“A City Upon a Hill”: American Exceptionalism from Puritanism to Postmodernism

What has become of the image of American exceptionalism by now?Can Puritan “character traits” be found throughtout American literature, culture, and politics? This text serves as a first overlook on American exceptionalism.

To answer this question, how could I not start with the meanwhile famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop from 1630 held on board the Arbella? To quote the most famous paragraph from the sermon seems almost superfluous as it is known so well; but as it will play a major role in the further debate about its continuance I will recite it:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon 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. […] But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall 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 it.”

In his sermon, Winthrop emphasizes through a structure of questions and answers the importance of the social cohesion in the colony in New England, “that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress”, and the love between each other and to God, because “[l]ove is the bond of perfection”. Furthermore, he claims that they as a chosen people in the New World must resemble God as “He loves his elect because they are like Himself”; the citizen of New England must always try to “resemble the virtues of our heavenly father” in order to receive His reward — thus they will be an example for the people in the present and a role model for their posterity.

Winthrop’s sermon as the foundation of American exceptionalism

Considering the length of Winthrop’s sermon it is obvious that there are various thematic aspects that need to be taken into consideration. However, the quote from the beginning narrows down the significance of the essential argument from Winthrop, which highlights the function of the people from the Arbella as a role model for the world and serves as the foundation of American exceptionalism.

“The Puritan myth prepared for the re-vision of God’s Country from the ‘New England of the type’ into the United States of America”

This notion has been picked up by various authors throughout different centuries, genres, and circumstances, transferring the idea of an American ideology, the cultural and political superiority to other nations, into the collective memory bank. In this context, Sacvan Bercovitch tries to understand “the long foreground to the astonishingly comprehensive ideal of the representative American, with its proportionately comprehensive claims and anxieties” through an analysis of “the interaction of language, myth, and society” (ix). For him it is clear that “[i]n retrospect, […] the Puritan myth prepared for the re-vision of God’s Country from the ‘New England of the type’ into the United States of America” (136).

American exceptionalism after 9/11

However, as Bercovitch compares different works from Cotten Mather to Edwards and Emerson from the point of view of 1979, I would like to continue his comparison from the perspective from 2015. Is today’s American exceptionalism comparable to the sentiments from 1630? And, most importantly, has anything changed in the city upon a hill after the turn of the millennium and the progressing shift of political powers? One answer is already given by Willam V. Spanos who states that “America is, indeed, an exceptionalist nation […] certainly became manifest in the wake of 9/11, when the United States, having recuperated its exceptionalist national identity […] drew on the mobilizing power of its ethos to launch its global ‘war on terror’ in the overt of the American empire” (189).

“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are”

Looking for relevant literature, I have stumbled on the farewell speech from Ronald Reagan from 1989, which I will leave out of my evaluation, but still consider an important text to keep in mind. Just like me, Reagan asks the nation what has become of America: “How Stands the City?”, and answers naturally that “after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm”. As self-confident as that, Reagan nevertheless questions what it means to be an American and points out to return to the past in order to give value to the first American principles and tradition, because “[i]f we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are”.

Benjamin Franklin: the Representative American

To discover the notion of an American uniqueness as a nation, John Winthrop’s sermon serves as the foundation as already quoted in the beginning. Furthermore, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin from 1791, who is considered to be “the Representative American — because the most absolutely and comprehensively American man on the continent — and as such is planted forward, outside his own country, and upon the universal platform of the world, to be the intellectual and moral protagonist of a new nation” (Macdonald 217) continues to carry the notion of American exceptionalism through the Early Republic.

Are the character traits masculinity, honesty and Christian decency Puritan?

The novel The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground by James Fenimore Cooper from 1821, which is “generally regarded as the world’s first espionage novel” (BBC), gives an interesting insight into the beginning of “the tradition of spy-as-hero” (BBC) — something that can be found regularly in American films today — as it is placed in New York State in 1778 during the American Revolution and “full of swelling rhetoric and the ardent national piety of Cooper’s generation” (Wikipedia). The protagonist Harvey Birch, who works for George Washington as a double agent, represents the silent and patriot American hero who fights for his country until death, idealized by his relinquishment of Washington’s payment for his work, “stressing Birch’s more admirable character traits such as masculinity, honesty and Christian decency” (Woods).

From rags to riches: The Pursuit of Happyness

“The Pursuit of Happyness” from 2006, a “biographical drama film based on Chris Gardner’s nearly one-year struggle with homelessness” (Wikipedia), directed by Gabriele Muccino, serves as an example for the American Dream “from rags to riches”, showing the very bottom of social existence in the 21st century, homelessness, and the ideal way out of misery: self-reliance and responsibility for your own fate. If you work hard, you will prosper — if you fail, it’s your own fault.

To round up the theme of American exceptionalism, it is interesting to take a look at the speech from Barack Obama “A More Perfect Union” from 2008, which is both a speech about racial issues in America and a patriotic appeal to the public to form a Union: “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. […] that is where the perfection begins” (Obama).


BBC. Classic Serial. “Episode 1: James Fenimore Cooper — The Spy”, 2014. Web. 5 March 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b019rgnv.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven and London, Yale UP. 1979. Print.

Macdonald, William, ed. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Now First Printed in England From the Full and Authentic Text, London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1905. Print.

Obama, Barack. “A More Perfect Union”. 18 March 2008. Web. 5 March 2015. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/03/18/text-of-obamas-speech-a-more- perfect-union/.

“Pursuit of Happyness, the”. Wikipedia. Web. 5 March 2015 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pursuit_of_Happyness.

Reagan, Ronald. Farewell speech. 12 January 1989. Web. 5 March 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/12/news/transcript-of-reagan-s-farewell- address-to-american-people.html.

Spanos, Willam V. American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam. Albany: UP New York, 2008. Print.

“Spy, the”. Wikipedia. Web. 5 March 2015 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spy_%28Cooper_novel%29.

Winthrop, John. A Model of Christian Charity. 1630. Web. 5 March 2015 http://www.casa-arts.org/cms/lib/PA01925203/Centricity/Domain/50/A %20Model%20of%20Christian%20Charity.pdf.

Woods, Brett F. “Revolution and Literature: Cooper’s The Spy Revisited”. Archiving Early America. Web. 5 March 2015 http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/2003_winter_spring/coopers_spy.htm.