Every so often, Hollywood gets something better than real life.
In the movie Amistad, former President John Quincy Adams addresses the Supreme Court in an appeal for the freedom of some 50 Africans from Sierra Leone who had been illegally brought to the Western Hemisphere by Spanish slave-traders.
Played by Anthony Hopkins, the aged Mr. Adams (who was 74 at the time) spoke before the Supreme Court in 1841. (He would live seven more years.)
The movie version showed some very fast editing. Adams sums up his presentation in a mere 10 minutes. In reality, it took TWO DAYS. It was not the length of his speech that required two days (though the address was very, very much longer and very, very much laden with legal precedents and Latin citations). The two days were required because one of the Supreme Court justices died one night in his sleep in the course of the trial. So, Adams began his address on February 24, 1841 and had to wait a week to finish it on March 1.
Little of what he said in real life before the Supreme Court was repeated in the movie. But, in all honesty, I think the movie version is better. It contains a peroration — the summit of his argument — in which the former President calls out the names of Founding Fathers whose busts are poised above pedestals right there in the Supreme Court chamber. The former President (a son of a President) calls out their names: “James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams.”
In reality, he didn’t call out the names of Founding Fathers. He called out the names of former Supreme Court justices whom he had known in his long life in public service: “Marshall…Chase…Washington…”
But the movie version is better for the sake of one line. Anthony Hopkins, citing the Founding Fathers, says that our role as Americans is not simply to do whatever we want — it’s to stay faithful to the republic that the Founders set up. He says, “…our individuality, which we so, so revere, is not entirely our own.”
That is, our duty as Americans is not to overindulge on individual desires and justify them as “freedom.” Neither is our individuality meant to re-write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. If change occurs, it is because we have learned the deeper purpose of each document. The Spirit of ’76 must remain the spirit of our day.
Our individuality must always stay in touch with the past. “Who we are is who we were,” says Adams. The spirit of our republic requires that we keep both in mind — personal freedom and the functioning of a republic.
This county clerk in Kentucky is brandishing her “freedom of conscience” in a way that goes against the law of the land as determined by the Supreme Court. If she wants to protest the law — fine — go wild. But to continue collecting a taxpayer-funded salary of $80,000 and taking it upon herself to say what laws she will or will not comply with — that is simply self-indulgence with no regard for the republic.
And her idiotic supporters are all the worse — chanting slogans about freedom of conscience, freedom of religion…when in reality it’s all about “what do I want?”
Hasn’t anybody here taken a civics class?