Throughout U.S. history, Americans have appealed to the idea that the country is a “city upon a hill” and exceptional in its natural rights republican principles and constitutional government. These ideas were present at the time of the American founding as the founders had a sense of destiny and an understanding of the unique historic moment.
The concept of a “city upon a hill” originated with Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon aboard the Arbella. He described the purpose of establishing a godly society to work towards the common good, just government, and civic virtue. Winthrop’s thinking about a “city upon a hill” was influenced by covenant theology: “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.” The same ideals about a religious and civil covenant with God and each other were present in the Pilgrims’ “Mayflower Compact.”
Pilgrim and Puritan thinking about a “city upon a hill” focused on establishing a pure church that was free of the perceived corruptions of the Anglican Church as well as creating a civil commonwealth on biblical principles. While they were very specific to colonial Massachusetts, they influenced the founders’ purpose to create a republic based upon natural rights and liberties. American exceptionalism thus enlarged to a national vision at the time of the founding.
After the Constitutional Convention, a vibrant political debate centered on the proposed Constitution and addressed larger political principles upon which the American republican regime was to be built. This deliberation took place in newspaper essays, pamphlets, state ratifying conventions, and in public spaces such as taverns. It was one of the greatest debates about human nature, political principles, and government the world has seen.
The debate revealed significant differences of political philosophy among American statesman as noted by numerous historians and political scientists. While the Federalists, who supported the new Constitution, and Anti-federalists, who opposed it, acknowledged that the Articles of Confederation had deficiencies that needed to be remedied, they differed significantly on the character of the changes that were needed.
The Federalists wanted a more energetic government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation because they believed it would promote better governance and thereby protect liberty. Of particular note, they argued for a stronger executive and independent judiciary under the principles of separation of powers and national supremacy.
On the other hand, the Anti-federalists admitted that the national government needed greater powers to regulate trade and to tax, but they were deeply concerned about a powerful executive, a corrupt Senate, and an imperial judiciary or perhaps a cabal of those branches acting tyrannically against the liberties of the people and the powers of the states.
This great deliberative moment during the American founding belies the fact that the opposing sides of the debate shared several fundamental republican tenets in common. They believed in popular sovereignty and representative government, limited government, federalism, separation of powers, the liberties of the people, and other essential constitutional principles even if they differed over the best means to achieve them in the framing of the constitutional order.
The Federalists and Anti-federalists also shared common roots in their thinking about government and human nature. They were influenced by ancient history and philosophy, Enlightenment ideas, the English tradition and colonial experience, and Protestant Christianity. Their Protestantism contributed to their thinking about resistance to tyranny, religious and civil liberty, and American exceptionalism.
The Federalist has several references to American exceptionalism. Most notably, in Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton famously stated, “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” The American opportunity to discuss those principles of government by “reflection and choice” was not merely a coincidence. Many of the founding generation thought it a sign of divine providence in their creation of a virtuous constitutional republic.
James Madison demonstrated this belief more directly in Federalist #37, when he wrote, “It is impossible for the man of pious reﬂection not to perceive in it a ﬁnger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently & signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” Similar words were written by George Washington and others reflecting on the unlikely victory of the American Revolution and the founding.
The Anti-federalists were also pious Christians whose religious views shaped their understanding of the republican experiment in America. Brutus (widely assumed to be New Yorker Robert Yates) wrote his first essay about the danger of a large republic and struck a chord of Puritan covenant theology. Much like John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill,” Brutus wrote that if Americans were faithful and built a virtuous republic, they would be blessed. “[If] you will lay a lasting foundation of happiness for millions yet unborn; generations to come will rise up and call you blessed.” If they established a despotism or tyranny that destroyed liberty, they would be punished and, “posterity will execrate your memory.”
President Washington used the occasion of his First Inaugural Address to advance the republican principles of free government and free society in the new nation. He stated, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” This assertion of American exceptionalism made the American experiment in liberty a sacred obligation not only for the destiny of America but as a model of republican government for the world.
Abraham Lincoln would echo these dutiful sentiments at Gettysburg when he said, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.