Our First and Scariest Inaugural Address, Courtesy of the Puritans
by Tom Geoghegan
Obama should take some cues from John Winthrop’s speech about the “City upon a Hill.”
John Winthrop (Wikimedia Commons)
As Obama and his staff thumbed through the great American political speeches in advance of his second Inaugural address, I wonder if it occurred to them to go back to the first attempt to express the American idea, John Winthrop’s famous speech invoking a “City upon a Hill,” written for his fellow Puritans in 1630 on board the Arbella.
George Washington’s Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and John F. Kennedy’s first all have their admirers. But Winthrop’s remains the ultimate inaugural address: the one that inaugurated everything. And it’s the one we most need to hear again with fresh ears — because it’s also the speech that everyone seems to get completely wrong.
Known colloquially as the “City on a Hill” speech, Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” unfairly gets the rap for the idea of American exceptionalism when presented in its Fox News form: We’re number one and no one should apologize for America.
How could anyone read Winthrop’s speech and reach that conclusion? The first great American political speech, it is terrifying in its humility. Winthrop gave that speech not to pound his chest but to beat it. If we aren’t humble and meek — at least in Winthrop’s telling — the good ship Arbella could well end up at the bottom of the sea.
The speech makes clear that humility is our only hope: “The only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly without our God.”
Sound much like the present-day United States, snarled in political gridlock? Here’s the key point we too often overlook in Winthrop’s speech: We ought to think twice about what it means to be a City upon a Hill. If we’re proud and boastful, it’s not a place we want to be. According to Winthrop, God put us up high, not to have the whole world bow down to us — but to give everyone a front row seat to view our example. Should we are no longer be meek and humble, God would rain down fire on our heads before their upturned eyes.
That’s really why we’re the City upon a Hill: to be a giant fireball for all the world to see should we break our covenant with God.
And what is this covenant we dare not breach?
Nothing so tame as interfering with traditional marriage or the right to bear arms. No, while it may come as a surprise to many, the most sacred covenant of the community is this: “[W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of each other’s necessities.”
To translate Winthrop into a tweetable, we should give our excess to the poor, just as Jesus told the rich young man who asked what he must do to be saved. And we must deal with each other “in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.”
Think about it: If that’s what matters most, then as a City upon a Hill we’re toast. We’re the richest country in the world, but nearly a quarter of our children live in poverty. Not “near poverty,” but no-kidding official government-recognized actual poverty. As for meekness, we’re America has become a by-word for political tantrum throwing all over the world.
But most of all we’re just arrogant. What might shock Winthrop the most is how the richest country in the world spends next to nothing on foreign aid, doing next to nothing for the billions in poverty around the world. Even a poor country like China — godless, Communist China — makes more of an effort, in relative terms, to redress misery in Africa.
And for all of this, we’re supposed to be too exceptional to apologize?
As a City upon a Hill, we sit upon a hot seat. Here are those famous lines from Winthrop’s speech, the ones we let the children see: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” But those eyes rest upon us as they might on those lynched at Tyburn. Winthrop continues: “So that if we deal falsely with God in this work we have undertaken, we shall be made a story and a by word throughout the world.”
And of course we surely will die: “… if our hearts turn away so that we will not obey, but be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess.”
That’s why we’re perched up there as a City upon the Hill: to let the world see what happens to those who forsake the Sermon on the Mount.
If we breach the covenant, all those with whom we have been prideful get to throw the switch. They have a right to “cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us,” Winthrop wrote. They have a right to petition that “we be consumed out of the good land to whither we are going.”
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was the last to take seriously the notion of the wrath of God. The wrath of God, which came down upon us for the sin of slavery, and which almost did incinerate us as a City on a Hill, no longer seems a concern of ours.
But there is a trace of the fear of it in our modern rhetoric — in Carter’s “malaise” speech, even in Obama’s First Inaugural, with its tone of lament for our failure to be adult.
It just may be that in our time, the wrath of God takes a different form — the indifference of the world. We are no longer the only democracy, nor the last best hope; in years to come, other nations may work better and be more just than our own. The real wrath of God is to leave us just where we are, not quite the shipwreck Winthrop feared, but a people adrift, with neither covenant, nor meekness, nor humility nor generosity to each other.