Heroes of American Exceptionalism: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Winthrop


Freedom, equal protection under the law, a culture of service and charity, and economic opportunity for all; these ideas are among those that make America a “city upon a hill” and exceptional on the world stage.

These principles are forgotten in a time when an economic recession, palpable disunity, rising unemployment, unspeakably violent shootings, and $16 trillion dollars in debt have left us wondering how to change course as a nation. Polls even tell us that Americans believe we are headed down the wrong track.

Today, on both Martin Luther King Day and Inauguration Day, we are reminded that our history is full of heroic leaders who made risky stands for freedom. We look back at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and the inaugural addresses of great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for direction and the courage to move forward in a time of economic and political uncertainty. All of these men faced seemingly insurmountable odds, but overcame.

The very first reference to American as a “city upon a shining hill” was during what could be considered our very first “inaugural address.” Puritan leader John Winthrop delivered a political speech that laid our foundation aboard the ship Arabella at the end of a grueling voyage across the Atlantic to seek religious and economic freedom in 1630. In his foundational speech, A Model of Christian Charity, Winthrop famously coined the phrase “we shall be as a city upon a hill” and said:

“We must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart, fervently we must bear one another’s burdens, we must not only look onely on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren…”

As we reflect on our history as a nation today, I hope that we have a gut-check and remember what it takes to be a “city upon a hill.” It takes brave men and women like John Winthrop, his passengers aboard the Arabella, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the protesters around the Lincoln Memorial to protect freedom and build strong communities.

They spoke out, disobeyed unjust laws, left their comfort zone, and exhibited self-sacrifice.

What can you do today to restore America’s exceptional character and stand against injustice? Will you take care of a neighbor in your community? Will you petition your state government to allow children of all backgrounds educational choice and the chance at a better life? American history has shown that it only takes a few brave people to do the right thing.