The central story is this: Benjamin Gates (Cage) believes his great-grandfather, Thomas Gates, helped to thwart John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators by refusing to decrypt a message for them. New evidence is presented that shows Thomas Gates may have, in fact, been one of the conspirators. His name is on a page from Booth's diary. Now in order to prove his forefather's innocence, Benjamin Gates must decipher the code himself, find the treasure it refers to, and thus, prove Thomas Gates' innocence. (I never quite understood how finding the treasure could prove or disprove Thomas Gates' loyalty to the Union or Confederacy.)
Now follows brilliant code cracking and daring strategies, all based on information gleaned from children's illustrated histories. And through the entire movie runs the theme that a Confederate victory would have been disastrous, thank God they never found the treasure, or we would all be speaking with Southern drawls and still own slaves. One of Ben Gates' praises of Lincoln is this quote:
"Before the Civil War, the states were all separate. People used to say "United States are." Wasn't until the war ended, people started saying "The United States is." Under Lincoln, we became one nation."
And there is my problem. Lincoln dissolved states rights, brought about the war that took more American lives than any other, turned brother against brother, and he is remembered as a hero. Lincoln destroyed the United States and created something else with the same name. We are no longer a collection of sovereign states that join together for national defense and other common causes. The constitutional rights of states were removed. You were no longer a member state by choice, you were a member state by military force.
Professor Walter E. Williams, of George Mason University, opens one of his recent columns with the following brilliant paragraph:
"One of the unappreciated casualties of the War of 1861, erroneously called a Civil War, was its contribution to the erosion of constitutional guarantees of state sovereignty. It settled the issue of secession, making it possible for the federal government to increasingly run roughshod over Ninth and 10th Amendment guarantees. A civil war, by the way, is a struggle where two or more parties try to take over the central government. Confederate President Jefferson Davis no more wanted to take over Washington, D.C., than George Washington wanted to take over London. Both wars are more properly described as wars of independence."
We did not have a civil war in this country. We had a second war for independence that was unsuccessful. Imagine that our founding fathers had lost their war for independence. We are now a British colony (probably a commonwealth by now, but still paying allegiance to the crown). King George III would be known as the king that unified the kingdom and the Colonies. Would those of us in North America today consider him a hero? Or would we consider him to be a thief of liberty and a tyrant?
The War of 1861 is long over. Its consequences live on. The former Confederate States today have a population of over 100 million. They are continually portrayed as ignorant, and regarding the war, evil (some of them did own slaves, after all). Other causes for the war are rarely addressed, and never in popular media. There is an absolute world-view regarding the war: South wrong; North right.
Thomas Gates is eventually declared to have been for the North (like I said, I don't see how finding the treasure proved anything) and we are expected to be happy that our hero is descended from a man who fought on the Right Side. That means 100 million or so of us are descended from those who fought on the Wrong Side. I am no "South shall rise again" southern rebel lying in wait for a chance to re-fight the war. I am a Southern born American who recognizes that what we are told to believe and what is true are not always the same. And I mourn the loss of our freedoms, whether lost today or 140 years ago.