Really? A musical about the Declaration of Independence?
Long before Hamilton took the world by storm and showed theatre-goers that history could be cool, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone gave us 1776: a sweeping musical about the founding fathers and their struggle to get the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain.
Sherman Edwards, the musical’s composer, had written several top 10 pop songs through the 1950’s and 60’s for artists like Elvis and Johnny Mathis. When he began developing this musical, he knew that he wanted to humanize characters that history ususally holds in reverence--almost as saint-like creatures. He recalled:
I wanted to show [the founding fathers] at their outermost limits. These men were the cream of their colonies. ... They disagreed and fought with each other. But they understood commitment, and though they fought, they fought affirmatively.”
Peter Stone, writer of the libretto, understood Edwards’ desire to show these characters as real, relatable people:
“The minute you heard ['Sit Down, John'], you knew what the whole show was... You knew immediately that John Adams and the others were not going to be treated as gods or cardboard characters, chopping down cherry trees and flying kites with strings and keys on them. It had this very affectionate familiarity; it wasn't reverential.”
Historical fiction at its finest.
Entire libraries could be filled with history books about the founding fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Edwards and Stone, realizing that such a monumental moment in history needed a dramatic focal point in order to work as a play, made John Adams the protagonist and focused on his struggle to convince Congress to vote for independence.
Since most of the action of the play is contained in Independence Hall (the meeting house of the Second Continental Congress) some creative license had to be taken in order to include they play's only female characters: Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson.
It has been well documented that John and Abigail Adams corresponded frequently and were extremely devoted to each other. Abigail often advised John on political matters and was his closest confidant. Wishing to include this wonderful relationship, the play uses John’s letters as a device to allow John to actually speak to Abigail on stage. These scenes provide a welcome reprieve from the intense debate of Congress, but also shows a more tender, relatable John Adams.
The inclusion of Martha Jefferson is pure dramatic license, as will be discussed in detail later on.
Will you be a patriot--or a lover?
As can be expected, the musical is full of historical inaccuracies, but, according to the Columbia Companion to American History on Film, “...few are very troubling.”
The Second Continental Congress was held in secrecy, and no contemporary records of the debates were kept. The show’s creators relied instead on later accounts written by the men who were there, some many years after the fact. Interestingly, Charles Thompson, the secretary, kept detailed notes of the goings-on of Congress, but destroyed his notes before his death, saying that he feared that his records would damage the reputations of the founding fathers.
Of the play’s many historical inaccuracies, most notable are the following.
More like a long weekend.
The separation from Great Britain occurred in two stages. The actual vote for independence came on July 2nd, 1776, when Congress approved Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of independence. The vote approving the wording of the Declaration coming on July 4th, after two days of debate. Naturally, for dramatic purposes, the musical combines these two events and makes July 4th the climactic vote and signing of the Declaration.
But, Mr. Adams...
Adams is described several times throughout the play as “obnoxious and disliked”. According to biographer David McCullough, however, Adams was one of the most respected men in Congress. This description likely comes from a letter written by Adams himself in 1822 where he describes his past self in Congress as “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular”. It is likely that his unpopular presidency colored his view of his past self, as no other member of the Continental Congress described him as obnoxious. In fact, it was John Dickinson, not Adams, who presented an unpopular opinion. But more on him later.
Long distance romance.
The inclusion of Martha Jefferson is pure fiction. She never traveled to Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, as she was very ill, having suffered a miscarriage. The play’s authors invented her visit, “...to show something of the young Jefferson's life without destroying the unity of setting." Interestingly, Dickinson’s wife, Mary Norris, was in Philadelphia at the time.
Dickinson and Jefferson--secret frenemies.
Speaking of Dickinson, the play sets him as he main opponent to independence. While it is true that he refused to sign the Declaration, and was an advocate of reconciliation with Britain, he was not against the ideals of independence. In fact, Dickinson edited and wrote the final draft of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms in 1775, a text that is quoted by John Adams in the play. Dickinson advocated for political reforms through nonviolent means. He also believed that any military attempt to break from Britain would be futile without the help of a major foreign ally, and that declaring independence before securing such an ally was folly. On his refusal to sign the Declaration he said:
“My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity."
It is true that he joined the Continental Army, as depicted in the play, serving as brigadier general of the Pennsylvania Militia. After the war, he wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation in 1776, a document that served as the law of the land until the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, for which he was also present.
The smell of hypocrisy.
While in the play, Jefferson declares his resolve to free his slaves, the real Jefferson never did, with the exception of a few slaves freed after his death some 50 years later, including all of his illegitimate children. Interestingly, Dickinson, the play’s antagonist, freed his slaves in 1777.
Losing the entire South.
One of the most powerful moments in the musical comes in the second act, when Edward Rutledge of South Carolina debates with Jefferson over the issue of slavery in the Declaration, and sings perhaps the best song of the entire show, Molasses to Rum, after which he and the entire Southern delegation walk out of the chamber. This extremely powerful scene is almost entirely fictional. There is no record of a walkout, and while South Carolina opposed the anti-slavery clause, Rutledge was by no means the leader of the opposition. According to Jefferson, South Carolina, Georgia and unspecified northern colonies were against the clause and that is all the information we have on the subject.
Give or take 20 years.
In the play, Adams reveals his fear that Franklin will receive more credit than he deserves for American independence, saying, “Franklin smote the ground and out sprang—George Washington. Fully grown, and on his horse. Franklin then electrified them with his magnificent lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington, and the horse—conducted the entire Revolution all by themselves.” Adams did say something similar to this in 1790 after Franklin’s death.
What's Really Real
It isn’t all dramatic license, however. Here are a few things the play gets right:
Inventor of the stove.
Benjamin Franklin introduces himself to Martha Jefferson as “the inventor of the stove.” He did, in fact, invent the “Franklin Stove” or “Pennsylvania Fireplace”, a more efficient and safer method of heating a house than a standard fireplace.
Some of his other many inventions include:swimming fin-like flippers for your hands, the lightning rod, and bifocals.
He created a new kind of odometer as Postmaster General that attached to the front wheel of a letter carriage to determine which routes were fastest, an allowed him to determine accurate postal rates. Thanks to these improvements, the United States Post Office became profitable for the first time.
Not just a fashion statement.
Caesar Rodney of Delaware, was suffering from skin cancer, and never appeared in public without a scarf wrapped around his face. (Though apparently he did not sit for portraits while wearing it--fair enough.)
Also, Rodney did drive through the night from Dover to break Delaware’s one-to-one tie on the vote for independence.
Old grape 'n' guts.
Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, was known as “Old Grape and Guts” by his colleagues, and does seem to have enjoyed his liquor. John Adams recorded that Hopkins’, “custom was to drink nothing all day nor till eight o’clock in the evening, and then his beverage was Jamaica Spirit and water...Hopkins never drank to excess, but all he drank was immediately not only converted to wit, sense, knowledge and good humor, but he inspired us all with similar qualities.”
Maybe you should write it?
The five members of the Committee asked to draft the Declaration of Independence did consist of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
He played the violin.
Thomas Jefferson was a talented violinist, and it is believed that he used this talent to woo Martha, who was musically inclined herself. She sang and played the harpsichord, and the two often played together.
His exact words.
The original draft of the Declaration did include a passage condemning slavery and calling for its abolition. Jefferson’s Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress state that:
...the clause...reprobating the enslaving of the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
The play gives some of these very same words to Edward Rutledge of South Carolina in the lead-up to his song "Molasses to Rum."
Quick facts and fun links.
- Lin Manuel Miranda (the man behind Hamilton) was hugely influenced by 1776. Check out this interview with him and William Daniels (aka John Adams):
- Thomas Jefferson actually did play the violin quite well.
- In his letters to Abigail, John did often refer to her as his "dearest friend," just as he does in the musical.
- Congress really didn't have it's own "pisser," just as Stephen Hopkins complains.
- 1776 holds the record for the longest time passing in a musical without a single note of music being played. Over thirty minutes pass between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But, Mr. Adams.” According to the DVD commentary for the film, Peter Stone says that he experimented with adding a song to that scene but nothing worked. There is even an unverified account that musicians could leave the pit during this scene, the first time in Broadway history they were allowed to leave in the middle of a performance. Peter Stone later said that many people told him that because of the large amount of dialogue, 1776 should have been a regular play and not a musical. He maintains, however, that the songs create a lightness and a playful tone that helps humanize the characters.
- For the 1972 film version of the musical, then-president and friend of the film’s producer Jack Warner, Richard Nixon requested that the number “Cool, Considerate Men” be removed. He was of the opinion that the number was an insult to conservatives, presenting them as the major opposers to independence. Warner wished to comply with Nixon’s wishes, but director Peter Hunt refused and filmed the number anyway, only to have Warner cut the footage in post-production while Hunt was on vacation. Warner intended to have the footage destroyed but the film’s editor kept it intact, allowing the subsequent DVD release to restore the number to its proper place.
- In 2017, An off-Broadway company produced the musical with an all-female cast.
- The Egg was a last minute addition to the play and was inspired by the artwork for the poster, depicting an eagle hatching from an egg.
- William Daniels, who originated the role of John Adams, has portrayed Adams and his family members on multiple occasions. After 1776, he played John again in The Rebels, then played John Quincy Adams on television in A Woman for the Ages, and again in the PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles. He also played Samuel Adams in the TV movie The Bastard. There are even references to his work in 1776 in these later works. His character on Boy Meets World, for example, teaches at John Adams High School in Philadelphia.
- William Daniels did not get nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as John Adams. They wouldn't include him as a "Leading Actor" because his name was not billed above the title. This is especially upsetting since the musical was otherwise recognized across the board, winning Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Scenic Design.
Cast of Characters
John Adams – The Agitator from Boston. A man whose commitment to independence is everything.
Benjamin Franklin – Inventor of the stove and lots of other "damn things."
John Dickinson – The cool, cool conservative man from Pennsylvania.
Edward Rutledge – The Southern gentleman with a nose for hypocrisy.
Stephen Hopkins – Old Grape and Guts from Rhode Island. Loves his Rum!
Thomas Jefferson – The red-headed tombstone from Virginia and a lover of the violin and his wife, Martha.
John Hancock – The President of the congress with a mighty big signature
Richard Henry Lee – The proud Virginian who rides for independence, Natural-lee!
Martha Jefferson – A lover of music and Tom.
Abigail Adams – The true friend of John Adams, whose love is his, his, his, his, his.
Charles Thomson – the Secretary of Congress, a proud supporter of George Washington.
Andrew McNair –The custodian of the congress, hardworking and loudmouthed.
Lewis Morris – The delegate from New York who must abstain, courteously.
Roger Sherman – a simple cobbeler from Connecticut who has been fighting the devil in New England for years.
Joseph Hewes – The gentleman from North Carolina who (always) respectfully yields to South Carolina.
Samuel Chase – Old bacon face from Maryland who doubts the independence can be taken.
Caesar Rodney – The man from Delaware who warns us that we have no time.
Col. Thomas McKean – Delaware’s Scottish Military man, who huffs and puffs and sits back down.
Robert Livingston – the delegate from New York who has had a recent visit from the noble stork!
Dr. Lyman Hall – From Georgia, whose personal views on independence are, well, personal.
Rev. John Witherspoon – New delegate from New Jersey to replace the missing 13th of congress.
James Wilson – The tall judge from Pennsylvania, who still manages to be in Dickinson’s shadow.
George Read -- The weasel from Delaware. His great historical contribution was “in many cases.”
The Courier -- Delivers news from the front and warns mothers to keep a sharp eye out. He ain't even a corporal.
Leather Apron – a boy who wishes to join in the fight.
Use these in the classroom, as prompts for essays, conversations in the car, or fodder for your critical and evaluative mind.
- One of the most intense moments in the play comes when the entire Southern delegation walks out of Congress over the issue of slavery. Franklin argues that independence needs to come first and they can worry about slavery later, while Adams insists that allowing slavery to continue will go against everything they are fighting for. Whose side would you be on, the practical Franklin or the idealistic Adams?
- Dickinson, the main opponent of Independence, argues for non-violence and asserts that any fight with the British would be hopeless. Instead, he advocates for reforms and diplomacy. Without knowing the outcome, imagining you were a colonist facing down a possible war with the mightiest nation on the planet, would you side with Dickinson or Adams?
- Why do you think the play includes Martha Jefferson, as she never in reality traveled to Philadelphia? What does her inclusion tell the audience that they wouldn't otherwise have known?
- In 2017, an off-Broadway company produced an all-female concert version of 1776. The Ohio Shakespeare Festival production hired many female-identifying actors to play the male historical figures. Why are theatre companies choosing to do more and more inclusive casting? How do you react to the "historical inaccuracies" of such casting? Why?