“City on a Hill” inquiry

Donald Trump’s inauguration speech reminded me of a historic trend and question I tried to ask every 10th grade U.S. History student…

In his Inaugural Address, Trump said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

But what does it mean to “shine as an example”?

The New York Times’ printing and annotation of President Trump’s speech (a fitting activity for students to do) did not mention where Trump got this worldview.

Does the U.S. lead with empathy and grace or cash and nuclear weapons? You can site successful examples of either throughout history. But it’s easy to support examples of times we chose wrong too.

Today, Trump was referring to something many other American leaders (both Democrats and Republicans) have said: The United States is, and should be, a “city upon a hill”.

When speaking to his shipmates on the Arabella, he envisioned building a new government on a perilous frontier:

…for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us…

(331 years later)

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.

In 1989, during his Farewell Address, Ronald Reagan said:

I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’… 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, windswept, 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.

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than 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. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

In 2006, at a University of Massachusetts Graduation Speech, pre-president Obama said:

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed…

More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill — that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places…

But the problem isn’t that we’ve made progress. The problem is that progress isn’t good enough. There is more work to be done, more justice to be had, more barriers to break. And now it’s your generation’s turn to bring these changes about.

Trump reminded me to re-read the words of these other American leaders and ask that question again, especially with students:

How is the U.S. a “city upon a hill”?

For a few non-presidential perspectives about “hills” as a metaphor, also see:

Maybe what it means to “shine as an example” is to continuously question whether or not we are one, affirm the ideals that make us great, and constantly climb that hill…



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