Video Review: A More Perfect Union
By Maurine Jensen Proctor
Editor-in-Chief, Meridian Magazine
The National Setting
David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author of John Adams, certainly one of the more delightful and enthralling books published in recent memory, recently complained of the rotten job we are doing teaching history. He said in words that deserve our attention and concern, “Something’s eating away at the national memory, and a nation or a community or a society can suffer as much from the adverse effects of amnesia as can an individual.”
He told The Washington Times, “I mean, it’s really bad. For a free, self-governing people, something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential if we are to hold onto and sustain our freedom.” In fact, he said, our national amnesia is more dangerous to our country’s well-being than a terrorist attack. A people who do not understand and appreciate their roots and founding ideas cannot maintain them.
His point was driven home when he came to Washington to deliver the prestigious Jefferson Lecture, in which he described a painting of the founding of America and said, “The scene proclaims that in Philadelphia in the year 1776 a momentous, high-minded statement of far-reaching consequence was committed to paper. It was not the decree of a king or a sultan or emperor or czar, or something enacted by a far-distant parliament. It was a declaration of political faith and brave intent freely arrived at by an American congress. And that was something entirely new under the sun.”
The Washington Post, in fulfillment of the very thing McCullough worries about, reviewed his talk with this kind of ice, “If he wants to know why [history isn’t reaching young people], he should read his own speech. Here, in distilled form, is the kind of history that turns off people who don’t belong to the establishment, history that presumes we’re all charmed by the same stories of flawed but decent White Men founding an imperfect but noble union. It is lively, yes, and richly anecdotal, but it is also clubby, complacent and platitudinous.”
There in a nutshell is the media elite’s take on the history of our founding fathers. Not only did they miss McCullough’s point, that we have turned our backs on our history-not that students aren’t taken by it-but the Post did so with a sort of haughty condescension toward the founding of America.
A Jog of Our Memories
This self-conceit and disdain is one of the reasons that I am planning to gather my family around our television set to view A More Perfect Union, a film which is the first comprehensive recreation of those heated debates in Philadelphia in the sweltering summer of 1787. Created at the Brigham Young University Film Studio for the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution, the film chronicles how America got its Constitution and the underlying principles that guard our freedom. I want my children to have vividly portrayed before them this debate so that their eyes do not glaze over with sleep about the founding of this nation, so that whatever ignorance they may be absorbing through our culture’s growing disdain about the importance and ideas of its founding may be countered. I want them to see this so that they will have uppermost in their minds the names of James Madison, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers, rather than the many obscure individuals who have now taken the front of the stage in our children’s history books.
A More Perfect Union is a good film to do this-especially for our visual generation. With high production values, fine acting, and immaculately recreated settings, the audience is taken to a time when the infant nation, still operating under the Articles of Confederation, was in a fragile place. England was waging a new war of unfair trade and tariffs, states were bickering amongst themselves, buildings were being burned, and frustrated farmers were rising in protest about a government that was wholly inadequate to govern. Americans had won their independence, but were on the brink of losing their nation.
Enter James Madison, from whose viewpoint the story is told. He is a Virginian, but more than that, a passionate, erudite American who has crafted a plan to present at the upcoming federal convention-and the stakes are high. He must mount a movement to convince the delegates to scrap the Articles of Confederation and start anew-a daunting task, and one that is all but impossible unless he can convince George Washington to come to Philadelphia.
In fact, Madison has told everyone that Washington is coming only to see, in some sweaty moments, that his reputation is on the line because at first Washington refuses saying, “I am a private man.”
Madison knows what is at stake if the fledgling nation cannot create a constitution. “Failure would demonstrate [to Europe] that we have not wisdom to govern ourselves.” The new nation is vulnerable. The risks are high.
So the historical events are portrayed in this feature-length film with just the right strokes, inviting viewers to be like a fly on the wall in the hall in Philadelphia. The story is told with drama, with fun and energy. There are moments of teaching as, for instance, when James Madison is trying to explain his plan to the other Virginia delegates, and arranges glasses on a table in an inn to demonstrate the separation of powers and how they check and balance each other. We are taken to scenes where Washington and Benjamin Franklin, ailing with gout, meet to discuss the fate of the convention, and we see Washington trying to persuade Madison in the art of compromise at a concert in the park.
Absorbed in the drama of the film, we remember that the founding of our nation on principles that would make it endure wasn’t just a given. Instead passions were aroused, different viewpoints were vigorously and sometimes bitterly debated. The founding fathers are removed from their still-life as portraits on the wall to become flesh and blood and their Constitutional Convention becomes riveting drama.
George Mason proclaims, “Slavery will bring the judgment of heaven on the nation,” to which the South responds that they will abandon the convention without it. Still, from their perspective, the issue which stuck up the progress was how the states would be represented in the houses of Congress with Madison ardently behind both houses being representational.
To those who know LDS film and acting, A More Perfect Union, is filled with familiar faces-Meridian’s own Marvin Payne, James Arrington, Darrell Yeager, Michael Flynn, Lael Woodbury, Beverly Rowland and many others. The feature-length film is certainly meant to be educational, but it also plays as enticing drama, inviting us to a world where the greatest minds of their generation created a magnificent document unequaled in the political history of humanity.
We also are reminded that the founding fathers acknowledged God’s help in their enterprise. Benjamin Franklin said, “If a sparrow cannot fall without his notice, is it probably that a great nation can rise without his aid.” As the convention draws to its close and those present one at a time sign the Constitution, I have to say it strikes me as anything but “clubby and platitudinous”. Watching the film, I was filled again with gratitude.
The video is available for purchase at http://www.nccs.net/ampu.html
2003 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.