A scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster, 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. Prior to the trial, Daniel Webster attempts to get Jabez Stone out of the contract on the ground that the Devil is a foreign prince. Satan denies this:
Foreign!” said the stranger. “And who calls me a foreigner”? “Well, I never yet heard of the dev?? of your claiming American citizenship,” said Dan’l Webster with surprise. “And who with better right?” said the stranger, with one of his terrible smiles. “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ‘Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American, like yourself and of the best descent for, to tell the truth Mr . Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.” “Aha!” said Dan’l Webster, with the veins standing out in his forehead. “Then I stand on the Constitution! I demand a trial for my client!”
This story is actually cited in a federal legal opinion which may be read here, and which is riotously funny in a very dry sense. I submit it to establish that some judges do have a sense of humor, at least of a sort.
Returning to the short story, I have always treasured this passage: the closing argument of Daniel Webster to the Jury of the Damned, which I think contains wisdom about patriotism and the human condition:
For it was him they’d come for, not only Jabez Stone. He read it in the glitter of their eyes and in the way the stranger hid his mouth with one hand. And if he fought them with their own weapons, he’d fall into their power; he knew that, though he couldn’t have told you how. It was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes; and he’d have to wipe that out or the case was lost. He stood there for a moment, his black eyes burning like anthracite. And then he began to speak.
He started off in a low voice, though you could hear every word. They say he could call on the harps of the blessed when he chose. And this was just as simple and easy as a man could talk.But he didn’t start out by condemning or reviling.
He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man. And he began with the simple things that everybody’s known and felt-the freshness of a fine morning when you’re young, and the taste of food when you’re hungry, and the new day that’s every day when you’re a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn’t a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.
Then he turned to Jabez Stone and showed him as he was-an ordinary man who’d had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he’d wanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity. And yet there was good in Jabez Stone, and he showed that good. He was hard and mean, in some ways, but he was a man. There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too. And he showed what the pride of it was till you couldn’t help feeling it. Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you’d know it. And he wasn’t pleading for any one person any more, though his voice rang like an organ. He was telling the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind. They got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey. And no demon that was ever foaled could know the inwardness of it-it took a man to do that.
THE FIRE BEGAN TO DIE ON THE HEARTH AND THE wind before morning to blow. The light was getting gray in the room when Dan’l Webster finished. And his words came back at the end to New Hampshire ground, and the one spot of land that each man loves and clings to. He painted a picture of that, and to each one of that jury he spoke of things long forgotten. For his voice could search the heart, and that was his gift and his strength. And to one, his voice was like the forest and its secrecy, and to another like the sea and the storms of the sea; and one heard the cry of his lost nation in it, and another saw a little harmless scene he hadn’t remembered for years. But each saw something. And when Dan’l Webster finished he didn’t know whether or not he’d saved Jabez Stone. But he knew he’d done a miracle. For the glitter was gone from the eyes of judge and jury, and, for the moment, they were men again, and knew they were men.