City on a Hill

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Sailing from England to the new colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1630, the future governor of that colony, John Winthrop, gave a sermon about its mission in the new world. Rejecting the corruptions of Europe, this society would act as “a City on Hill” – a model that would set an example for the rest of the world.

Winthrop’s sermon talked about kindness, fairness, and how every member of society depended on each other for collective success. Her leaders would exemplify those values.

Since those early days, Americans have held on to a special sense of mission or destiny, often called American Exceptionalism. It evolved from Winthrop’s community of Puritan virtue to the noble experiment in democracy and freedom forged by the Founding Fathers. Some have rightly pointed to the hubris and excesses committed in the name of Exceptionalism. But at its best, our striving to build a city on a hill has stood for promoting freedom, democracy, and shared prosperity.

Today we face a turning point. Between the gridlock in Congress and major questions about Donald Trump, Washington is less reliable in advancing those ideals.

We will increasingly need our cities and states to build our “cities on a hill.” As citizens of the Bay Area and California, we must redouble our efforts on issues such as social justice, the environment, education, professional journalism, gun safety, and healthcare. This is not just about policies; it’s about creating a culture of mutual respect and empathy.


Governors and mayors deal with real problems affecting real people. They need practical solutions and can’t be encumbered by the rigid ideologies of the left or right. Until Washington comes to its senses, they must act as champions of the City on a Hill -- building cities that serve as models for our noble experiment -- for others who have lost their way.

With a Perspective, I’m Michael Whitcomb.

Michael Whitcomb is a management consultant. He lives in San Francisco.