Historian Peter Mancall will be looking for references to the Puritans in tonight’s GOP presidential primary debate. He found several in the first debate. Here is a taste of his piece at Zocalo Public Square:
The second Republican debate will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley today. Like Pence, Reagan invoked the Puritans to boast of American exceptionalism. In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, he cited a lay sermon delivered in 1629 by soon-to-be governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop, and referred to the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” Reagan famously interpreted Winthrop as stating that America was “a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom.” He also called Winthrop “an early freedom man.”
In an interview with Time magazine published last week, Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott repeated this invocation of Winthrop. He stated that he hoped to lead “a team anchored in conservatism that wants to make sure that America remains the city on the hill.”
But Winthrop wasn’t bragging about the colony being a yearned-for destination, like a freedom-minded Emerald City. He didn’t even use the word “shining” at all—that was Reagan’s addition. The original text was Matthew 5:14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill, cannot be hid,” the verse reads in the 1599 Geneva Bible the Puritans favored. Winthrop understood what the apostle meant: Creating a biblically centered community was a challenge, and if the Puritans succeeded, they would be the envy of the world. But if they failed, everyone would see their shortcomings. They would make an embarrassment of the Protestant agenda to reform the world in the way they believed God intended.
Reagan took the line out of context. His proud, sunny version missed the Puritan theologians’ point, which was made at a time when religious wars were driving Catholics and Protestants against each other across much of Europe. For Winthrop and his contemporaries, the fate of the world was at stake. They knew that the English migrants could lose their battle. That possibility did not fit into Reagan’s belief in the inevitability of American greatness. (For what it’s worth, when John F. Kennedy invoked Winthrop’s speech shortly before he became president in 1961, he understood that it referred to a challenge rather than an assertion of inevitability.)
But if Pence and Reagan twisted the meaning of the twinned ideas of conquering wilderness and building a city on a hill, they are right that these concepts are foundational to American history. The English migrants to New England believed that what happened to them had world-historic significance, but that success was not pre-ordained. Bradford and Winthrop each recognized that danger lurked. They believed that survival depended on adherence to their faith—and that even so, the risk of failure was high. Those views shaped early New England and, by extension, much of what became the nation’s culture in the years after the American Revolution.
A different kind of existential threat seems to animate at least some of the candidates for the Republican nomination. In some ways, it appears, these candidates feel the kinds of pressure that the Puritans faced four centuries ago. They too look to stake out a moral position, based on the notion that the future of our culture depends on who comes to occupy the Oval Office.
Though they are battling to govern in the future, the Republican candidates seem obsessed by how we understand the past. Those who cite the legacies of President Reagan and the conquest of wilderness want to emulate what they see as the heroic steps the Puritans took to establish a nation. Yet they seem blind to the complexity of the actual past, in which Europeans pursuing one vision of the future displaced and attacked Indigenous peoples who had their own plans for what was to come. If the Puritans are to serve as inspiration, it seems time to reckon with their actual ideas and actions.
Read the entire piece here.