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“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: Rebuilding moral community…

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: Rebuilding moral community…

The struggle between good and evil that Frank Capra depicts in “Mr. Smith” is clearly understood by viewers as reflecting timeless truths about citizenship and living together in a free society. Even in the fractured public square we inhabit today, members of opposing political tribes can recognize our common humanity in the heroic and humble character Jimmy Stewart portrays.

“Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” – John Adams

Director Frank Capra seemed to possess an unfailing instinct to make films that speak to what is universal and timeless in human experience. In Mr. Smith Capra dramatizes the concept of the “Common Good”—the idea that standards of truth and goodness transcend the personal desires and emotions of solitary individuals. Our care and dedication to the “Common Good” makes us a part of something greater than ourselves. When Jimmy Stewart as Senator Jeff Smith reminds his fellow Senators, “There’s no compromise with truth,” his words transcend partisan political battles.

The struggle between good and evil in the United States Senate that Capra depicts in Mr. Smith is clearly understood by viewers across the political spectrum as reflecting timeless truths about citizenship and living together in a free society. Even in the fractured public square we inhabit today, members of opposing political tribes can recognize our common humanity in the heroic and humble character Jimmy Stewart portrays.

Mr. Smith premiered in October, 1939, a few weeks after World War II had broken out in Europe. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st and two days later, England and France declared war on Germany. As Frank Capra said in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title: “The speed and light of Hitler’s blitzkrieg terrified the free world.”

Although Stewart did not receive the Academy Award that year for Best Actor, his performance was so compelling that the newspapers devoted more space to him than to the winner. Eighty years later, Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Smith continues to symbolize the qualities of leadership and the civic virtues that are essential to the survival of a free society.

The Individual in Civil Society: Mr. Smith as a Lesson in Civics

French political thinker, historian, and author of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) explains that when each individual works with fellow citizens for the common good, he is in fact working in his own best self-interest. What is good for the community is ultimately good for the individual. This concept is a central theme of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

For example, when we see Senator Paine claiming that he is working for the common good, we know he is a part of a corrupt political machine. Obviously, he is rationalizing when he says he is serving his state “in a thousand honest ways.”

Paine’s moment of truth comes when his conscience tells him that it is wrong for the Taylor machine to ruin Jeff Smith. When faced with the choice of seeing Smith’s character destroyed or his own political career ended, he chooses to cooperate in the evil that Taylor has planned. Because he has compromised so many times in the past, he himself has become fatally compromised.

Some skeptics might question whether any kind of civics lesson could be accepted by the general population, given our deeply fragmented political landscape. If we think of it a certain way however, the great classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age have a mysterious power to convey compelling truths about our human nature and the cultural and moral goods that can hold us together. Our civics lesson sets the stage for discussion of the famous scene when Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff Smith turns to Senator Paine and says,

“I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine… All you people don’t know about lost causes, but Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them, because of just one, plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor.”

This scene expresses the theme that each one of us must be engaged in the job of holding the country together. All of us must be engaged citizens in a nation of self-governing people. The fundamental honesty in Jeff’s character enables him to confront Senator Paine.

Transcending Group Identity Politics with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

In The Righteous Mind (2012), moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls for a national renewal of moral capital to rebuild civility in our divided nation. Mr. Haidt defines moral capital as “the resources that sustain a moral community.” Looking at the violence and cultural divisions we experience today, we realize, as Mr. Haidt reminds us, that moral communities are “fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.” As he says:

“Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense… If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.”

In the filibuster scene, Jeff Smith is seeking to fire the imagination of his fellow senators with a larger vision of meaning and purpose. As Frank Capra portrays them, many of these senators have fallen into indifference and faction. Jeff Smith:

“Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.”

Integrating Mr. Smith with Moral Foundations Theory

The research in neuroscience and moral psychology presented by Mr. Haidt in The Righteous Mind provides compelling evidence for the innate moral dispositions human beings display across highly diverse cultures. These moral intuitions are recognizable by observation and experience. All of us recognize them in our daily lives whether we affirm a biological, philosophical, or theological anthropology and worldview. Moral Foundations Theory and its supporting evidence validate the concept of a common human nature shared by all human beings. As Mr. Haidt reminds us, surveying our torn cultural fabric, the challenge is to rebuild our nation’s moral capital by fostering, “values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, and technologies that increase it.”

Consider the three basic assumptions about our human nature summarized in The Righteous Mind: (1) “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second,” (2) “There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness,” and (3) “Morality Binds and Blinds.” These three assumptions can guide us in joint efforts to build greater national unity with our civics lesson, with Mr. Smith. In the art of classic film, we are able to see what our common human nature looks like. Because our imagination goes to work when we are watching this movie and we, whether persons of the left, right, or center, can see the essential truths that bind us together. In a poll conducted by Turner Classic Movies in the election season of 2004, over 90% of both Democrat and Republican classic movie fans voted Mr. Smith Goes to Washington their all-time favorite film with a political theme.

These six innate pillars of moral intuition described in The Righteous Mind are groundbreaking in our postmodern world—a world where the question of whether there is a human nature is up for grabs. Each pillar of the theory has been validated by scientific inquiry. Liberals and conservatives alike can intuitively and reasonably assume there are no hidden political or religious agendas lurking beneath the surface of Moral Foundations Theory. Compelling images of “Care,” “Fairness,” “Liberty,” “Loyalty,” “Authority” and “Sanctity” are all dramatically present in Mr. Smith, serving to unite us across the generations and across our present political divisions.

Discussing the film’s themes and characters gives us a way of finding deeper meaning and purpose in the phrase that opens the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Many skeptics and cynics may have grave doubts that recovery of greater civility across political tribal lines is really possible in our time. Can we overcome the radical individualism of our present era and rediscover our essential nature as social beings? Using the metaphor of a beehive, Mr. Haidt argues that among political tribes, cooperation and work for the common good is possible and that we can undertake significant rebuilding of our dwindling moral, social and cultural capital.

Here are scenes that illustrate the pillars of Moral Foundations Theory:


Haidt has found that the moral emotions of human beings are deeply sensitive in the sphere of Care vs. Harm. People naturally become greatly disturbed and sorrowful at the sight of a person suffering from harm. In Mr. Smith the deeply troubled conscience of Senator Paine overcomes him when he sees Jeff faint from exhaustion. Paine loves Jeff like a son (Jeff’s father was his best friend). Even though it will mean the end of his career in the Senate, Joe Paine reacts to the sight of Jeff fainting on the Senate floor. For a republic to be sustained over the long haul, enough people in positions of leadership—like Jeff Smith and ultimately Joseph Paine—must move beyond self-interest to work for the common good. In the words of Emile Durkheim, we must all become “simply a part of the whole.”


Frank Capra brilliantly depicts the struggle going on in the soul of Joseph Paine. Paine has explained to Jeff that in a “thousand ways” he serves the people of their state, but he had to “compromise.” Now the price of following the political philosophy of the end justifies the means is coming due. Paine must choose between opposing the harm Taylor’s machine will do to Jeff—the son of his best friend—or give up his career.

The classic understanding of the civic virtue of justice is dramatized in Paine’s dilemma. We have a moral duty in the justice we owe to other human beings. In the world of classic film, making moral choices is seldom portrayed as characters merely responding to forces beyond their control. Frank Capra knew he was exaggerating when he created the scenario of a whole state being taken over by a political boss. Capra used intense visual images to inspire the imagination of his audience. The legendary director seems to be saying to audiences of 1939 and today: wake up and realize what a great country you have been given.


Frank Capra, the master storyteller, gives us all kinds of images to bring home the message: Liberty is something we have to fight for—and not take for granted. To live in a free society, objective standards of right and wrong and good and evil must be seen and valued by enough people to keep the whole experiment in liberty going. The republic cannot survive by relying on a bureaucracy to manage the constant conflict of tribal interest groups. Rather, it is working on a team and being “part of the whole” that makes all the difference. The film’s turning point is the conversation between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur at the Lincoln Memorial.


Betrayal of trust and friendship is a terrible thing. We see this scenario played out in the scene at the senate hearing when the Taylor machine frames Jeff in the matter of the land grab. At this point in the film, Joseph Paine has chosen to stay loyal to Taylor for the sake of his political career. His betrayal of Jeff is the price of his seat in the United States Senate.

This scene highlights one of the greatest moral challenges we see in politics: the conflict between publicly upholding justice and the common good, and the back room deals that undermine that greater good. Jimmy Stewart’s place in the hearts of the people of this country was secured in his performance as Jeff Smith. Consider the realization of deep betrayal this is expressed on Stewart’s face in this moment.


In discussing the Authority Foundation, Jonathan Haidt gives good advice to people who want to live in a free society:

If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station.

Frank Capra shows his understanding of human nature when he dramatizes the image of Authority as veteran western star, Harry Carey in the role of President of the Senate. Key scenes link political leadership and moral authority together. First, Harry Carey’s character swears Jeff Smith in with the oath of office. Next, in the pivotal moment, he chooses to recognize Senator Smith and the filibuster begins.

Finally, and very telling for this particular film, Capra chose to end the film with Carey smiling with his hands over his head. Taking a cue from the previews with audiences before the film was released, Capra choose this image of Carey over a sequence with Stewart and Arthur riding in a victory parade back home. Good art imitates life and Capra and his audiences both knew intuitively the pivotal importance of Carey’s character as symbolic of the need for principled leadership and authority in a free society.


For many of us, even after all these decades have passed, watching the filibuster sequence mysteriously triggers a strong sense of Sanctity—the Sanctity of our common humanity.

When we see the agonized expression on Jimmy Stewart’s face, the postmodern reduction of our human nature as a “clump of cells” does not make sense. Somehow the human imagination is stronger than the philosophical claims of materialism and relativism.

What better proof can we have of the Sanctity Foundation Mr. Haidt describes, than the last showings of this 1939 American film in theaters in France as the Nazis marched into that country in World War II.  In his autobiography, The Name above the Title, Frank Capra recounts that The Hollywood Reporter on November 4, 1942 reported that “the French people flocked to the cinemas to get seats for the last showing of… Mr. Smith Goes to Washington…. Cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man’s rights and dignity. It was as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time.”

Republished with gracious permission from the author. This essay originally appeared on her website, Classic Films and Our Common World, which is a project of the Educational Guidance Institute.

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The featured image is courtesy of IMDB.

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