By Anthony J. Miller


The trope of the American Western has and continues to evoke romanticized images of opportunity, prosperity, and individual triumph––but its reality is that of victimization, isolation, and displacement. Despite this, the myth of the West has created an environment for the romanticized, triumphant individual to flourish. The individual in American culture has been validated by several aspects of our society, such as our capitalist economy, which asserts the rights of the individual “to set his own goals and pursue his own happiness.”[1] Whereas the trope of the Western emphasizes the importance of the individual, much of the rhetoric in the Shining City trope emphasizes the importance of community over the individual. Furthermore, this particular manifestation of our American identity attempts to solidify ideas of the United States as a place of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity—similar to the ideals of manifest destiny. And like the tension between the Western’s ideals and its reality, the tension within the Shining City comes from the gap between its image of an ideal America and the reality of that America. As critic D.H. Lawrence wrote, “when you are actually in America, America hurts.”[2]

Within the rhetoric of the Shining City analogy are the themes of social harmony, prosperity, and above all, community. The notion that community is central to the success of the United States is seen best in Winthrop’s speech made on the Arabella in 1630 when he says:

“Wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion…wee must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallity, wee must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne rejoice together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together”[3]

For the pilgrims to be successful in their voyage to the New World and upon their arrival they must take each other in consideration and therefore acknowledge one another’s importance and position in society. The fact that they shall be “knit together” emphasizes a sense of community that must uphold for the pilgrims to survive and flourish in the United States. Yet it is not only Winthrop who emphasizes this sense of community and social harmony. When President John F. Kennedy channeled Winthrop’s analogy in his 1961 speech in the General Court of Massachusetts, he said:

“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… and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation.”[4]

Kennedy understands that to be successful in governing, we must acknowledge opinions and beliefs different from our own. Moreover, such differences are essential for a successful government. Like Winthrop, Kennedy saw America­­––and those who govern it­­––responsible for upholding social harmony and a sense of community. But it is President Ronald Reagan who touched on the ideal of social harmony more than Kennedy and Winthrop in his farewell address to the nation in 1989, saying:

“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, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”[5]

Reagan’s analogy invokes principles of religion, peace, and social harmony. Once again, Reagan envisions the United States as a place where anyone can live peacefully and freely within the same community despite differences of ethnicity, class, or personal beliefs. Within each of the three uses of the analogy comes the idea that America is a place of absolute social harmony and an archetype for free society. Reagan continues to say in the farewell address “and [America’s] still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom,”[6] again emphasizing the freedom of our society. But how true are the statements and visions made by Reagan, Winthrop, and Kennedy? While such politicians have emphasized social harmony, community, and free society through the Shining City trope, just under the surface of this guise is the reality of social inequality, oppression, and isolation­­––all values which show America not as a biblical city upon a hill, but rather a myth of wish fulfillment.

[1] Tracinski, Robert W. The Moral Basis of Capitalism. 1999. Page 3.

[2] Reader. Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature. Page 87.

[3] Op. Cit. A Model of Christian Charity. Page 1.

[4] Kennedy, John. “City Upon a Hill” Speech. 1961. Transcript by the University of Virginia Miller Center.

[5] Reagan, Ronald. Farewell Address to the Nation. 1989. Transcript by the Reagan Center at UT-Austin.

[6] Ibid.