One problem with this nationalistic reading of the text is that no single source can be demonstrated to define the American character, American identity, or America’s place in the world. Contra Tocqueville, Perry Miller, and more recently George McKenna, the Puritans did not give birth to any essential American disposition. Neither did any other intellectual source, be it religious, political, or practical.
One of the questions I frequently get when teaching is, “What would [x historical figure] think about [y contemporary reality]?” For example, “What would Tocqueville think about the reach of the federal government into local politics?” or, “What would Jefferson think about Trump’s election?”
Questions of this sort reveal a number of things going on in people’s minds, many of which make a historian’s heart sing. They show that the people asking them understand the importance of history to contemporary events, grasp the context of a historical moment, are interested enough in history to ask a question about how the past relates to the present, and are looking for cause-and-effect relationships between events over time. That’s exactly what historians do.
Still, as fascinating as these questions are, they often assume the predominance of continuity in history rather than change. And assuming the predominance of continuity often leads to cherry-picking from the historical record in order to advance a particular ideology.
In truth, history is marked more by change over time than by continuity. Tocqueville cannot be brought into our own time; and if he could be, it would be as if an alien from another planet had landed here. The world of the past is different from our own, and historians labor to make sense of it using the relatively few artifacts left behind. Historians often cite British novelist L. P. Hartley’s earnest and evocative observation that, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Texts, like the people who produce them, exist in time. People produced them in the specific contexts of particular events, places, and cultures. Not only that, but texts are also received by specific audiences in other particular contexts in space and time. They are not read by one audience living in one historical context in precisely the same way they are read by another audience living in a different context. Thus, interpretation of the past and of the artifacts left behind by the people of the past is both historical and epistemological. The content of a text might not have changed, but the people and times have. Change over time introduces complexity into interpreting the meaning of a text from the past. Complexity is what makes history so interesting; it’s what makes history, to use a colloquialism, “relevant.” (It is also what keeps historians employed!)
The Myth of America as “A City upon a Hill”
In As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, Daniel T. Rodgers compellingly demonstrates this point in his study of what has become one of the most important texts defining American identity: John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” The most unforgettable line from Winthrop’s sermon is, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” Many Americans would instantly recognize that line and regard it as a vital description of the American character. Those Americans would probably believe that Winthrop’s sermon has always been received as a defining document, stamping divine chosenness and mission on the nation much as the text of Deuteronomy stamped the ancient nation of Israel with its cosmic significance. But, Rodgers argues, those Americans would be wrong.
Rodgers maintains that the myth inspired by the “city” metaphor is a product of the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War. Winthrop’s sermon was largely forgotten for three centuries, until it was put to use for nationalistic purposes to inspire the nation against global Communism during the mid- to late twentieth century. As Winthrop’s metaphor was put to work to construct a usable past for nationalistic purposes (most famously by Ronald Reagan), the built-in assumption was that Americans had always looked to “a city on a hill” as formalizing a covenant between God and the nation.