For a colony that manifests the character of what makes the United States what it is, consider the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In a 1630 sermon, the first governor of the colony, John Winthrop, portrayed the community as a “city upon a hill.” According to Winthrop, “The eyes of all people are upon us.” The supposed model character of the Massachusetts Bay Colony connects to the alleged exemplary character of the United States.
There’s significant evidence to suggest that what makes the United States what it is relates to its leadership role and its central position in international affairs. In 1989, Ronald Reagan appropriated Winthrop’s phrase in one of the final speeches of his presidency. Decades later, in 2014, Barack Obama reinforced America’s singular prominence when he told cadets, “America must always lead on the world stage.”
But Winthrop’s ideal seems to conceal less admirable character traits that are, nonetheless, central to the character of America. While Winthrop presented his colony as virtuous and harmonious, in reality, it was far from perfect. The Massachusetts Bay Colony helped legitimize slavery and had regular conflicts with Indigenous people. Additionally, Winthrop exiled members, like Anne Hutchinson, who openly opposed him and those in power. As the colony’s example shows, the character of the modern United States must be considered in light of both the good and the bad.