A City Upon a Hill: JFK Cribs From John Winthrop

John Winthrop was not a minister, but he preached a sermon to his Puritan followers on July 2, 1630 that went down in history as the City Upon a Hill speech.

Journals of John Winthrop

Portrait of John Winthrop, American Antiquarian Society.

Winthrop delivered his sermon on July 2, 1630. He was 43 years old and he had been in the New World 18 days. His second son, Henry, had just drowned, and another Puritan ship, the Talbot, had arrived after 14 passengers died during the voyage.

Winthrop hadn’t left the Arbella when he delivered his sermon. In it, he listed the qualities he hoped the Puritan colonists would show to the world: communal charity, affection and unity.

He called it ‘A Model of Christian Charity.’ He had no idea that another 43-year-old – a U.S. senator about to become president of the United States — would repeat his  words. From on top of a hill.

City Upon a Hill

“For we must consider that we shall be as a City Upon a Hill,” Winthrop said. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Kennedy delivers the City Upon a Hill speech

Kennedy delivers the City Upon a Hill speech

Three hundred thirty one years would pass before President-elect John F. Kennedy climbed the Massachusetts Statehouse steps on top of Beacon Hill to deliver his farewell speech to the General Court.

He had flown into Boston the day before and spent the night in the small Beacon Hill apartment that had served as his official home since 1946.

In 11 days he would take the oath of office as president of the United States. He had already orchestrated the ceremony: Robert Frost would read a poem and Marian Anderson would sing the Star-Spangled Banner. He chose formalwear for men and the Fitzgerald family Bible for swearing the oath.

On January 9, 1961, Kennedy met with the Harvard Board of Overseers to banter with students. He then drove back to Boston to deliver his first speech since the election.

He entered the Massachusetts House of Representatives chamber to thunderous applause. And then he delivered his famous City Upon a Hill speech.

Too Good?

Kennedy said Massachusetts had always been his home, whether he’d been in Washington, London or the South Pacific (carefully omitting the years his family lived in New York). It wasn’t provincial pride, he said, that caused him to hope his grandchildren would be born in the commonwealth. It was the contribution Massachusetts made to the nation’s greatness.

“The enduring qualities of Massachusetts—the common threads woven by the Pilgrim and the Puritan, the fisherman and the farmer, the Yankee and the immigrant—will not be and could not be forgotten in this nation’s executive mansion,” he said.

“They are an indelible part of my life, my convictions, my view of the past, and my hopes for the future.”

Kennedy reminded his audience that history would judge public servants on their courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.

“We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Afterward, people compared the speech to Abraham Lincoln’s farewell to the citizens of Springfield, Ill. Kennedy fretted that it was too good, that it would overshadow his inaugural address.

It didn’t.

The inaugural speech included the famous line that every Baby Boomer knows by heart:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

To read the whole City on a Hill speech, click here. To hear the speech, click here. And to watch part of the speech on youtube, click here.

With thanks to Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America By Thurston Clarke and John Winthrop: Colonial Governor of Massachusetts, by Michael Burgan. This story was updated in 2021.

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