If you think the hip-hop musical Hamilton is an odd duck as far as fictional treatments about the American Revolution period, you must not have seen 1776 yet.
It’s a musical without much music. In fact, one of the time lapses between songs is so long that during the original Broadway production the musicians were allowed to leave the pit.
Decades before Hamilton portrayed our Founding Fathers as complex and flawed human beings, 1776 tore down their lofty images to the point where film critic Roger Ebert slammed the film for “emasculating” them.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, affectionately refers to 1776 within the show, quoting (in hilarious context) the title of the first song, “Sit Down, John!”
Set during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the story concerns future presidents John Adams (William Daniels) and Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) along with Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) trying to prod the stalled Congress into debating the question of independence from Great Britain. Adams is deeply unpopular within the Congress and the delegates are weary of his exhortations to at least debate the question. Meanwhile, they can’t even decide among themselves whether to keep the windows open or closed because it’s oppressively hot, but open windows allow in swarms of flies.
Franklin hits on the idea of persuading a more popular member, Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) to gain permission from the Virginia colony to propose the question of independence. They still face strong opposition from Franklin’s co-delegate, John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and most of the members of the Southern delegations. New York abstains from every proposal brought to the floor. Every so often a currier from General George Washington arrives to give devastating news of the progress of the war.
A proposal is passed that the vote on independence must be unanimous. Fearful this is an almost insurmountable task, Adams and Franklin draft Jefferson into writing a “declaration” of their intent to Great Britain. Adams invites Jefferson’s wife Martha (Blythe Danner) to Philadelphia to help him break his writing block.
The declaration is read in Congress. Many requests are made to alter its wording. Jefferson agrees to all of them—until Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (John Cullum) insists that they remove a clause about slavery and instigates a walk-out of the Southern delegation. When they are able to get most of the other delegates in line for independence, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin reluctantly agree to its removal. The resolution on independence is passed. The delegates line up to sign the Declaration of Independence as the Liberty Bell tolls.
Of course, the film has its historical inaccuracies. John Adams was actually quite respected within the Congress. He and Jefferson were good friends, but Adams and Franklin were not. Martha Jefferson never came to Philadelphia due to illness. Statements by the real-life men are quoted throughout the show, but they are all after the fact. The Congress was conducted in secret and there are no contemporaneous records.
The story casts Dickinson and Rutledge as out-right villains, which again, is not accurate. Dickinson’s views were far more complex and nuanced and Rutledge was not flatly opposed to independence. The question of independence was actually decided separately before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and most signers did not sign it on July 4. These changes are understandable, due to dramatic effect.
Then there is the way the question of slavery is portrayed. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin are all portrayed as committed abolitionists, which isn’t exactly true. Franklin declares in the film he has created an abolitionist society which did not exist until after the war. While Adams was morally opposed to slavery and never owned slaves, he also did not believe in abolition, believing the practice would eventually die out on its own. Jefferson was a slave owner his whole life and only allowed a few to be freed after his death. The film makes it seem that only the Southern delegates opposed the slavery clause, when both Northern and Southern delegates opposed it. (Ironically, Dickinson was the only one who freed—conditionally—his slaves in 1776.)
However, the musical does confront these hypocritical stances on slavery head-on in the number “Molasses, to Rum, to Slaves” sung by Rutledge. It’s the best song by far (performed magnificently by Cullum) outlining in an explicit manner the way the fledgling nation was built on the backs of slaves, and how all were complicit, if only by omission.
While acclaimed after it debuted, the show 1776 was seen by many as the last gasp of the old-fashioned musical, playing at the same time as experimental musicals such as Hair and Promises, Promises. Unlike those shows, however, it has aged well. During a recent revival of the show (done in modern dress) critics reported the line by John Adams describing Congress, “You see/we piddle, twiddle and resolve/Not one damned thing do we solve” brought the house down. It’s similar to Hamilton in the way it shows how little has changed in American politics.
Speaking of which, political divide actually resulted in an important section being excised from the film. A friend of producer Jack L. Warner, President Richard Nixon requested the removal of a musical number by the conservative members of Congress (“Cool, Cool Considerate Men”). He apparently felt it cast conservatives in a negative light. It has since been restored in the Director’s Cut of the film.
Far from flawless, 1776 is still a film worth watching, particularly in tandem with listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. While it may have upset Roger Ebert, who perhaps wanted to see future presidents portrayed as untarnished heroes, it strives to show them, as Franklin says in the film, as “just men, no more, no less.”