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A City upon a Hill is a phrase from the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, he tells his listeners, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden."
The phrase entered the American lexicon early in its history, in the Puritan John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity". Still aboard the ship Arbella, Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be a "city upon a hill", watched by the world---which became the ideal the New England colonists placed upon their hilly capital city, Boston. Winthrop's sermon gave rise to the widespread belief in American folklore that the United States of America is God's country because metaphorically it is a Shining City upon a Hill, an early example of American exceptionalism.
In the twentieth century, the image was used a number of times in American politics. On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy returned the phrase to prominence during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:
...I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us". Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required...
...I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still....
During the struggle for the Republican nomination in 1999, Gary Bauer used the same image and explicitly presented himself as a Reagan-devotee; he used the phrase three times during his stump speech, and according to The New York Times simply stole them from Reagan. Likewise following Reagan was his son Michael Reagan, whose 1997 book is called The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan's Vision for America.
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