Americans: Who are We and How do We Define Ourselves?
Hints from the movies: The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941
Synopsis: A farmer sells his soul for seven years of good luck, good crops, and the money and power that flow therefrom. When time comes to pay up or give the Devil his son, he asks Daniel Webster to intervene. Daniel Webster, quoted on my passport, was the American statesman, orator, lawyer, and influential definer of what it means to be an American.
Cast: Walter Huston, my favorite actor (along with Jimmy Stewart) as a perfect Devil; Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster; and John Craig as the poor schmoe who realizes his mistake almost too late.
In the climactic scene, where the farmer is on trial for his soul, Webster and the Devil duke it out before a jury of 12 dead and unsavory Americans (including Benedict Arnold) who have also sold their souls. If Webster cannot convince them, he will be lost as well. (The Devil sets all the rules.)
The dialogue includes interesting language from 1941 on the wrongs Americans have perpetrated to gain their perceived entitlements:
Webster: ….But you shan’t have this man. A man isn’t a piece of property. Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and an American citizen cannot be forced into the service of a foreign prince.
Devil: Foreign!? You calling me a foreigner?
Webster: I never heard of you claiming American citizenship.
Devil: And who with a better right? When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put up in the Congo, I stood on the deck. Am I still not spoken of in every church in New England? It’s true, the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I’m neither. To tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in the country than yours.
We rarely hear about wrongs done to native peoples or are asked to imagine the first ship arriving in Africa to enslave human cargo. Would the jury acquit?