When Perry Miller Invented America: On Abram C. Van Engen’s “City on a Hill”

By Ed SimonFebruary 5, 2023

When Perry Miller Invented America: On Abram C. Van Engen’s “City on a Hill”

City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism by Abram C. Van Engen

I have now looked seriously at America from both sides, West and East, and wish to Hell this country could say what, in the realm of ideas, it means commensurate with its force.
— Perry Miller in letter, September 14, 1952

SEVERAL DAYS after the Allied invasion at Normandy, a Harvard historian and agent in the US Office of Strategic Services named Perry Miller went to survey the debris spread across those beaches that bore good American code names like “Omaha” and “Utah,” beaches where 10,000 troops had died. A gentle summer breeze rolled in, and Miller espied that fathomless line dotted with amphibious LCVPs, jeeps, and tanks. Along the shoals were thousands of waterlogged corpses, the ocean tide still dyed pink. He wrote home and described a dead man “looking terribly young, crunched into the side of the road, his hand clutching a grenade which he had not had time to cock, his rifle lying across his chest and on the butt of it, pasted on with adhesive tape, a picture of his girl — young and fresh and smiling.”

Miller was only 39, but some of the dead at Normandy were undoubtedly around the age of his students. At the time that he’d enlisted, Miller was already the author of two well-received monographs — Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630–1650 (1933) and The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939). The latter would become a classic of American studies, the first of several by Miller. I wonder if, on that beach, he didn’t ruminate on a reverse expedition that had departed just across the channel some 314 years earlier when the Arbella set sail for Boston, and onboard, the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, apocryphally sermonized that the Puritans must “make other’s conditions our own […] always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work.”

As World War II entered its final stage, the professor understood the United States to be in a battle between two civilizations. America and Nazi Germany each represented irreconcilable understandings, with both claiming an exceptionalism that deigned to speak for humanity. Hitler’s cankered vision was to be contrasted with Winthrop’s declaration in his 1630 lay sermon A Modell of Christian Charity, which claimed that we must “rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together.” With the success of D-Day, Miller and others could already see that a coming conflict lay further to the east, so that Winthrop would soon have to figuratively challenge Stalin as he had Hitler. “Winthrop opened the story of America,” writes Abram C. Van Engen in his engaging new book City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, describing that contemporary myth which holds that the Puritan “called on us to serve as a beacon of liberty, chosen by God to spread the benefits of self-government, toleration, and free enterprise to the entire watching world.” In that fight, men like Miller were invaluable, for he and other scholars distilled an understanding of the United States’ history that none other than Stalin termed “American exceptionalism.” Much of the work that Miller did with the OSS, the administrative precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, remains classified. It’s known, however, that he helped establish its psychological warfare division.

“For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop declared, possibly in Boston, possibly aboard the Arbella, possibly in England. Undoubtedly the most celebrated American line of the 17th century today, it was, however, as Van Engen makes clear, “a sermon and a statement that, for over three centuries, went entirely ignored.” When delivered, “few people heard it, no one recorded it, and everyone forgot it.” Furthermore, Winthrop’s sermon — if it even was a sermon — had nothing to do with American exceptionalism and everything to do with a call to Protestant holiness in the language of Matthew 5:14. There has been quite a shift during the last century, as Winthrop’s speech has been elevated to the genesis of American letters, the code that explicates the American spirit and defines the American covenant.

Van Engen’s thorough and often compelling book provides a useful tutorial in the differences between history and historiography, where the reality of Winthrop’s delivery is far less important than the ways the sermon has been constructed, invented, propagated, and mythologized since its rediscovery in the early 19th century, and especially when Miller turned his attention to it. “Before Perry Miller began his career, no politician had turned to A Model of Christian Charity,” writes Van Engen, yet starting with John F. Kennedy’s farewell address to the Massachusetts General Court in 1960 (an auspicious referencing by this nation’s first Catholic president), “this text has been quoted by almost every president to hold office.” Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama all made reference to it, while politicians from Michael Dukakis to Mitt Romney, Elizabeth Warren to Mario Cuomo, have quoted it. No politician has been associated with Winthrop as much as Ronald Reagan, who added the adjective “shining” to the phrase, as if the city were illuminated like the Hollywood sign. Notably, one politician who has never referenced Winthrop is the last occupant of the White House, who rejected the idea of America as a beacon unto the world in favor of an “America First” ideology that reduced international relations to a Hobbesian contest.

So, how important were the Puritans? Boston is an unexpected, maybe even illogical, cradle of America. Christians resided in Mexico City 109 years before Winthrop’s speech; Protestants lived in the Huguenot colony of Fort Caroline, Florida, 66 years before the Arbella sailed; Englishmen were in Jamestown, Virginia, 23 years before the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and even English Calvinists broke bread in Plymouth a decade before they were in Boston. That’s not to mention the hundred million Indigenous people who had been in the New World for at least 10 millennia. A good deal of chronologically creative reordering is required to make Winthrop the United States’ spiritual founder. Until Miller, it was Plymouth with its titular rock, the Mayflower and its titular compact, and the Pilgrims and their titular progress who were often identified as the beginning of the American strand. As explained by Van Engen, 19th-century archivists like Jeremy Belknap and antiquarians such as Ebenezer Hazard, along with textbook author Emma Willard, enshrined Plymouth as the patriotic creation myth of the United States, “a new empire, born, bred, and burdened with a unique history and a higher purpose,” where Yankee piety, industriousness, and love of liberty would spread unto the Pacific.

New England, whether on the harbor or the sea, has for centuries been configured as the source of our national spirit, though not without contention. In the mania of giving specific years for the birth of the nation (an American affliction), both Northerners and Southerners bypassed 1776 for, respectively, the 1620 of the Pilgrims and the 1607 of Jamestown. This battle over the nation’s symbolic birthdate has riven our self-identity almost since those actual origins. Arguments for why New England is the proper beginning of the American project, despite its belatedness, has long focused on creed. Southern Cavaliers came to Virginia to farm tobacco, trade in enslaved people, and grow rich, whereas the Pilgrims and Puritans were compelled by faith and love of liberty. That most universities were Northern helped to promulgate this interpretation, but even the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in Democracy in America, that “[n]o lofty conceptions, no intellectual system directed the foundation of these new settlements” in Virginia, while the “foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original.” For Northern scholars, New England was a nascent American empire of liberty, while the South was a corrupted, decadent, aristocratic font of tyranny, conveniently ignoring those enslaved people above the Mason-Dixon line. A strength of Van Engen’s argument is the realization that the question needs to be amended, because so many people for so long have been saying that New England is the origin of the “American mind” that, at a certain point, the myth transforms into reality. As he argues, “Puritan origins did not invent the myth of America. Americans, much later, invented the myth of Puritan origins.”

In some ways, the Civil War settled the academic question. The United States’ birthplace was shifted some 600 miles north from Jamestown, and the regional holiday of Thanksgiving became a national benediction. Despite all of the affection given to the Pilgrims, and their common symbolic role in political rhetoric, academic culture didn’t take them very seriously. Their younger siblings, the Puritans, were understood as prudish, intolerant, authoritarian, and estimably anti-intellectual.

Miller altered our understanding of colonial New England in two ways. First, he argued that the Puritans were worth studying because, despite the Menckenesque stereotypes about staid, dour, black-coated, prune-faced, and provincial settlers, theirs was an attempt at an intellectually rigorous intentional community that demanded to be taken seriously. To focus on the prurience of Salem rather than the accomplishment of Harvard is to fragment the Puritans’ significance. Or, as he wrote in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (1963), “There is nothing so idle as to praise the Puritans for being in any sense conscious or deliberate pioneers of religious liberty — unless, indeed, it is still more idle to berate them because in America they persecuted dissenters.” Secondly, Miller shifted the attention from the schismatic nonconformists of Plymouth to the later Puritan arrivals, seeing in A Modell of Christian Charity a purpose and vocation that was lacking in every other European colonial venture, including that of the Pilgrims.

The Chicago-born Harvard professor was an odd champion of the Puritans, this figure whom Van Engen explains is “[w]ell-known within the halls of academe still today, [yet] nonetheless remains largely unknown by the broader public.” A self-described “goddamned atheist,” Miller single-handedly moved the academic study of colonial New England away from both the sentimentality of the Thanksgiving pageant and the gothic horror of the Hawthorne short story. His affection for them was obvious, writing in The Puritans about how they focused “upon the positive side of religion, upon the beauties of salvation, the glory of God, and the joy of faith,” as well as apparently having “enjoyed a vigorous and productive sexuality,” “staggering quantities of rum,” and “pleasant evenings with the neighbors.”

Though Miller took religion seriously, he was most fascinated by what faith did for the Puritans, namely creating an all-encompassing, rigorous, methodical, collective worldview that addressed the universal existential questions of the human condition. Murray Murphey wrote in the journal American Studies that Miller could “appreciate their anguish without accepting their answers,” while a 1965 remembrance of him published in the Harvard University Gazette two years after his death says that, despite the historian having “proclaimed himself an unbeliever, or derided various believers as men of shallow faith, he did so with a profane gusto which concealed a sacred rage.”

As a scholar, Miller was focused on what Van Wyck Brooks had termed the “usable past.” It was important that the Puritans speak to the present, as indeed the “city on a hill” sermon proved they would be able to, even if not in the ways that the historian had intended. Intimately connected to the development of American studies, Miller and F. O. Matthiessen (author of the celebrated 1941 study American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Whitman and Emerson) had revolutionized the curriculum, placing American literary traditions at the heart of undergraduate education in their team-taught Harvard course, part of the general project of defending an insecure nation’s cultural patrimony at the moment of its economic and military ascendancy.

Notably, Matthiessen’s first cousin Peter, novelist and cofounder of The Paris Review, worked for US intelligence, just as Miller used to. Noting the connections between American studies and the CIA, a wag might respond that the nation was born neither in Jamestown nor in Plymouth, but rather at Langley. Long has it been an open if only recently discussed secret that much of midcentury scholarship, literature, art, and music received covert financial backing from the “company,” as agents call it. The Paris Review is a notable example, but the ostensibly independent Congress for Cultural Freedom was also a CIA project, supplying funding for abstract expressionist painters like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and concert tours by jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, as well as establishing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, still the most prestigious creative writing program in the country.

Such work was the hidden aspect of what Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas enthused about at the Center for the Study of Democracy at UC Santa Barbara in 1962. Douglas claimed that the United States, in order to promote American exceptionality, ought to “be sending out a stream of scholars and a flood of democratic ideas that would be a positive force for democracy.” This is the same sentiment that motivated the conservative editor of Life magazine, Henry Luce, who gushed in 1941 that we “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence.” When Winthrop said that the Puritans were as a city on a hill, he didn’t mean it in the way that Luce did.

Regardless, at the time that Miller joined the OSS, he saw such a task as invaluable in the war against German fascism. His valorization of Winthrop — which was genuine — was based in the governor’s commitment to an equitable commonwealth, a utopia devoted to mutual support, where aspirations were directed towards ultimate meaning. The historian was a steadfast liberal, back before that word was open to assault from both the left and the right, and he saw the Enlightenment in the Puritans, while also arguing that commerce had corrupted their American Eden. It is ironic that the “city on a hill” became the provenance of Reagan’s vision, since (in Van Engen’s words) Winthrop’s “account of a godly society has very little to do with modern visions of free enterprise and social mobility.”

If it’s hard to see A Modell of Christian Charity as espousing American exceptionalism, it’s impossible to interpret it as a Chicago School celebration of supply-side individualism. Winthrop identifies “pleasures and profits” as idols, pagan gods whose worship will condemn the community. Van Engen notes that it’s “clear that the worship of riches caused Winthrop to quake with fear. It is what he had already seen ruin other settlements, and he knew that if this drive were not restrained in New England, it would corrupt his entire community.” This is the aspect of the Puritan New Jerusalem that entranced Miller. Rampant commercialism, materialism, capitalism, and individualism were the four horsemen of the American apocalypse. Prophetically, Miller warned in The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines (1961) that “[h]istory is littered with the corpses of civilization that reached the limit of expansion, dug in behind walls and moats, and there yielded to decay,” urging his reader “to ask yourself, at least from time to time, whether this American way of life is not rushing at a steadily accelerating pace toward a massive megalopolis which finally, of sheer dead weight, shall grind to an agonizing stop, and then crumble into ruin by the force of inertia.”

In making Winthrop the metaphysical start of America, Miller hoped to offer a different vision, what the Puritan had described as the “commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” No small tragedy that what people got instead was Reagan’s American dream, a place where more and more of the country is owned by fewer and fewer of its people.

“Can we imagine the courage it took back in 1620 to pick up family, bid goodbye to friends, board those small ships, and set sail across a mighty ocean toward a new future in an unknown world?” Reagan asked in a 1983 Fourth of July address, while neglecting to mention that most of us didn’t have ancestors who arrived on those “small ships” and that a large percentage of Americans never willingly got on a very different type of boat. Reagan’s vision was always gauzy and ahistorical, vanilla and mythic, purposefully occluding the fact that “[b]efore the Pilgrims landed we were here,” as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk.

That Reagan — a race-baiter with photogenic looks and a pleasant personality who began his 1980 campaign by giving a speech about “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, 16 years after three civil rights activists were lynched there by the KKK — ignored Du Bois’s point shouldn’t be surprising. That Miller also forgets it is more disappointing. In his book, he sidesteps Black and Indigenous contributions and, when it comes to slavery, employs the same gambit that historians had since the antebellum period — he claimed that it was a uniquely Southern problem. Van Engen astutely notes that “historical origin stories function primarily as present-day descriptions. Each answer defines what a person means by America,” and for all of his brilliance, Miller wore the blinders of a midcentury white Anglo-Saxon Protestant writing about 17th-century white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Despite that, there is something important in Miller’s writing being a “historical origin story,” for what the Harvard professor was doing was inventing America more than discovering it.

Miller’s function was as literary as it was historical. He was a creative writer working in the idiom of past events to make possible a new future. A similar argument was made in Miller’s 1949 biography of Jonathan Edwards, which reevaluated this country’s greatest theologian as a gothic writer working in the creative idiom his audience was fluent in. Miller did the same thing, just with empirical history rather than scripture and theology. In a covenantal nation like the United States, words are the very ligaments that hold the body together, and what words we choose become everything.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (2021) stands in Miller’s stead. The reactionary 1776 Report (2021), commissioned by the previous presidential administration, is ironically also in his stead. The former contains scholarly analysis while the latter is a political hatchet job, but what both share with Miller is the fiction that an American origin can be found. America didn’t begin in 1776, or 1630, or 1619. Nations don’t have clear beginnings, or birthdays. The roots of the United States go much deeper into the primeval soil of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Where you place the beginning is an issue of choice. When constructing a myth, it becomes important to know what’s usable about the past. “By making communal purpose not just a fundamental part of the American way but the very origin of America,” Van Engen writes, Miller prayed that “Winthrop’s sermon could offer a different meaning to define and guide the nation forward.”

The professor was only 58 when he died in December 1963, a month after the president who first quoted Winthrop was assassinated. A friend of Miller’s recalled that “Perry felt Kennedy’s death as a staggering personal blow […] and reacted in the only way he has been able to react in recent months; he got drunk and stayed that way.” Threatened with revocation of his tenure due to his drunken behavior, Miller was reduced to living in a Harvard dormitory, his students helping him back to his room after classes filled with his incoherent babbling about Kennedy’s death. When he was found dead, Miller was surrounded by liquor bottles. In an arrestingly honest obituary, the Harvard Crimson recalled his “brooding manner, the great, obscene chuckles whose delight it was impossible not to share, all […] touched with something superhuman, something demonic.”

If history is just a myth that we’ve all believed long enough, maybe it was absurd to assume that anyone — no matter how well read or brilliant — could single-handedly steer the Arbella toward the city on a hill. Miller was defined by inconsistency, the steadfast atheist who was immersed in the Puritans, the Cold War spook who was a committed progressive, the staid don who died with a bottle in his hand. In his sourcebook on the Puritans, Miller writes that Winthrop — and by proxy his biographer — wished to “integrate the divine and the natural, revelation and reason, into a single inspiration […] a symmetrical union of heart and head without impairment of either.”

Painful contradiction, tragically, was Miller’s lot, just like the country that he tried and failed to understand. There’s a story that, shortly before his death, several students heard Miller in the midst of an enraged argument with some hated adversary. When they rushed into his office, the professor was sitting alone.


Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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