“We are who we were.”

 Longtime readers know that one of my main ways of processing the world is through movies and teevee shows I’ve seen, and books I’ve read. I often find in the creative works of others a prism through which I can crystalize my own thinking on the issues of the day.

Today’s attempted coup* in Washington is no exception.

I found myself thinking about the great John Quincy Adams speech that comes at the end of the movie Amistad. If you haven’t seen the film, it involves a major court case that arose from a property dispute where the property was human lives. The captives aboard a slave ship somehow get control of the ship, but they are soon captured by another vessel, and what ensues is the legal fight for freedom. The legal case, being a bellwether for slavery and property concerns as America is heading toward the Civil War, ends up before the Supreme Court, and one of the lawyers working the case is John Quincy Adams, current member of the House of Representatives and former President of the United States.

It’s quite a movie speech (historically, it’s not terribly accurate, but so what?), and it ends with this remarkable passage after JQ Adams (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins six years after he played Hannibal Lecter, and you can see nothing of the previous performance in this one) has described how in the African tribe to which the man Adams represents belongs, in times of deep difficulty they invoke their ancestors, thinking them as great a force in their lives now as when they were alive.

James Madison; Alexander Hamilton; Benjamin Franklin; Thomas Jefferson; George Washington; John Adams: We’ve long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which we so, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we’ve feared an — an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But we’ve come to understand, finally, that this is not so.

We understand now. We’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding, that who we are — is who we were.

It’s that one quote there that gets me: “Who we are is who we were.” We don’t escape history. Nothing happens without precedent, without its first principles being established years, decades, even centuries past. The road we walk is the one our ancestors paved, for good or ill. It’s a road that leads to amazing things: a nation that helped defeat Fascism on opposite sides of the globe, and a nation that built itself on the stolen labor of some and the stolen land of others. We’re a nation that visited the Moon and questions if we did. We’re a nation that elected a black man President, and then turned around and enabled a four-year tantrum by people who hate that this ever happened.

“Who we are is who we were.” We were racists and white supremacists and violent conquerors of people who lived here before us. We weren’t just those things, but we were those things…and who we are is who we were.

But we were also something else. At least, I hope we were.

In the movie, JQ Adams continues, closing his speech:

We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, our-selves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.

I suppose now we’d have to rephrase that: Let it come, and when it does, may it be the last battle of the American Civil War.

(You can read the entire JQ Adams speech from Amistad here, and there’s a clip of the whole thing, so you can watch Hopkins deliver one of the best movie speeches in history.)

* Yes, it was an attempted coup. I will entertain no counterargument on this.

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