The Spirit of Revolution
A Film Proposal
|Mr. Gerardi, Executive Producer of BC Productions,
Please consider the film proposal I have outlined in the following pages. This film will focus on the role that the dominant ideals, ideas, and beliefs of the mid-18th century played in shaping the course of events and decisions that lead to revolution. This was, after all, a war rooted in ideological beliefs and the popular terms used to describe it like "the war for independence" or "a battle for liberty" attest to this.
Like the historian Bernard Bailyn, I do not mean to imply that "ideas move history" (intro., X). I do not believe that history is moved forward by a Hegelian determinism, but rather, by the unique affinity of people, events, and ideas. The dominant beliefs and ideas of a time greatly influence people's perceptions of and reactions to events of that time.
I would open the movie like this: Georgian music plays as the camera scans the bustling colonial port city of Boston in 1760. As the camera moves about the city, it pauses to show a young boy selling the Boston News Letter, dockers working at the busy ports, trade ships being loaded up, as others are unloaded, a blacksmith's shop, a law office, and various artisans, sailors, and merchants going about their daily business. The city is a good focal point, for as Risjord states, the cities "were at the cutting edge of social change" (chp.1, p.34). Cities were the hub of activity, and innovation. Boston, being the site of the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, was especially attuned to the political controversies and tensions of the time.
Starting the film this way also brings up two important points. First it points out the progress and growth of the colonies. In 1760 Boston had a population of approximately 15,631 and it was an important center of trade and commerce (Risjord, intro., p.3). Secondly, it gives the audience a glimpse of pre-Revolutionary colonial life. The preconception most people have of the colonies is that they were filled with rioters, rebels, and revolutionaries. Before the colonists became any of these, they were craftsmen, shopkeepers, lawyers, and the like; just ordinary people pre-occupied with making a living, and perhaps a lucrative profit. Exploring one of the factors that turned them into the former will be the goal of the rest of the film.
In order to find an answer to this question, however, it is necessary to back track a little in time and space to England in 1689. One year after the Glorious Revolution, to the passage of the Bill of Rights, a seminal document that outlines the rights of Englishmen and establishes the ideology of liberty versus tyranny. This document lays the foundation for the belief that liberty is the right of all Englishmen and must be upheld and maintained by limiting power, for power, although necessary, is a potential threat to liberty. This was the ideological background that shaped colonists' beliefs, and was expanded upon during the Enlightenment. Colonists prided themselves on being free men with rights and liberties that were protected by the empire.
The French and Indian war allowed colonists an even greater sense of liberty and freedom. The informal policy of salutary neglect adapted by the British empire allowed the colonies the freedom to develop rather independently of imperial control and interference. This could be portrayed in the movie by showing how imported goods were smuggled into the colonies, and how assemblies carried on relatively unhindered by bothersome restrictions on their power. This period, according to Risjord, was a time when "American political leaders had been left much to their own devices...[and] any effort to restore imperial authority or impose stringent regulations was certain to meet resistance" (chp.1, p.55). For during this time colonial political leaders and merchants developed a sense of autonomy that, very likely, would not be forfeited without a fight.
This assumption proved prophetic when the Massachusetts surveyor general appealed to the Massachusetts superior court to renew the Writs of Assistance. Boston merchants, worried about the restrictive implications of such a measure upon their smuggling endeavors, protested the writs. The case was taken up by James Otis Jr. What makes this episode so significant and dramatic is the way the case was argued. Otis contended that these writs were not only illegal, since "no acts of Parliament can establish such a writ," but void, for "an act against the constitution is void" (sources & readings, p.5).
Such an assertion questions how much power and authority should be granted to Parliament. It also raises questions of constitution, abuses of power, and the rights and privileges of the governed. Such a speech could be easily adapted to the big screen, for Otis dramatizes the argument by using such powerful and ideologically loaded terms like tyranny, tyrant, liberty, and arbitrary power. Although it is a legal argument, it is laced with philosophical ideals about the liberties and rights of man and rooted in the ideological climate of the time. This speech also hints at the growing suspicion and fear of colonists that was agitated by attempts to re-establish imperial control in the colonies. The underlying implication of this speech is that the rights of the individual must be upheld in the face of tyranny. Risjord points out that the speech suggests that "the rights of citizens were founded in natural law and equity superior even to acts of Parliament" (chp.2, p.60).
Perhaps this is a good point at which to introduce a central character in order to give these abstract happenings a concrete, tangible base. I chose John Adams for his passion, ambition, determination, and moral rectitude. Born into a indistinguishable family of modest means, Adams became a lawyer and seized every opportunity for advancement. Adams was also a diligent defender of righteousness. When he felt a cause was worthy, he fought for it with steadfast determination and conviction. He embodies the ambition of most revolutionary leaders, and captures, in his rise from mediocrity, the fluidity of the colonial social hierarchy. Adams, like many others, seized the opportunities offered by the revolutionary movement to advance his position and status in society. He was also keenly aware of how much he was shaped by the events around him, as proven by this statement he made: "the times alone have destined me to fate" (Bailyn, chp.1, p.14).
I would stage Adams' entrance into the film during Otis' speech. I would perhaps show Adams seated in the back of the court, taken by the speech since Adams would have been able to sympathize with the suspicions only hinted at in Otis' speech. But Adams' involvement would wait till 1765, the point at which a bloody break from the empire became inevitable.
The years leading up to this point were marked by the emergence of the New Imperial Policy, the acts meant to enforce it (i.e. the Tea Act, Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townsend Acts) threatened the colonists' sense of autonomy. The underlying intention of Parliament was to reassert its authority and control over the colonies. The ministry wanted to reestablish the supremacy of Parliament. The colonialists, on the other, reluctant to give up the freedom and control they had enjoyed for so long, wanted to defend their liberties.
Thus the conflict escalated into a matter of principal. This was a crucial change, for now there was much more at stake, not just taxes and trade, but freedom and the rights of colonialists. The empire, which initially gave colonists their rights in 1689, was now perceived as trying to take them away. This perception eventually led to a collective paranoia. Every gesture or act of Parliament was cause for suspicion. One historian proposed that the Revolution was not a battle "against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated" (Risjord, chp.2, p.86).
When the Port Bill and the Coercive Acts of 1774 were passed in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party they only seemed to confirm the colonist's worst fears and roused them into rebellious action. Without this collective mind-set, perhaps the revolution would not have taken the bloody turn it eventually did. Colonists perceptions of themselves changed from victims of tyranny to defenders of liberty.
Liberty which was propagated and circulated in Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense." In this pamphlet, Paine openly criticized monarchy as evil and tyrannical and advocated colonial separation from the mother country. To strengthen his argument, Paine referred to the king as an "enemy to liberty" with a "thirst for arbitrary power" (sources & readings, p.183). His persuasive rhetoric was based on "principals of nature and common sense," one such principal being that all men are created equal, therefore one should not reign supreme above all others (p.180). This shakes the very foundation of monarchical rule, and the divine rights of kings which substantiates it.
Paine's pamphlet, in inspirational rhetoric states "the sun never shined a greater cause" (p.179). This gave the revolutionary cause a noble ring to it, and must certainly have motivated many. In the film, I would show the influence of such ideology on the people by showing the pamphlet being circulated, read, and fervently discussed and debated by colonists. For even though not every brought into the rhetoric, it still managed to reach a lot of people and permeate the consciousness of a continent.
The Declaration of Independence, completed a few months after Paine's pamphlet, eloquently expanses on, even repeats some, of the ideas proposed by Paine. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also asserts that "all men are created equal," and it is the duty of colonists to fight tyranny in order to protect and maintain their unalienable rights. This seminal document, while listing the grievances of the colonists and announcing separation, echoes certain key phrases like tyranny, liberty, the rights of the people, and arbitrary power which appeared in the Otis speech and Paine's pamphlet. The reemergence of these phrases and what they represent suggests their influence on the collective mind-set. These ideas were wide-spread, and an individual did not have to read Paine, Otis, or Jefferson to get a sense of their presence in the colonies.
Ideology is but one strand in the complex set of causes that led to revolution. Nevertheless, it was an influential element. This film proposal is meant to give the viewer but a vague sense of the times, for the climate of that era was much more complex than can be portrayed in such a short span of time.