The Devil and Daniel Webster: Closing Argument to the Jury of the Damned

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.  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.

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Published in: on March 14, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off  
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