"Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn't stop those men - they were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can't quit now - not you! They aren't all Taylors and Paines in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that's all. You didn't just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness; and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world - a lot of it!"
- Clarissa Saunders, a character in the movie
So I was recently watching the movie "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" with my family. This is my second-favorite Hollywood movie, after the Christian classic "Ben-Hur." I love the patriotism of this movie, because patriotism is like a religion for me.
But if you know about the movie, you might be asking yourself the question: How can a movie be patriotic to America, when it depicts corruption in the country's highest legislative body? This is the great paradox of the movie: that it manages to be the most patriotic movie I've ever seen, while depicting corruption in government without any sugar-coating. For those who have not seen the movie, the following plot details are introduced early in the movie, and will thus spoil nothing: The movie depicts an attempt at graft, in which a wealthy businessman tries to bribe Senators and Congressmen to buy land from him at ridiculously high prices. (Some things never change. As Jay Leno joked, "Earlier this week the Senate voted 97-to-0 for tougher regulations. For example, when corporations buy a Senator, they must now get a receipt.")
So back to the original question: How can this be "the most patriotic movie I've ever seen," when it has such an unflattering depiction of the country's civic leaders? A portion of my answer will come in this quote from Theodore Roosevelt: "Patriotism," said Theodore Roosevelt, "means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official [or, I might add, majority of public officials] save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. ... Every man," said President Roosevelt, "who parrots the cry of 'stand by the President' without adding the proviso 'so far as he serves the Republic' takes an attitude as essentially unmanly as that of any Stuart royalist who championed the doctrine that the King could do no wrong. No self-respecting and intelligent free man could take such an attitude." (quoted in April 1972 General Conference talk)
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
For another thing, the movie is filled with awe and reverence for the country's democratic system. It is in its respect for the system, rather than in a respect for the men (or majorities of men) leading it, that the movie's patriotism can be found. The movie quotes from such classics of American government and history as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. All of these are part of the civic religion of the country, and reading them is like reading scripture. The movie gives these things the great honor and reverence they deserve.
The Constitutional Convention
And there is one essential thing that the movie does not make mention of, because it would have been obvious to the audience of its time. But since communists, socialists, and other big-government liberals seem to forget it; I will mention it here: The corruption of the kind depicted in this movie is not only general to all governments (rather than unique to ours); but is reduced in our system to a degree other systems cannot accomplish. No system so minimizes corruption as our constitutional democracy.
How is it minimized, you might ask? By giving government only that amount of power that it needs and no more; and by spreading that power among three branches of government, so that it will not be so concentrated in one place as to enable dictatorship. It also has checks and balances between the different branches, to enable them to resist encroachments by the other ones. (See my other blog post for more about that)
It's true, the system has corruption of the kind depicted in this movie. Many supporters of democracy can see that, including Lincoln and the many Founding Fathers whose shadows fall over this movie. But critics of constitutional democracy who complain of the system's corruption (like that depicted in this movie) should see what kind of bribery is required to do business under big-government dictatorial regimes. The citizens of such countries would sacrifice much to have their corruption at so minimal a level as that found in our system, and depicted in this movie. Their reaction to this movie might well be something like: "Is that all? Well then, bring on the democratic system! It's cleaner and more honest than any other system out there." As Winston Churchill once said: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried."
Our constitutional system protects freedom to a degree that no other system does. And in closing, I will end with a word about that freedom, in a quote from the movie itself: "Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that."
So God bless America, and God bless its democratic system of government.
Footnote to this blog post:
This movie contains a notable scene where the main character forces other Senators to attend his speech, despite many of them wanting to boycott it. It might be interesting to note here that there really is a portion of the Constitution that authorizes small numbers of Senators (or Congressmen) to do so. Here is the relevant quote:
"Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members, and a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties as each House may provide."
- Article 1, Section 5, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The legislative branch: Two houses of Congress limited by a presidential veto
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are important
The midterm elections: What they are, and why they're important