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American Exceptionalism Is About Being Self-Critical, Not Perfect

Justin Fox

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- They weren’t the first English settlers in North America, and they’re not the ones we remember at Thanksgiving. But the 1,000 Puritans who sailed across the Atlantic under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630 constituted the biggest colonization effort up to that point, they founded what became the British colonies’ first significant city (yes, Boston remained technically a town until 1822, but come on), and, for centuries to follow, their descendants called most of the shots for all of New England from Connecticut to Maine.

What’s more, if you believe the political rhetoric of the past few decades, a few words by the Massachusetts Bay Company’s leader, possibly delivered aboard one of the company’s 16 ships on the way to the New World, defined just what is so exceptional about being American. “We shall be as a city on a hill,” John Winthrop said, or maybe just wrote. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Winthrop wrote this “to describe the America he imagined,” President Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address in 1989. “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.”

This reading of Winthrop’s words was a 20th century invention, historian Daniel T. Rodgers shows in “As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon,” which was published last year. The lines from Winthrop’s sermon on “A Model of Christian Charity” had been pretty much forgotten until Boston’s tercentenary commemorations in 1930, after which a series of historians and then politicians — Reagan being the most insistent and enthusiastic — revived and reinvented them.

Winthrop himself likely would have agreed with the “God-blessed” part of Reagan’s description. His phrase “city on a hill” is taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill, cannot be hid.”)(7) and Winthrop so frequently equated himself and his fellow Massachusetts Bay settlers with God’s chosen people that another Puritan leader back in England told him he was verging on blasphemy.

But Winthrop’s sermon was mainly a guide to how the colonists should reconcile the workings of capitalism with the teachings of the Bible, and his “city on a hill” not so much a “tall, proud” settlement as one exposed to the wrath of God and the derision of political enemies if its inhabitants failed to get the balance right. “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,” Winthrop wrote in the very next line, “we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” The Massachusetts Bay settlers could be intolerant and at times insufferable, Rodgers writes, “But they would also launch a project more open to self-criticism, even to a certain humility, than most in history’s annals.”

The tension between profit and Biblical teachings was a central concern at first, with Winthrop chastising his deputy governor for “oppressing usury” in 1632 after the latter traded seven-and-a-half bushels of corn for the promise of 10 bushels after the fall harvest. There were also occasional prosecutions for “commercial oppression” when merchants were thought to have overcharged customers. But from today’s perspective, at least, the greatest moral conflicts of the Massachusetts Bay settlers came to involve their treatment of the people already living in New England before 1630, and the African slaves who began arriving soon after. For more on how that turned out, one can turn to Mark Peterson’s “The City State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power: 1630-1865,” which came out in April.

The settlers had initially hoped that Native Americans would become members of their religious and political community,(8) a goal they pursued with varying resolve until giving up entirely after the brutal King Philip’s War of the 1670s. When they warred with local tribes, the colonists often sold those captured in battle into slavery in the Caribbean. But they also enforced laws barring “manstealing” of non-hostile Native Americans, at times going to great lengths to restore the freedom of those who had been taken captive illegally.

Slavery was allowed in the colony, and some leading Boston merchants participated in the African slave trade. But a prominent minority openly opposed slave-holding on Biblical grounds from at least 1700 onward, leading finally to its abolition in Massachusetts in 1783. That was 50 years before the British Empire got around to ending slavery, and 80 years before the U.S. did. Public opinion in Boston did backslide somewhat after local merchant Francis Cabot Lowell succeeded, by way of some brilliant industrial espionage, in reproducing English cotton-mill technology along the Charles River west of Boston in 1815. The region’s soon-booming textile industry needed cotton from Southern plantations. Its most talented politician, Daniel Webster, went from calling the slave trade “odious and abominable” to emphasizing good relations with the slave-owning South. Boston still became the headquarters of the movement to abolish slavery nationwide, but its leaders were ostracized and on occasion pursued by violent mobs.

When Peterson writes of the “fall” of the Boston city-state, he’s referring to the end of its self-perception as an independent entity with the right to ignore and even rise up against unwelcome dictates from afar. He suggests that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, passed by Congress with the vocal support of U.S. Secretary of State Webster, ushered in its final demise. “There is no Boston today,” lamented a local preacher in 1854. “There was a Boston once. Now there is a north suburb to the city of Alexandria; that is what Boston is. And you and I, fellow-subjects of the state of Virginia.”

Yet it was the Fugitive Slave Act, and the subsequent prosecutions of escaped slaves in Boston, that finally turned the city solidly against slavery. “We went to bed one night old fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs, and waked up stark mad abolitionists,” said cotton-mill owner Amos Lawrence. After that Lawrence and other Bostonians worked with new resolve to win the rest of the country over to their cause, assisted by the fact that New Englanders had been making their way westward for generations, and presumably spreading the region’s manners of thought. It surely isn’t entirely a coincidence that Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward were both descended from New England settlers, and that Ulysses S. Grant could trace his ancestry straight back to the Massachusetts Bay Company crossing of 1630.

No this does not exactly amount to the story of a virtuous city on a hill, shining its goodness from coast to coast. And no, I’m also not sure what led me to consume nearly 1,100 pages(5) of New England history in succession (the fact that both books are quirkily fascinating helped). But I came away from the experience with a sense that the Puritan undercurrent of self-criticism, of trying to holding one’s community to high standards even as they are being violated right and left, may be the most appealing and important legacy of Winthrop and those who succeeded him. If American exceptionalism is your thing, you really shouldn’t be leaving this part out.

(1) That's how the passage is rendered in the Geneva Bible that Winthrop favored.

(2) The original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured a Native American man pleading "Come over and help us," a reference to the passage in Acts of the Apostles in which a man appears to St. Paul in a dream and says, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."

(3) That's including end notes and indexes. But I actually did read a lot of the end notes.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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