The text originally comes from the Bible, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The phrase had been used by several Americans since to describe the way we as a people wanted to be seen. While still aboard his ship en route to the New World, John Winthrop delivered a sermon in 1630 that contained the following phrase:
For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are on us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land where we are going.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy used the phrase in one of his speeches. More famous, however, was Ronald Reagan in 1984 when he said:
…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. That’s how I saw it and see it still…
In the course of the passing years, after Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan and various other global hotspots, we have developed another image. In a short story entitled “Absence,” a Peruvian-born writer named Daniel Alarcón painted a very different picture of what the United States had become: “Americans always feel bad. They wander the globe carrying this opulent burden. They take digital photographs and buy folk art, feeling a dull disappointment in themselves, and in the world. They bulldoze forests with tears in their eyes.”
Now what this reminds me of are the Walrus and the Carpenter from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. You might remember from the accompanying poem that the Walrus and his Carpenter friend talk some oysters into joining them for dinner. Of course, they eat all the oysters, and begin to cry. The following conversation then takes place between Alice, Tweedledee, and Tweedledum:
‘I like the Walrus best,’ said Alice: ‘because you see he was a LITTLE sorry for the poor oysters.’
’He ate more than the Carpenter, though,’ said Tweedledee. ‘You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.’
‘That was mean!’ Alice said indignantly. ‘Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.’
‘But he ate as many as he could get,’ said Tweedledum.
This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, ‘Well! They were BOTH very unpleasant characters—’
It’s a long way between the City on a Hill and Lewis Carroll’s the Walrus and the Carpenter, but I do believe that over the centuries, the U.S. seems to have arrived at that point with surpassing ease—while at the same time with all our illusions intact.