As faithful readers of this blog know, I like to play historically based computer strategy games. One of my favorite series has been the Civilization games by Sid Meier. The first one reached my house on Christmas Eve 1991, the first Christmas of my twin sons, and my bride and I quickly became entranced by it. In between playing with our infants and introducing them to the joys of Christmas, we took turns charting the courses of society through 6,000 years of history. For a young married couple fascinated by history, it was the ideal Christmas present.
Over the past quarter century we have purchased each new version of it. I was struck by the optimism of the announcement trailer. It is a historical optimism I share and it is splendidly set forth in Daniel Webster’s closing argument to the jury of the damned in The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet:
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 en-slaved, 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.