A Shining City on a Hill

Today’s guest post comes from Robert Maynard and was originally posted at Fifth Estate.


The notion of establishing a “City on a Hill” as an experiment in ordered liberty, to inspire the rest of the world, was a theme in America from the time the very first settlers landed here. In a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop entitled “City upon a Hill,” he reminded his Congregation that:

…for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of Gods worthy servants…

What made this possible, as French historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his classic work “Democracy in America”, was the combining of a passion for individual liberty with religious piety:

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren, traditionary faith which seems to vegetate rather than to live in the soul.

It was this combination that inspired a global movement to abolish slavery in the 19th Century. Despite its flaws, America still stood as a “city on a hill” for those seeking freedom. It was in recognition of this fact that led to French government to present us with the Statute of Liberty in 1886 with the following inscription on the bottom:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

We are now in the early stages of a 21st Century Information Age and the American fruit of liberty is still a source of inspiration. Interestingly enough, the Japanese government commissioned a report in 2000 called “The Frontier Within: Individual Empowerment and Better Governance in the New Millennium,” which drew some conclusions on what it will take to prosper in the 21st Century Information Age.

In the report, they note the advantages America has in the “Information Age” global economy.

“Some judge globalization to be no more than Americanization or to mean the unilateral imposition of American standards. It is true that the United States currently enjoys an overwhelming advantage in the multiple processes of globalization.”

It goes on to highlight the essential theme of the 21st Century:

If the twentieth century was the century of the organization, the twenty-first century will be the century of the individual. … Individual freedom and empowerment, so far enjoyed by only a handful of people, will be within reach of the great majority. If so, it is all the more important that each and every person firmly establish his or her individuality.

Basically, they argue that the pace of change in the 21st Century Information Age is making a collectivist, top down approach to running society obsolete. If the 21st Century is to be the century of individual liberty, then America’s heritage of liberty must still serve as a city on a hill and a light to the nations. Often, it is the new arrivals to our shores who appreciate the specialness of American liberty the most. If America is to continue to serve in this role, we need to make sure we preserve what made this ideal possible.

To most of the world, this ideal directly relates to the human “rights” enshrined in our constitution. However, what is generally not well understood is that the constitutional protection of individual rights represents the legal codification of principles that developed over a period of 180 years.

That was the period of time between the first Pilgrim settlers and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution. During that time they set up churches, schools, a university system, charitable institutions and pretty much created an American civilization defined by a distinct worldview regarding human nature and the relationship of the individual to society. This worldview culminated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

The word Pilgrim refers to a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons. They saw their journey to America as a “pilgrimage” to a new promised land. Among them were Presbyterian and congregational Calvinists, as well as Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and some other groups. The unifying theme, be they separatists or non-separatists, was a desire to “purify” the Church, enjoy the freedom to worship as they saw fit, and set up communities governed by the principles derived from their religious ideals.

Despite the differences in theological emphasis from one group to another, their views formed a fairly coherent worldview in regard to human nature and the relationship between an individual and society. As they were predominately Christian, the early Pilgrims took most of their ideas from the Bible. They patterned their “Errand in the Wilderness” after the Jewish people who escaped tyranny in Egypt for freedom in the “Promised Land.” This “prototype” in the struggle for liberty not only inspired the early pilgrims but also the later abolitionist movement with it’s “Underground Railroad” and the struggle to end slavery.

One big difference between the early American settlers and the ancient Israelites was that, taken as a whole, America was not nearly as ethnically or religiously homogeneous. This led them to employ the “Natural Law” approach when they expressed the foundational ideas at the heart of their sacred cause in the Declaration of Independence. There were some principles that, while derived from the book of Genesis, applied to all people regardless of religion by virtue of their being created in the image of God. This notion was expressed in the introduction to the Declaration:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The phrase, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” has often been regarded as a conscious attempt to describe God in deistic terms. However, as Gary Amos & Richard Gardiner pointed out in their book Never Before in History, this terminology had been part of the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. From there it was passed to Christians more generally in England and became squarely implanted in English Common Law of the thirteenth century.

One of Jefferson’s most influential sources was Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634). Coke’s writings on the Common Law served as the central textbook for legal studies at the College of William and Mary, where Jefferson received his formal training. In 1610, Coke explained the meaning of the phrase “law of nature” in “The Reports of Sir Edward Coke”:

The law of nature is that which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction; and this is lex aeternal [The Eternal Law], the moral law, called also the law of nature. And by the law, written with the finger of God in the heart of man, were the people of God a long time governed, before the law was written by Moses, who was the first reporter, or writer of law in the world. The Apostle, in the Second Chapter to the Romans saith, Cum enim gentes quae legend non habent naturaliter ea quae legissunt faciunt” [when gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things of the law] … “This law of nature, which indeed is the eternal law of the Creator, infused into the heart of the creature at the time of his creation, was before any written laws, and before any judicial or municipal laws.

Coke, like medieval Catholic thinkers and most Puritans of his day, grounded the law of nature in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Creation. Jefferson also drew heavily on Sir William Blackstone who followed directly in Coke’s footsteps in explaining the law of nature. In short, it is the dignity of the human individual, in whose heart God has written His Law that entitled them to a separate and equal station.

This notion is based on what some Christian theologians referred to as the Creator — Redeemer Distinction. God relates to all men as Creator with the indwelling law written in their hearts at the time of creation. God also relates as Redeemer to people chosen to receive his special revelations regarding the providence of salvation. Another example of this approach is seen in the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The adjective “self-evident,” as a way of describing the truths they held, has long been a source of confusion. Amos and Gardiner clear up this confusion by pointing out that Jefferson’s first draft read as follows, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”

In the final draft of the Declaration, “self-evident” was substituted for “sacred and undeniable.” Why was this substitution made? John Locke has pointed out in his Essay on Human Understanding that the truth of a proposition was self-evident if its truth was immediately apparent upon reflection.

Is this a case of denying that these truths are sacred and insisting on a secular origin? Again, a closer look at the issue reveals that such is not the case. Christian Theology recognizes at least two types of sacred truths: 1) those that God made known only to a chosen select few by special revelation, and 2) those that God made universally apparent upon reflection by imparting them in the human heart. Self-evident truths are of the latter variety. In other words, the truths that our founders were taking a stand on were not the exclusive property of any particular religion but were universally the common property of all humankind simply by virtue of bearing the image of their Creator.

Like the term natural law, the term self-evident was a unifying term that made it possible to bring together people with a diversity of religious views. They had to unite on truths that were the common property of all mankind. The general approach to expressing such truths was also necessitated by the fact that they were declaring their principles to the world as a whole and trying to inspire the world to adopt those principles.

Now let’s take a slightly more detailed look at the worldview that was at the heart of their struggle for liberty.

The Individual Pursuit of Excellence

The starting point for this American worldview began with the notion that God created man in his own image and blessed him to be fruitful, multiply, and have dominion. This was taken as a definitive statement about human nature and purpose. The “three blessings” were not merely seen as blessings, but as a responsibility given by God to man to fulfill his purpose. They also cited the Biblical verse where God picked up the dust of the earth and breathed into it and man became a “Living Soul.” Man’s very essence is tied to his relationship with God and the indwelling presence of God in man. Man is incomplete until he realizes his purpose; as a creation made in the image of God, he is to clearly reflect God’s image. This is a theme that America’s prominent philosopher/theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote about extensively. Man achieves his purpose – the realization of excellence – through “self expansion” as he manifests God’s image. Such a process was a source of joy to both man and God. When man becomes selfish and looks inward he experiences “self contraction,” and the result is misery.

The question becomes “how does one manifest the image of God.” Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God is referred to as “Holy” and wants his people to be “Holy” as He is. Holiness was something to be pursued by God’s people both as a community and as individuals. The early Americans took “Holy” to mean “set apart.” In the creation narrative God is portrayed as creating plants and animals collectively. When he comes to Adam, the creation is of an individual who is tasked with naming the various animals. This led Adam to realize that he was different from them and had no helpmate. Through this process, Adam was “set apart.” In a similar way, the Jewish prophets would often encounter God in solitude prior to embarking upon their mission to convey God’s will to His people. They too were “set apart.” Jesus himself is often portrayed in the Gospels as seeking out a “lonely place” in which to pray during his ministry. As for the followers of Christ, the Apostle Paul has reminded them of “Christ within you the hope of glory.”

The solitary nature of this “setting apart” and the fact that neither the prophets, nor Jesus and the Apostles, held institutional positions of authority was a factor in the American emphasis on individual dignity and liberty. We never know whom God is going to call and there are aspects of such a person’s destiny that are strictly between him and God.

When they read the story of how Moses had to endure self exile from Egypt for 40 years before he could lead the chosen people out of Egypt, or that the chosen people had to wander for 40 years before entering the promised land, the Pilgrims came to realize that God’s blessing and the realization of his purpose does not come without a struggle to overcome obstacles. Those whom God would bless, often end up going through a purification ordeal. Those who seek to be champions of God’s justice in an unjust world are not going to have it easy. The Pilgrims quickly came to experience this in their own lives as they struggled to build a new civilization in the wilderness among often hostile forces.

Family and Community

At the point where Adam came to realize that he was different from all of the animals, God declared that “It is not good for man to be alone.” God made Eve for Adam and declared “a man shall leave his family and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” Man and women complete one another and make the image of God in mankind more complete. It is along this line, which Jonathan Edwards stated that: “One alone can not be excellent.” The self-expansion one experiences in a relationship to God drives one to reach out to others in love and compassion. Indeed, the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament insist that God is love. This reaching out to others as an act of love starts with what is referred to as the “nuclear family,” but extends from there to the larger community.

Indeed, the notion of “spontaneous order,” which many associate strictly with economics, asserted that individuals left free to pursue happiness would naturally realize the public good. Although Adam Smith is now better known for his work on economics entitled The Wealth of Nations, he was actually a moral philosopher. His main work at the time was entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He suggested that humans had a natural moral intuition, or sentiment, which led them to find fulfillment in showing benevolence toward others. This again was a result of humans having been created in God’s image. The reality of sin as a corrupting influence made moral and religious instruction necessary to bring out these good sentiments. Because the notion of morality presupposed that behavior was freely chosen, voluntary persuasion rather than coercion was what was needed. Some groups, like the Quakers, believed that this, coupled with the “inner light,” was all that was needed. They saw no need for the coercive power of the State and ran the colony of Pennsylvania for a time with virtually no government at all.

The tendency of Americans to form voluntary associations was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America:

Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.


For various reasons, the early Pilgrims experimented with an approach to economics where all property was held in common and then equally distributed among them. This experiment in what we would now refer to as socialism was a dismal failure. In commenting on this failure, Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony noted in chapter 16 in his piece “Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647” that such an approach was more in line with the utopian schemes of Plato than the principles God laid out in the Bible:

The experience that has had in this common course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst Godly and sober men, may well evince the Vanities of the conceit of Plato’s and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of propertie, and bringing into commone wealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.

Governor Bradford concluded that the Biblical injunction in the Ten Commandments against stealing and coveting one’s neighbor’s goods implied a divine sanction on the right to private property. This observation, along with the realization that, as a being created in the image of God, man possessed immeasurable creativity, prompted the Pilgrims to embrace a free market approach to economics.

In the socialist view, most prominently represented by Karl Marx, capital is physical, raw material such as goods or money. In this view, because there is only a limited amount of resources to go around, one person’s gain is another’s loss. The focus of socialist economic systems is usually distribution, the idea being that if someone does not redistribute a society’s resources, many will go without. The ones who usually do the distributing are central government bureaucrats. Needless to say, their knowledge of economics is less than perfect. This view may sound compelling to some until the alternative is presented. In the capitalist view, physical, raw material is not the main source of capital, but rather human creativity. Physical, raw materials may be limited, but human creativity is not. Creative entrepreneurs can use raw material in an ever-increasing quantity and quality. Here the power of human liberty is clearly demonstrated. What’s more, if an exchange is voluntary, one person’s gain is not necessarily another’s loss. In fact, if we are left free to make our own choices, an exchange is not likely to take place unless it benefits both parties. The focus of economic activity in the free market is not distribution but production, and the agent of economic activity is the entrepreneur rather than the government bureaucrat.

This approach bore fruit in the colony of Pennsylvania where the Quakers operated with no taxes and for a period of time virtually no government at all. They based their whole experiment on brotherly love rather than centralized coercion. The result was that the colony prospered greatly and surpassed a lot of other colonies that had been established longer.

The idea of allowing people free reign to develop their God-given creativity in the field of economics led to the notion of the free market being guided by “an invisible hand.” This notion became popularized by Adam Smith in his classic The Wealth of Nations in 1776.


The Pilgrims believed that government power could only legitimately be exercised with the “Consent of the governed.” One hundred and forty years before the Declaration was written, Pilgrim John Winthrop wrote in A Defense of an Order of Court Made in the Year 1637:

It is clearly agreed, by all, that the case of safety and welfare was the original cause or occasion of common weales and of many families subjecting themselves to rulers and laws,,. From the premises will arise these conclusions: No common weale can be founded but by free consent.

The Pilgrims got this notion from the biblical Israelites who were led out of bondage in Egypt into the promised land of Canaan. The early Pilgrims saw a parallel in their being led out of religious persecution in England into the promised land of America. They saw the ancient Jewish federation during the time of the Judges (before Israel asked God for a King) as the purest example of a free republic that the world has ever seen. The first written constitution of modern democracy was The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut according to historian G.P. Gooch. They were drawn up in response to a 1638 sermon by Puritan Minister Thomas Hooker before the general assembly in Hartford. Hooker’s view was centered on the verse in Deuteronomy 1:13: “Take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.” Hooker interpreted the words take ye to imply some form of democratic choice in who was to rule over them. In other words, the choice of rulers belongs to the people by God’s own allowance. The foundation of the ruler’s authority is therefore in the free consent of the people. Puritan pastors combined this verse, coupled with the strong denunciation of monarchy found in I Samuel, to mean that God required a democratic Republic.

By the time of the revolution, this view had become prevalent among the colonists. So much so that the best selling pamphlet by Thomas Paine entitled Common Sense, which has been credited with generating widespread support for the revolution, echoed it. He used the verses in I Samuel and the words of Gideon in Judges to denounce not only the British crown, but the institution of monarchy itself.

The warnings by God in I Samuel about the abuse of power on the part of monarchs was taken by many early Americans to apply to centralized political power in general. For this reason, they sought to keep the role of the government strictly limited. Numerous founders expressed this skepticism in regards to the role of government. The following phrase was first attributed to “The First President of the United States” in Liberty and Government, in The Christian Science Journal, Vol. XX, No. 8 (November 1902): “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

Many Christians not only contrasted the force inherent in government with reason and eloquence, but more importantly with love. The Christian ideal of community was based on the notion of love and thus was not compatible with an expanded role of government.

In 1776 the phrase E pluribus unum—Latin for “Out of many, one” was suggested as the national motto for America. This is a big part of what makes America exceptional. We are a universal nation made up of immigrants from diverse ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds, yet we are held together by a common culture. There is a unity in diversity in America that potentially holds up an example to the world. It is obvious what is the source of our diversity. It is the constant flow of new ideas and old traditions that add to the beauty of American culture. In order to continue to be a City on a Hill, we need to pay more attention to what is less obvious. What is the “one” that enables a sense unity amidst all our diversity? That “one” is the notion that America was founded on “self-evident truths,” which are relevant to all people simply by virtue of the fact that our creator endowed us with “unalienable rights.”