Looking to history problem in "Amistad"
By Michael Henderson and Patricia West
First appeared in the Albany, NY Times Union, December 28, 1997
Martin Van Buren was the eighth American president sworn to uphold the laws of a nation in which slavery was legal and constitutionally recognized. To preserve the increasingly fragile Union, Van Buren did not challenge slavery, but opposed its extension beyond the southern states in which it already existed, even running in 1848 as an anti-extension presidential candidate for a third party that paved the way for Lincoln's ascension.
Yet, according to Steven Spielberg's new film, "Amistad," Van Buren's was a patently (and unscrupulously) pro-slavery administration.
Spielberg's treatment of slavery captures the terrors experienced by the only immigrant group forced to come to America, and, as such, the movie does a great service to an American public inclined to misunderstand or repress African-American history. Yet the same sensitivity and historical integrity is not, unfortunately, applied to the movie's rendering of antebellum politicians like Van Buren, portrayed as a doltish, unprincipled figure manipulating the courts for the sole purpose of re-election. In this respect at least, the film reflects more precisely the issues of our own era than those of the first half of the nineteenth century. Disenchantment with politicians in general and cynicism about the abuse of executive power for self-serving purposes are understandable themes given the events of our lifetimes. Legitimate though this subject matter may be in the realm of art, if we wish to truly come to terms with the legacy of slavery, it is important to distinguish history from drama.
"Amistad's" dramatic and historical content would have been enriched had it not represented Van Buren by a Bullwinkle-like caricature and the great Spanish military threat by the childish Isabella. Van Buren was, in reality, an intelligent, accomplished lawyer whose hero was Jefferson and whose life work was the creation of a Democratic party united across North and South. In this context, the actions of his administration were framed by the threat of civil war on the one hand and serious conflict with Spain on the other.
Instead, Nigel Hawthorne's buffoonish Van Buren is simply a vain, venal vote-grubber, offering us little insight into the political history of slavery. In fact, no presidential candidate in the antebellum period could have been elected having displayed any sympathy for the bitterly divisive abolitionist movement, however mainstream its values are today.
While Van Buren's response to the Amistad case may not be defensible on moral grounds, it has something of value to teach us. If we interpret the political lesson of the Amistad incident to be that we should be aware of selfish and stupid chief executives, we lose the opportunity to come to terms with the deep historical implications of slavery. When in a dramatized closing argument before the Supreme Court, Anthony Hopkins invokes the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, "Amistad" fails to emphasize the fact that it was the very framers of the Constitution from whom the antebellum sons inherited the thorny political problem of slavery.
When we look beyond myth to history for guidance, we most often find that it is the problem we have inherited, not the solution.
Michael Henderson is Superintendent of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York. Patricia West, PhD. is a consulting historian and Kinderhook resident.
This page is the product of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, an agency of the United States Government.