean something to mass culture; and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the race revolution, followed hard in the 60s by the gender revolution, really caused it to take off. The popularity of the Cold War began to complete the mythical trinity—Opportunity, Equality, Redeemer Nation—during the Kennedy years, and, as Mr. Gamble says so eloquently, it was this last person of the trinity that, put in place under President Reagan, cost Christians in America the “ownership of one of their key metaphors.” Or, as we might insist, lost traditional Americans ownership of all their key metaphors.
“The city on a hill Americans debate today is the Republican icon’s invention,” Mr. Gamble writes. “More than any other modern figure, Reagan transformed Jesus’ metaphor into a political slogan inseparable from the 1980s ‘Reagan Revolution’ and from that movement’s legacy in the Republican Party.” And—whether or not this was conscious on his part—”Reagan tried to synthesize every element of the American identity—Puritan, Enlightenment and Romantic.” This goes a long way to explain why neoconservatives and Straussians found such fertile ground in the Reagan administration, why the “propositional nation” theme has all but taken over the Republican Party, and why what most people identify as “conservative” in American politics and culture has been almost totally transformed since the early 1980s. “As paradoxical as it may sound,” says, Mr. Gamble, “Reagan believed that global democratic revolution defined political conservatism in the late twentieth century.”
Writing about America from the standpoint of myth requires great historical imagination. This is a truly original book, one that explains much about the structure of our politics but which also allows us to see what precedes politics. “In Christian theology,” Mr. Gamble reminds us, “it is simply not true that America is the city on a hill, not now, not ever.” But it is true that “in the writing of history no one ever gets the last word.” We are stuck in a time when we cannot seem to talk about this particular national myth except in the terms Reagan gave us. But with talented historians helping us to see how our great national myths come to be what they are, especially in gracefully written and truly imaginative books like this one, we may at least be less tempted to turn perfectly beautiful metaphors into half-understood political doctrines.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.