When Ronald Reagan called the United States a “city on a hill” in 1974, it encapsulated an expansive, optimistic vision of America.
The phrase comes from a Puritan sermon by John Winthrop called “A Model of Christian Charity.” But no one knew Winthrop’s sermon existed until 1838, when it was discovered in the New-York Historical Society and printed by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The New-York Historical Society had nearly closed in 1825, but New York Gov. Dewitt Clinton urged the state to save it.
The value of the New-York Historical Society became a matter of public debate, and eventually all but three state legislators agreed to pay its debt and keep its collections intact. With $10,000 — no small sum in those days — citizens ended up preserving and discovering the sermon that Reagan would later make central to his career. State funding for the New-York Historical Society was one instance among many in early America of funding for the humanities that preceded the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Now, however, President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal threatens to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities along with other cultural institutions. Recent op-eds have reminded us about the vital work that the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH do in America, including the preservation and distribution of important historical documents. But it’s also important to realize that the NEH continues what was started long ago. As I have discovered in my research on American exceptionalism, taxpayer support for the humanities goes back to the beginning of the country.