The video at the top of this post is a scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which Daniel Webster bests Satan in a jury trial to save the soul of New Hampshireman Jabez Stone. In this scene Daniel Webster addresses a jury of the damned, all villains of American history. I have always thought this speech one of the most eloquent statements of what it means to be an American.
In regard to Freedom it reminds us that it is just not a word: Freedom is not just a big word — “it is the bread and the morning and the risen sun”.
Go here to read the passage in the Stephen Vincet Benet’s short story. Below is the scene as written in the screenplay:
WEBSTER Gentlemen of the jury — It is my privilege to be addressing tonight a group of men I’ve long been acquainted with in song and story, but men I had never hoped to see.
He pauses. They stare back at him, eyes fixed, and Benedict Arnold starts to raise his head.
WEBSTER My worthy opponent, Mr. Scratch, has called you Americans all, and Mr. Scratch was right — you were Americans all! Oh, what a heritage you were born to share! Gentlemen of the jury, I envy you! For you were there at the birth of a mighty Union. It was given to you to hear those first cries of pain — and to behold the shining babe that was born of blood and tears. Tonight, you are called upon to judge a man named Jabez Stone. What is his case? He is accused of breach of contract — He made a deal to find a short cut in his life — to get rich quickly…. The same deal all of you once made. (a pause) You, Benedict Arnold! … I speak to you first, because you’re better known than all your other colleagues here. What a different song yours could have been! A friend of Washington and LaFayette — a soldier — General Arnold, you fought so gallantly for the American cause, till — What was the date? Oh, yes — in 1779, a date burned in your heart.
Arnold bows his head again.
WEBSTER The lure of gold made you betray that cause.
Another pause as his words sink in; then he whirls about and points at Simon Girty.
WEBSTER You, Simon Girty, now known to all as Renegade! A loathsome word — you also took that other way.
(steps along the jury box)
You, Walter Butler — What would you give to have another chance to let the grasses grow in Cherry Valley without the stain of blood? — You, Captain Kidd, and you, Governor Dale — I could go on and name you all, but there’s no need of that. Why stir the wounds? I know they pain enough. (his voice rises) All of you were fooled like Jabez Stone — fooled and trapped in your desire to rebel against your fate. Gentlemen of the jury — it’s the eternal right of man to raise his fist against his fate, but every time he does he stands at crossroads. You took the wrong turn and so did Jabez Stone. But he found out in time. He is here tonight to save his soul. Gentlemen of the jury, I ask that you give Jabez Stone another chance to walk upon the earth, among — the trees, the growing corn, the smell of grass in spring — What would you give for one more chance to see those things that you must all remember and often long to feel again? For you were all men once. Clean American air was in your lungs — you breathed it deep, for it was free and blew across an earth you loved. These are common things I speak of, small things, but they are good things. Yet without your soul they are nothing. Without your soul they sicken. Mr. Scratch told you that your soul is nothing and you believed him. It has cost you your freedom. Freedom is not just a big word — it is the bread and the morning and the risen sun. It was for freedom we came in boats and ships to these shores. It has been a long journey, a hard one, a bitter one. There is sadness in being a man, but it is a proud thing, too. Out of the suffering and the starvation, the wrong and the right, a new thing has come, a free man. When the whips of the oppressors are broken, and their names forgotten and destroyed, free men will be walking and talking under a free star. Yes, we have planted freedom here in this earth like wheat. We have said to the sky above us, “A man shall own his own soul.” Now — here is this man — He is your brother! You are Americans all, you cannot– (pointing at the devil) — take his side — the side of the oppressor. Let Jabez Stone keep his soul — this soul which doesn’t belong to him alone, which belongs to his son — his family — his country. Gentlemen of the jury — don’t let this country go to the devil! Free Jabez Stone! God save the United States and the men who have made her free!
A long pause. The jury does not stir. Webster steps back, goes to the table and sits down, quietly. The pause holds for a moment longer, and then Hawthorne speaks:
HAWTHORNE The jury will consider its verdict.
He hands the deed to the FOREMAN of the jury. They form a little circle and put their heads together. Jabez looks at them, the sweat of his agony in beads on his forehead. Scratch only smiles. Slowly the jury turns again and the foreman tears up the deed.
HAWTHORNE The jury finds for the defendant.
A long-drawn crow of a cock is heard.