Defining Moments

In the truly remarkable seven-part HBO series on John Adams there is one of those defining moments that almost redeems the American movie-making industry, allowing us to forget for a moment that so many movies today are just technical display with no plot and maximum sex and violence. That moment occurs immediately after the representatives from the thirteen colonies meeting in Philadelphia have voted to become independent from England. After months of acrimonious debate and the delaying tactics of a number of cautious representatives who sensibly feared the might of British arms and pleaded patience, the vote was taken and the results read to the small contingent in the crowded room. At that moment, the camera backs off and slowly pans the faces in the room; there is no sound; there is little or no movement for nearly 10 seconds — it seems like hours — as the delegates realize what they have just done. One imagines them thinking: “My God! We have just declared war on one of the most powerful nations on earth — and we have no army and no navy! We are marked men with targets on our chests. If we are caught we will be hanged.” The moment is powerful and extremely effective.

At the time of America’s declaration of independence there were no political parties. There were, of course, grave differences among the various colonies, each of which prized its own uniqueness. There was a growing rift between North and South which would eventually erupt into the Civil War — a slave economy in the South violently opposed to the aggressive, commercial enterprise of the North. That tension soon gave birth to what eventually became political parties, the Federalists in the North and the Republicans in the South. The former, led by people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, tending toward a stronger national unity, the latter, led by folks like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, insisting on autonomy for the individual states and a minimum of national interference. As President, Adams signed into law the infamous “Alien and Sedition Act,” designed to protect the new nation from foreign spies. And one of the first things Jefferson did as President was to disband the navy — which was a bit of a joke to begin with. This difference of opinion about what the new nation was to become eventually broke up the close relationship between Jefferson and Adams, who had become very close in those formative years. Late in their lives they became friends again and died on the same day 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence. Remarkable!

But those early differences among the various delegates were buried in a common concern: rid the colonies of the dreaded British and declare independence as a confederation of states free of English Parliamentary abuse. During the 200th birthday of this country Henry Steele Commager was asked what the major difference was between the America of 1776 and the America of 1976. He did not hesitate, but said the major difference was that 200 years before America was looking to the future; now we have become focused on the present and tend to ignore the future altogether. There is no question whether Commager was right. But there was another difference as well: in the eighteenth century the men who got together in Philadelphia to deal with the abuses of a common enemy were able to put aside their differences and act in common. Despite the acrimony, deep and genuine ideological differences, and the relentless heat of a Philadelphia Summer, they were able to decide on a common course of action and prepare to act together, whatever the costs. They were marked men, traitors to the Mother country. But they were determined and of one mind (for the most part). That doesn’t even seem possible any more.

We are at a time in our history when we need more than ever to act in accord. Our country is not under attack (seriously), but our planet is. We need to put aside our differences, like those delegates, and act with one common accord to attempt to reverse the terrible consequences of a damaged planet we are in the process of destroying. But the special interests, Big Oil and Gas and folks like the Koch brothers, have all the cards and seem determined to play out the hand they have dealt themselves — regardless of the consequences. Once again we have acrimony and tension between those who fear for the future of the planet and those who are blind to the problems that stare us all in the face out of a love of unlimited profits — or just plain ignorance. In Congress, loyalty to political party has completely erased loyalty to what the Founders referred to as the Common Good. It would appear that this time there will be no meeting of the minds, folks will not come together and put aside their differences to cooperate and reach agreement on what must be done. This is, assuredly, a defining moment, not in a film made for television, but in real life.

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7 thoughts on “Defining Moments

  1. Hugh, well said. This was one of the best mini-series I have ever watched. You captured it well. The most memorable part to me was early on when Adams defended the British troops in a court of law, saying we must be above pettiness. It would be interesting to see this play out today with our acrimony and jingoism. Your equating the looking only at the present theme of today speaks volumes. Even when we look at monthly unemployment data, we give way too much credit to the now and not the trend. Nicely done, BTG

    • Yes, we are focused on “. . .the Now, the galvanic twitches of the eternal pointless present. What is that life style (that jargon term) except a substitute for a life?” (Wallace Stegner in The “The Spectator Bird.”). Thanks for the comment, BTG.

    • Of course, as you know, the signers were not all present to sign the declaration. It took weeks. Adams did not like Trumbull’s painting because of what he regarded as the false impression it gave (feet apart!). So much for artistic license!

  2. Speaking of a different kind of art, I watched a documentary on Herb Block’s political cartoons last night on HBO called “Herblock.” What an insightful and great American who held leaders accountable.

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