In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth is written by Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Ruling Elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. We now consider the impact of John F. Kennedy on the “city on a hill” metaphor.
That farewell, known for a time as JFK’s “City on a Hill” speech, launched the biblical, Puritan metaphor into contemporary American politics and culture. This powerful symbol, now so closely identified with the populist Right, entered modern American politics as an emblem of the internationalist left.
…Obviously the Catholic Kennedy could not conjure up all or even many of the historical meanings embedded in or ascribed to the city on a hill. I could not signify to him what it had for the Puritans. Instead, he used a metaphor for something quite mundane: ethical government.
[Quoting Life magazine] “The sense that they are a peculiar people, designed by Providence to live in a more perfect community than any known in the Old World, the sense that it is America’s mission to set an example to other nations, is part of America’s Puritan inheritance.”… By the time of Kennedy’s death, it had become possible to make the fragmentary phrase “city on a hill” stand all by itself for the nation’s messianic impulse.
You can listen to the speech below, with the “city on a hill” allusion beginning at about 4:00.
And here’s an excerpt from this speech that was delivered on January 9, 1961:
Allow me to illustrate: During the last sixty days, I have been at the task of constructing an administration. It has been a long and deliberate process. Some have counseled greater speed. Others have counseled more expedient tests.
But 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,” he said, “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 upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.
For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.