Amistad and the Declaration of Independence

Gregory Dunn

December 1, 1997

If, after his masterful Schindler’s List, anyone still questions that Steven Spielberg is a storyteller of the first rank, Amistad should remove all doubt. Amistad is a moving story movingly told. The historical narrative blossoms under Spielberg’s deft direction: how Africans bound for slavery in the Caribbean escaped their shackles, took control of their ship La Amistad, and ordered it back to Africa; how the Spanish sailors tricked them into sailing into American waters; how, coming ashore at Long Island, they were arrested and subsequently tried in American courts for murder and piracy; and how ex-president John Quincy Adams came to their defense in the Supreme Court hearing that finally gave the Africans their freedom.

Amistad indeed tells a most shameful story of American history, but in another sense, it also surprisingly illuminates perhaps the most noble aspect of the American regime: that though we—like other nations—do commit heinous injustices, we—like no other nation—have inherited political principles of such a nature that label such atrocities as unjust according to those same principles.

In other words, the glory of this film is that, in telling the smaller but no less significant story of the Amistad, it also illuminates the larger historical narrative of how Thomas Jefferson’s "self-evident truth" that all men are created equal became Abraham Lincoln’s "proposition" by the time of the American Civil War.

The Founders, having to choose between establishing an independent union tolerating the evil of chattel slavery or denouncing slavery and thus forgoing both union and independence, chose union and independence while fully expecting that the institution of slavery would fade in time. Indeed, they thought that enshrining the principles of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence as the chief political principles of the nation would insure that slavery would so pass.

However, the Founders, even in their wisdom, could not foresee the historical forces that would later so firmly establish chattel slavery as an integral part of the Southern economy, and thus as an integral part of Southern culture. This establishment in turn had a powerful influence on the South’s understanding of slavery, and likewise in its understanding of the American regime.

John Calhoun—whose character makes a brief and icy appearance in the film—was the chief architect of this shifting of opinion. Calhoun argued that the South’s way of life and the institution that supported it, namely, chattel slavery, was in reality part and parcel of the American way of life. Further, he argued that the principle of equality in the Declaration is a "self-evident lie"; that slavery, not liberty, is the natural condition of man; that blacks are inferior to whites, and that blacks are therefore actually helped by that peculiar institution—in other words, that slavery is a "positive good."

This change in the understanding of slavery as an evil to be eliminated to a good to be extended was, by the time of the Amistad case, in danger of becoming universal and irreversible. Indeed, a close reading of history and a close viewing of the film makes it clear that America was in danger of becoming, not a free nation, but a slave-holding nation.

How then can these powerful charges be answered? In Amistad, Cinque, the leader of the ship’s rebellion, provides an insightful clue.

In a wonderful scene toward the end of the film, Cinque—played by West African actor Djimon Hounsou—meets John Quincy Adams—played by Anthony Hopkins—for the first time. Although this meeting never happened in real life (for good or for ill, historical accuracy often takes a back seat to narrative in these kinds of movies), the scene perfectly frames the appropriate response to arguments like Calhoun’s. Adams methodically explains their plight: that the Africans’ case has taken on national and international significance, that the way ahead will be rough and hard, and that, though they have "right and righteousness" on their side, they would need to muster the full measure of their courage. Cinque pauses, and then replies deliberately that he will pray to his ancestors that night to summon their strength for his cause, and they must come to his aid, for he is the reason they existed.

The way to Cinque’s strength and consolation is our way as well. In such situations, we also must appeal to our ancestors, our Founders, and their political thought embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Which is exactly what, in the film, Adams does. Adams, after expositing Calhoun’s theory of slavery and the American nation, asks the court, "What, then, are we to do with this document?" and walks over to a copy of the Declaration hanging on the wall of the court room between busts of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, this is the perennial question for Americans: What shall we do with the Declaration?

To such arguments as Calhoun’s, the Declaration is a scandal and an embarrassment, a supreme stumbling block. Its status as the founding document of the American political order and its clear articulation of the foundation of that regime—again, that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights"—gives it an authority and power that undoes such flawed arguments as Calhoun’s that appeal to tradition, prejudice, and "science."

In our day, too, the Declaration’s self-evident truth has become a proposition in need of defense. We must ask ourselves again, as did Abraham Lincoln, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., what then are we to do with the Declaration? Our way out of our current racial woes lies in recovering, courageously, our ancestor’s vision and the first political principles bequeathed to us in the Declaration. By standing on these principles, we too shall indeed have right and righteousness on our side.

Gregory Dunn is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.