We Americans live with one another through various written and unwritten understandings: compacts, covenants, articles of confederation … a Constitution. In other words: a fairly elaborate social contract, the terms of which are sometimes explicit, as in our Bill of Rights, and sometimes implicit, as when we choose to vote. One of the earliest and most quoted of American covenants is that of the first Puritan governor, John Winthrop, which he delivered as a sermon to a congregation of Puritans and tag-along adventurers kneeling on the deck of the Arabella, about to set sail for the New World in 1630:
“… 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, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going… .”
Politicians as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy liked to use this figure of the City on a Hill. In their speeches, they quoted the part that declared the New World a special model (“… for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us”): an America of divine providence, a democratic New Jerusalem.
They left out of their speeches the more troublesome warning that Winthrop gave his congregation: “soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken … wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake… and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going … ”
Winthrop’s brief sermon is mindful both of our covenants with each other and of those with the world outside the special Providence of America. It is surprisingly mindful of the devastation that we bring about when we fail these covenants. Four hundred years ago, even before the great experiment in the New World had even begun, more than a century before the framing of the Constitution, our proud, peculiar obligations as citizens in a democracy were anticipated. Since then, especially in times of civil crisis, when even our written covenants are stressed to breaking, the demands of citizenship are often sharp. Testimony is required of each of us.
When I was in my twenties and a graduate student, the Vietnam War brought such a moment of personal scrutiny to most of my generation. Today we are well into another such period of conscience and responsibility with the war in Iraq, with its new policy of military pre-emption, with its daily deaths, with its political implications for our sway in the world, and with its long-term economic effects on future generations. As ever, “the eies of all people are uppon us.” Once again, as in Vietnam, we are “made a story and a byword through the world. ”