Today, we celebrate another 4th of July holiday with less understanding of what we’re celebrating than ever. For most 21st-century Americans, the 4th is simply a day off from work and an excuse to drink beer, eat hot dogs, and watch fireworks. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing such happiness. However, an understanding of exactly what it’s all about could only add to the enjoyment of the festivities.
If you want to do something different this year and discover the true meaning of the 4th, you would do well to watch Road to Independence – The Movie, directed by Sirius Radio personality Mike Church for Founding Father Films. This animated feature bills itself as a “Docudrama,” defined as a historically-accurate dramatic film. For the majority of Americans who have been taught an incomplete or distorted version of American history, this film is not only historically accurate but highly entertaining.
The film opens with a prologue focusing on 4th of July speeches by President’s Lincoln and Reagan, with voiceover narration warning that many U.S. presidents attempting to evoke the meaning of the Declaration of Independence “have gotten it so wrong.” The film thus sets up its purpose – to get the story right and allow the viewer to recognize past, present, and future departures from the ideals of the American Revolution by those leaders supposedly charged to uphold them. It is noteworthy that Church, known primarily for his conservative talk show dominated by criticism of the left, picked two Republican presidents as examples, demonstrating how pervasive the misunderstanding or distortion of those ideals has become.
After a clever animated sequence in which the film’s credits are written in script upon the parchment version of the Declaration itself, the film moves to an 1821 interview with Thomas Jefferson. His narration will frame the rest of the story, with frequent cutbacks to the interview to remind us that we are getting the story from Jefferson. However, while Jefferson’s autobiography and other writings were apparently one source for the content, the producers have obviously researched the events depicted in the film far beyond Jefferson’s own recollections.
Within the framework of Jefferson’s narration, the film also makes frequent departures from strict chronology in order to show the viewer how events in the characters’ pasts affected or were relevant to events happening in the present. For example, the film depicts the sad state of Washington’s army at Cambridge in January, 1776. Washington discovered upon taking command that not only was his army poorly fed, clothed, and equipped, but that they were also outrageously undisciplined, frequently drunk and infrequently bathed. From that scene, the movie flashes back to John Adams’ nomination of Washington for the command. At that time, Washington expressed reservations due to his modest military skills. He now finds that not only might he be inadequate to the task, but that his entire army might similarly be found wanting.
One of the film’s outstanding successes is the bringing to life of these iconic, quasi-mythical personalities. For most Americans, Washington, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are larger-than-life epic heroes. Other, equally important founders like George Mason and Richard Henry Lee are all but forgotten. Road successfully puts the importance of these characters in perspective and brings their personalities to life – showing how the different characters and temperaments of these historical titans affected the course of history. Particularly successful is the depiction of John Adams, at once brilliant and boorish, obnoxious (by his own estimation) and charismatic. As the Jefferson character relates in his narration, he was also a “colossus for independence,” without whom it may not have been accomplished.
In terms of historical facts, the film is chock full of them, both crucial and trivial. Among the latter category, the viewer learns that the Declaration of Independence was not in fact signed on the 4th of July by most of the Congress, but only by the president and secretary. Other members signed it in August. As to more important revelations, we are startled to learn that even upon the eve of the July 2, 1776 vote to declare the colonies independent states, there were still many colonies unwilling to take that step. Out of 13, only 9 were ready to declare independence. South Carolina and Pennsylvania were both against independence on July1, while Delaware was split and New York abstained. The film does an outstanding job of depicting the political wheeling and dealing at the zero hour, including Ben Franklin’s persuading John Dickinson to leave the Congress before the final vote on independence that led to its unanimous passage.
The reluctance of the colonies to take the final step of separation from Great Britain is part of a larger motif that runs throughout the film. As the film’s voiceover narrator explains at the very beginning, the struggle was about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, the colonists were primarily concerned with securing their rights, with separation from England only one possible means of doing so. Throughout the film, we are reminded of the lengths to which the colonists were willing to go to obtain redress of their grievances without leaving the British Empire. The division at the end was really between those who believed that they had no other choice but to separate and those, led by John Dickinson in the Continental Congress, who believed that protection of their rights could still be restored without resorting to rebellion and war.
The viewer also learns that the Declaration of Independence itself was not a groundbreaking piece of philosophy born solely in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, but rather the culmination of a long philosophical tradition that took shape over centuries. Jefferson himself tells us that “Virginia led us to independence,” and one cannot help but note the similarity of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written largely by George Mason, to Jefferson’s more famous Declaration of Independence. Indeed, we learn that it is inaccurate to attribute the Declaration solely to Jefferson, as it was heavily edited first by Adams and Franklin and then by the Continental Congress as a whole. Rather than the work of one brilliant mind, it was an expression of the general ideas about liberty shared by virtually all of the founders in 1776, put into words by one chosen for his brilliance with the pen.
The film sets out to set the record straight on the American Revolution in general and the Declaration of Independence in particular for Americans whose leaders have “got it so wrong.” It accomplishes its goal not with heavy handed pronouncements, but with the facts themselves. The viewer is left to ponder the questions, “What did President’s Lincoln and Reagan (and most other presidents) get so wrong? What have I learned here that corrects those errors?”
Assistance is provided by the young man interviewing Jefferson in 1821. He asks if the Declaration “defined America’s mission.” Jefferson responds emphatically to the contrary. The founders were not interested in founding an empire with a collective “mission.” Instead, they were men who sought to live in a state of liberty and who quite reluctantly, after exhausting all other alternatives, decided that leaving their country was the only way to do so. The film captures this brilliantly when depicting the grave expressions on the congressmen’s faces after passing the resolution to separate.
As the father of a five-year-old girl, the fact that the film is animated immediately piqued my curiosity as to whether it would be appropriate for young children. It probably is a bit beyond the early grammar school student, not because of any “mature content,” but because the ideas expressed are just too complex for that age group. However, this film would be a perfect supplement to any junior high or high school American history course or for homeschool students age 12 and older. Its entertaining style and rich factual content would provide a strong foundation in understanding this crucial period in American and world history.
Overall, Road to Independence is an overwhelming success. Despite Church’s reputation as a highly-opinionated conservative radio host, this film succeeds in teaching without preaching and letting the facts speak for themselves, leaving the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. Resisting the temptation to embellish the facts or invent composite characters for dramatic effect, the film successfully tells a story that already has all of the drama that it needs. Rather than semi-legendary figures who live only in paintings or marble busts, the founders come alive in this docudrama as flesh and blood human beings, complete with strengths and weaknesses, individual quirks, and a wide range of personalities. We experience first-hand the real people, historical twist and turns, and evolution of ideas that culminated in the Declaration of Independence and founding of the united States of America. I would recommend this film to all students of American history, both young and old alike.
For more information about this film or to order your DVD copy, visit Mike Church’s Dude Gear Store here.
© Thomas Mullen 2011