Commentary Magazine


Amistad

To the Editor:

In “ ‘Amistad’ and the Abuse of History” [February] Gary Rosen goes too far. It is easy to dismiss historical films as bad history, and reviewers invariably condemn them for distorting and oversimplifying the past. Amistad makes a ready target. Why, one asks, does the film fabricate a black abolitionist when a real-life figure—a fugitive slave and Yale-educated minister named J.W.C. Pennington—was readily available? Why does the film show Martin Van Buren replacing the District Court judge, when no such incident took place? And why does the film place the phrase “make us free” in an adult’s mouth, when the actual words were written by an eleven-year-old Mende boy named Kale in a poignant and powerful letter to John Quincy Adams? Sometimes real life is more interesting than a screenwriter’s imaginings.

Nevertheless, despite some important distortions and omissions, Amistad does what films can do and history texts cannot: it brings the past to life. In a society as contemptuous of the past as ours, it is a much greater feat to resurrect the truly “lost world” of antebellum America, to bring long-forgotten historical figures back to life, and to remind viewers that this country carries a historical burden that does not disappear simply because it is evaded and ignored. “A deft piece of movie-making . . . persuasive in its evocation of period ambience” (Mr. Rosen’s phrases) should not be dismissed lightly.

The Amistad trial was a critical incident in American history because it showed abolitionists new ways to fight against slavery: by dramatizing the illegal means by which Africans were enslaved and the federal government’s complicity in slavery. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad makes these essential points in dramatic and moving fashion.

Lesley S. Herrmann
Gilder Lehrman Institute
of American History
New York City

Steven Mintz
University of Houston
Houston, Texas

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To the Editor:

Gary Rosen raises many good points about how Amistad’s screenplay bowed to political correctness and bent the truth in doing so, but he overlooks a larger truth: neither I nor any of my white, well-educated friends, reasonably knowledgeable in the history of our country, had ever heard of the incident.

Although not as significant in our national history as the Dred Scott decision or the Missouri Compromise, the Amistad affair was notable in several respects: it involved a foreign power and issues of national sovereignty; it was intertwined with congressional and presidential politics; and it was argued in front of the Supreme Court by an ex-President (surely rare in our history). But most important of all, it was an instance of a revolt by blacks against their enslavement, and should be as great a source of pride to black Americans as the tales of Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis in the forests of Eastern Europe are to Jews.

The omission of any mention of the incident from most histories and textbooks lends credence to the claims of American blacks that important parts of their history have been overlooked.

Robert L. Blumberg
La Jolla, California

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To the Editor:

Gary Rosen is right that Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is permeated by liberal racial stereotypes of African-Americans. He seems to be unaware, however, that this ideology—far from being a sign of current multicultural political correctness—has deep historical roots, going back to the antebellum period and even earlier. Mr. Rosen ought to consult Wylie Sypher’s Guinea’s Captive Kings (1942), which begins with a chapter on the irrepressible Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko; Or the Royal Slave (1688). Not only is Steven Spielberg’s Cinqué in this tradition of noir noble savagery, so, too, with a Christianized inflection, is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

Mr. Rosen’s belief that abolitionism was immune from 19th-century racial romanticization of blacks because it was a pristine offshoot of 18th-century natural-rights philosophy is as naive and unhistorical as any of Steven Spielberg’s notions.

Harold Brackman
San Diego, California

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To the Editor:

Despite the dramatic spectacle presented in the Spielberg film of ex-President John Quincy Adams appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court as an advocate for a group of black prisoners, the Amistad case itself is relatively unimportant as a legal precedent, and it is not surprising that it was virtually ignored for many years. It is no landmark on the road to emancipation.

The legal issue as the Court saw it turned on a technicality or loophole keyed to the question of whether the prisoners were captured into slavery in Africa or were born into slavery in Cuba. The importance of the case rests not upon that technical loophole but upon what it reveals about legal strategy in cases involving highly-charged public issues.

Though he appeared as co-counsel only when the case finally reached the Supreme Court, Adams is nevertheless portrayed in the film as the central legal figure. Actually, Roger Baldwin, later Connecticut’s governor and senator, was the legal strategist of the abolitionists behind the Amistad case. But in the film he is caricatured and his role is minimized.

Baldwin’s argument was two-pronged, covering both the high ground about the institution of slavery itself and the technical point about the prisoners’ origin. The brief is filled with ideas presaging the arguments made but rejected in the Dred Scott case years later; and its reliance on the constitutional illegitimacy of slavery, based on the principles of the American Revolution and particularly the Declaration of Independence, resonates in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Baldwin’s extraordinary argument was printed in full in the Supreme Court report of the case whereas Adams’s argument was omitted, for reasons made clear in the following note of the Court’s official reporter, which was buried deep in the Supreme Court record of the case:

It was the purpose of [this] reporter to insert the able and interesting argument of Mr. Adams for the African appellees; and publication . . . has been postponed in the hope of obtaining it . . . It has not been received. As many of the points presented by Mr. Adams in the discussion of the case were not considered by the Court essential to its decision, and were not taken notice of in the opinion of the Court, delivered by Mr. Justice Story the necessary omission of the argument is submitted to with less regret.

Justice Story in a later, exofficio private comment, as Gary Rosen points out in his article, characterized Adams’s argument as “extraordinary . . . for its power, for its bitter sarcasm,” but “dealing with topics far beyond the record and points of discussion.”

Thus, the Amistad case was won on a technicality, instead of lost on high principles. Litigants, pundits, and social idealists in cases involving charged public issues want to win on only the highest and purest idealistic grounds. The goal of skilled lawyers, on the other hand, is to win on any ground—technical or substantive. Winning is the categorical imperative. Progress is made through a series of small steps, a grand strategy Thurgood Marshall, for example, pursued a century later and used so successfully in breaking down segregation. The social objective follows as a result.

Was Baldwin, in winning the Amistad case on a technical loophole, portending Marshall’s strategy?

Maurice Rosenfield
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

In connection with Gary Rosen’s article, the following brief reference from The Growth of the American Republic by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, might be of interest: “The ‘ironic epilogue’ [to the Amistad case] is that Cinqué, once back home, set himself up as a slave trader.”

Edith J. Martin
Scarsdale, New York

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To the Editor:

When my February COMMENTARY arrived, I turned straight to Gary Rosen’s article on Amistad. It is a badly needed correction of the sort of Spielbergian dishonesty and liberal masochism that is offensive to the truth. Point by point, Mr. Rosen ticks off the mischievous fibs that spoil what, on its own, might genuinely have been a “helluva story.”

Daniel M. Crabb
El Centro, California

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To the Editor:

This is to congratulate Gary Rosen on his Amistad piece. These days, history is abused far too often. Our young people are susceptible to the siren call of Hollywood “histories” in part because they rarely read serious material and then later get scrambled versions in revisionist courses in college. It is an ongoing battle, but Mr. Rosen is standing his ground well. Keep it up!

Neil Troost
Tampa, Florida

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Gary Rosen writes:

Lesley S. Herrmann and Steven Mintz have a curious idea of what it means for a movie to “bring the past to life.” Is persuasive “period ambience” really all they demand? More fundamental, I would think, is whether the events depicted actually took place and are presented in a historically plausible way. On both counts, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad fails, and for reasons that spring directly from the prevailing political orthodoxies of Hollywood.

Of particular note, as I argued, is the movie’s self-conscious effort to exaggerate the role played by blacks in the case and to denigrate the evangelical Christianity of the white abolitionists who in fact secured the release of the Amistad captives. One of Mrs. Herrmann and Mr. Mintz’s points is especially revealing in this regard: they are unbothered by the movie’s invention of the black abolitionist Theodore Joadson because, as they see it, he is just a stand-in for the real-life black abolitionist J.W.C. Pennington.

But the Reverend Pennington, unlike the fictional Joadson, played no part in the legal defense of the captives, and became deeply involved with them only after he saw that they could help fulfill his plan for, as he put it, “carrying the Gospel to Africa,” a continent whose inhabitants he described as “the heathen.” In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, Pennington joined other black ministers in founding the Union Missionary Society, thus making it possible for the freed Amistad captives to continue their instruction in Christianity and English upon returning to Africa. In this endeavor, I might add, Pennington was joined by the white abolitionist Lewis Tappan, whom Spielberg’s Joadson repudiates as a racist. In sum, and contrary to the view of Mrs. Herrmann and Mr. Mintz, J.W.C. Pennington’s Christian fervor made him precisely the sort of person whom Spielberg intended to exclude from the racial and religious universe of Amistad.

Mrs. Herrmann and Mr. Mintz are willing to forgive such distortions because the film, they say, has brought to light a “critical” episode in our history. Robert L. Blumberg agrees, noting that despite the obvious importance of the Amistad affair, even “reasonably knowledgeable” persons like himself had never before heard of it. But let us not get carried away. The reason that so few people previously knew about Cinqué and his hapless shipmates is that their ordeal, for all its drama, constitutes little more than a footnote in antebellum history.

As Maurice Rosenfield ably explains in his letter, the Supreme Court decided the case on a technicality, setting no legal precedent of any consequence. Moreover, since the circumstances surrounding the Amistad affair were so extraordinary, it did not even give abolitionists “new ways to fight slavery,” as Mrs. Herrmann and Mr. Mintz grandly claim. In the end, its prime effect was to give a slight stir to the pot of North-South tensions.

The real interest of the Amistad affair lies not in its historical impact, which was slight, but in what it can tell us about resistance to slavery in the turbulent years leading up to the Civil War. Most obviously, of course, the case shows that some Africans fought ferociously against their own enslavement; this is the side of the story at which Spielberg excels. No less important, however, the Amistad affair allows us to see why some Americans devoted themselves so single-mindedly to the anti-slavery cause. Their inspiration, as I discussed in my article, was a mix of two quintessentially American creeds: militant, reformminded Protestantism, on the one hand, and the egalitarian principles of the Declaration of Independence, on the other. In Amistad, to his discredit, Spielberg casts aspersions on the former and makes a politically-correct hash of the latter.

Harold Brackman is no doubt right to detect an element of racial romanticism in the abolitionists; I never said otherwise. But he is mistaken to find in this a forerunner of Spielberg’s celebration of all things African. For the abolitionists, “noir noble savagery” was a state of innocence, rendering blacks more perfectly open to the truths of reason and revelation. Spielberg, by contrast, assigns equal value to the customs and beliefs of Africa; in the film, Cinqué and his ancestral spirits walk arm-in-arm with John Quincy Adams and the American founders.

In this mendacious retelling, the Amistad affair becomes a tale of multicultural collaboration, and thus a predictable reflection of the present rather than a meaningful window on the past.

Like many of the conservative critics who wrote about the film, Edith J. Martin believes she has found the surest sign of Spielberg’s political agenda: his suppression of the fact that Cinqué trafficked in slaves upon his return to Africa. Her source is Samuel Eliot Morison, who made this claim not only in the book she cites but also in his Oxford History of the American People. “Ironic” though this epilogue may be, however, there is simply no evidence to support it; Morison apparently relied on the unsubstantiated work of another historian.

In fact, we know regrettably little about the Amistad captives after their homecoming. Though some remained for a time at the mission their escorts established in Sierra Leone, most hurried back to their kinsmen. There is one notable exception: the young African woman formerly called Margru, who took the name Sarah Kinson. After a few years of missionary work, Kinson returned to the United States and enrolled at Oberlin College, consummating the wishes of those who, in their evangelical zeal, had worked to free her first from her chains and then from her ignorance.

My thanks to Daniel M. Crabb and Neil Troost for their kind words.

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