I went to see The Conspirator last weekend. It’s the story of Mary Surratt who was executed as a co-conspirator in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She’s defended by a U.S. Army captain turned lawyer, Frederick Aiken, and is tried by a military tribunal rather than a jury of her peers. The movie makes the case that the U.S. government, including President Andrew Johnston, abandoned the Constitution in their efforts to make southern sympathizers associated with John Wilkes Booth pay for the killing of Lincoln, ostensibly so the nation could move beyond the crime. This film’s not about whether Mary Surratt is guilty or innocent although reasonable doubt seemed to exist. It’s a movie about what happens when the civil rights that should be accorded to anyone, regardless of the crime, get lost in the shuffle of those with power over those without. And it’s a movie with a compelling teaching and learning story about the importance of the Constitution.
How do young people best learn the value of the U.S. Constitution as America’s voice of protection of the rights of people from the most egregiously guilty to the most vulnerably innocent? How do they come to understand our role as a model for the world in adhering to the Geneva Conventions? How do they engage in dialogue about rights and responsibilities in school and home so they enter adult life grounded in the key concepts of the Bill of Rights?
I worry that 59% of teenagers surveyed by the American Red Cross support torture and have little knowledge of the Geneva Conventions. The American Red Cross offers resources to assist in educating young people about Humanitarian Laws. I also am concerned that numerous surveys indicated our young people lack both knowledge and understanding of core values writ large in the Constitution. The good news is that resources are available to help educators. The National Constitution Center surveys young people routinely and offers resources to actively engage young people in dialogue and learning experiences that deepen understanding of the United States Constitution. James Madison’s Montpelier Center for the U.S. Constitution offers additional educational resources. How do we put those resources to best use? Learners need ongoing project-based learning opportunities to turn the string of words we call the Constitution into something that’s real to them.
Frederick Aiken did not want to defend Mary Surratt. He certainly believed that she was guilty when he began her defense. He did not choose to take her case but rather felt obliged to do so. As he worked to defend her and witnessed the alleged collusion of Federal department heads and the military, he moved from lukewarm effort to intense support of her right to a fair trial before a jury of peers. Despite his best efforts, his work was in vain. The force of the government prevailed and Surratt died.
To justify his actions in controlling the outcome of the case including the sentencing of Mary Surratt to hang, the movie’s Edward Stanton, Secretary of War, quoted Cicero to Frederick Aiken:
“Laws are silent in times of war.”
Mary Surratt represents an uncommon story, a hidden history that’s only a postscript to the American Civil War. She was both hated and revered, an expression of an individual’s point of view during those heated times.
Most likely, few citizens today will see The Conspirator. Some who do might agree with the reasoning of the government in its willingness to sacrifice a woman’s rights afforded by the Constitution. I worry, however, that rights we hold dear for any person can be dismissed by those who hold power, elected or otherwise. No reason justifies such an action, for if we are willing to sacrifice the rights of one, we slide down a slippery slope for us all.
Frederick Aiken knew that. He stood up for a cause he believed in and never regretted it. I like to think that’s the American way. I hope we make those stories real to our young people. The nation could use a few more citizens cut from the same cloth as Frederick Aiken.