Spike Lee and The Patriot

By Stuart Buck
web posted July 17, 2000

Spike Lee, never known for concealing his feelings, published a letter Friday in which he charged that Mel Gibson's latest movie, The Patriot, is a "complete whitewashing of history." "For three hours, 'The Patriot' dodged around, skirted about or completely ignored slavery. . . . Let's not forget that two of 'The Framers,' founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned numerous slaves. 'The Patriot' is pure, blatant American Hollywood propaganda."

Lee has a point. In The Patriot, Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, employs only freed blacks on his large plantation. The film's main black character fights in the South Carolina militia alongside Martin because he was promised his freedom after 12 months of service -- but in fact South Carolina was one of only two states (Georgia being the other) in which blacks were NOT allowed to gain their freedom in that way. Only one white soldier shows any sign of racism towards the black soldier, and later apologizes before the final battle scene, saying that he is "honored" to serve with the black. When Martin's family is being hunted by the British, they take refuge in a seaside town of happy-go-lucky free blacks. So, Lee is correct that The Patriot is hardly an accurate picture of race relations in 1776.

But Lee's own version of history leaves much to be desired as well. Lee makes clear that he would have preferred a movie which portrayed our country 's Founders as thoroughly racist. Lee might well have quoted Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who once charged the framers with thinking that blacks were "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

This view of our Founders is false. Though Jefferson certainly owned slaves, he made efforts throughout his life to end slavery. In the original version of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson accused King George of waging "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere." As a state legislator, Jefferson proposed a law that would have led to emancipation in Virginia, and he later proposed a law that would have banned slavery from the entire US West. Jefferson wrote some of the most haunting words on the subject of slavery: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever."

Among other Founders, George Washington said, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]." Madison, father of the Constitution, wrote that he had seen "the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man." Benjamin Franklin wrote that slavery was "an atrocious debasement of human nature." And as for South Carolina, the setting of The Patriot, Alexander Hamilton proposed to give slaves there freedom in exchange for joining the revolutionary army, writing that "an essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets."

So why did not the Founders abolish slavery outright? Weren't they hypocritical? Isn't that Spike Lee's point?

In an ideal world, the Founders would have been able to abolish slavery in 1776, along with hunger, poverty, sexism, and the common cold. But political actors have to bend to social reality. And the reality in 1776 was that many people in our country, especially in the South, were not yet willing to abolish slavery. In order to form the Union, our Founders had to make certain compromises, including the toleration of slavery for a while. Had they not been willing to make that compromise, the South might never have joined the Union in the first place, and there would never have been the occasion for a Civil War to free the slaves.

What distinguishes the American Founding is that while it made a compromise on the slavery issue, the Founders nevertheless laid out in bold terms the principle of human equality. As the Declaration of Independence states, all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. By putting forward this noble principle, even though they were unable to live up to it in every respect, the Founders gave later generations an ideal towards which to strive. As Professor Thomas West says in his excellent book Vindicating the Founders, "Lincoln and the Republican party of the 1850s were able to mobilize a national majority against . . .slavery only because of the commitment the Founders had made to the proposition that all men are created equal."

So, both the filmmakers of The Patriot and Spike Lee have it wrong. The Patriot whitewashes history by portraying South Carolina as a picture of racial harmony. But Spike Lee's answer -- to call the Founders racist -- is equally wrongheaded. Both The Patriot and Lee ignore the complicated nature of humanity's struggle for justice. In that struggle, the Founders may have made concessions to evils like slavery, but at the same time they overcame their lower natures and established the principle of human equality. For that, we should be grateful.

Stuart Buck is a recent honors graduate at Harvard Law School whose op-eds have appeared in Intellectual Capital, the Harvard Crimson, and the Harvard Law Record. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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