Which Way to the City on a Hill?

Allegory of Poverty by Adriaen van de Venne
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College/Bridgeman Images
Adriaen van de Venne: Allegory of Poverty, 1630s

Recently, at a lunch with a group of graduate students, conversation turned to American colonial history, then to John Winthrop’s 1630 speech “A Modell of Christian Charity,” associated now with an image borrowed from Jesus, “a city on a hill.” This phrase has been grossly misinterpreted, both Winthrop’s use of it and Jesus’. In any case, the students pronounced the speech capitalist, with a certainty and unanimity that, quite frankly, is inappropriate to any historical subject, and would be, even if the students, or the teachers who gave them the word, could define “capitalist.” Because I encounter variants of this conversation in such settings all over the country, I should not be heard as criticizing any particular university when I say that such certainty is not the product of good education. Indeed, it is distinctively the product of bad education.

This characterization of Winthrop’s speech had the finality of a moral judgment, which is odd but, again, typical. For these purposes, capitalism is simply what America is and does and has always done and will do into any imaginable future. A dark stream of greed flows beneath its glittering surface, intermingling with its best works, its highest motives, and it is naive to think otherwise. Like the country itself, it is a rude, robust intrusion of unbridled self-interest upon a world whose traditional order was humane—in the best sense, civilized. Capitalism is, by these lights, original with and exclusive to us, except where Americanization has extended its long reach. This is believed so utterly that the fact that Marx was making his critique of the mature industrial/colonial economy of Britain is overlooked or forgotten. My point here is not to defend capitalism, but to say that as the word is used critically it functions as a final, exhaustive interpretation of any text, and of the work of any writer whose culture is described as capitalist, which is fairly exclusively this one. And it is as if naive to see it otherwise.

The brutal system Marx describes depended on the British Poor Laws, which adapted serfdom to the needs of primitive industrialism. The Poor Laws restricted the movement of those who lived by their labor to the parish where they were born, making them in effect outlaws if they left. Vagrants could be hanged, and sometimes, especially under Henry VIII, they were hanged in great numbers. At the same time, the clearances pulled down or burned rural villages and seized what had been common land, so the poor were forced to leave their parishes and go to the cities to find work. They were, as we say, undocumented, and so they made up a cheap, docile, defenseless workforce. Here comparisons with the present situation of immigrants…

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