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On May 23rd, Milwaukee Opera Theater will stage a production of the musical 1776 at Turner Hall with what sounds like an interesting piece of staging. Since the musical tells the story of the Second Continental Congress and the struggle to declare independence from Great Britain, and since the delegates at the Congress conducted their debates from tables representing their state delegations, the audience and the performers will all be seated together at long tables. In advance of the production, I’ve been asked to write a review of the film version of the Broadway play, 1776 (1972, dir. Peter H. Hunt).


The film is set entirely in Philadelphia, with all but a few scenes taking place in and around the chamber in which the delegates met and argued, covering a period from May through July 4th. It focuses on the efforts of John Adams (William Daniels, perhaps best known for voicing the talking car on Knight Rider), Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), and Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) to get the Congress to commit to independence, thereby allowing the birth of the United States of America. It concentrates on the clash of personalities among the delegates, the competing interests of the different colonies, and the struggle between political idealism on the one hand and pragmatism on the other. Apparently, the Declaration of Independence was like laws and sausage in that it’s something you don’t want to see getting made. Most of the debate takes place behind closed door during the insufferable Philadelphia summer heat.

There are three major things to understand about the film (and the play it’s based on). First, the Continental Congress was held in secrecy and kept no records of its debates. That means that when Peter Stone sat down to write the musical, he had to rely on much later accounts of what was said, simply filling in the blanks with best guesses and invention. Because the later memories of the debates were often colored by subsequent events, it’s very hard to know for sure what actually went on in that sweltering room.

One place we can see this is in the film’s treatment of John Adams, who is repeatedly described, even by himself, as obnoxious and widely unpopular with the other delegates. This derives from Adams’ own famous recollection of himself as “obnoxious, suspected, and disliked” in a letter he wrote in 1822. His view of 1776 was heavily colored by the events of his generally unsuccessful single term as President of the United States, which culminated in the Election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican supporters defeated the Federalist Adams in what is quite possibly the single nastiest presidential election in American history. (Both sides were horrified by the unexpected emergence of political parties, and were convinced that the other side had suddenly become profoundly corrupt. Each party insisted the victory of the other would literally ruin the country. The Federalists accused the Deist Jefferson of being unchristian, intending to ban the Bible, and wanting to initiate French Revolution-style domestic bloodshed, while the Democratic-Republicans claimed that Adams had schemed to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George III and thereby found an American royal dynasty; one writer claimed that Adams was a hermaphrodite. Although Alexander Hamilton was a member of the Federalists, Hamilton repeatedly attacked Adams as a fool. Adams felt deeply betrayed by Jefferson, who was his close friend and vice-president, and their friendship suffered a breach from which it never truly recovered.) So when Adams described how reviled he was in 1776, he was projecting his experiences in presidential politics back a quarter-century. In fact, in 1776, he was one of the most highly-respected figures at the Congress.


President John Adams

The second important thing to understand about 1776 is that although there were at least 57 members in the Congress, the film only shows about 20 of them. So many of the characters are composites of two or more characters, condensing them to make the cast and story more manageable. For example, Massachusetts sent at least 5 delegates to the Congress, but we only see two, John Adams and John Hancock. The John Adams of the film is a combination of Adams and his famous cousin Samuel Adams, while Eldridge Geary and Robert Treat Paine are omitted. The film would have you think that Rhode Island sent only the drunkard Stephen Hopkins, thereby cutting its delegation in half. Georgia is represented only by Lyman Hall, whereas the state eventually sent three delegates.

A third issue is that in order to make the story sufficiently dramatic, Stone found it necessary to play fast and loose with the biographies and political views of many of the characters. For example, in the film Caesar Rodney is an elderly man suffering from skin cancer and near death. Although he is a proponent of independence, he has to drop out of the Congress partway through the debate because of his health problems, leaving the Delaware delegation deadlocked between the pro-independence Thomas McKean and the anti-independence George Read. Later McKean leaves to fetch the dying Rodney back to break the deadlock. The reality is more complex. Rodney was only 48 at the time of the Congress, and he lived for another five years afterward. He left the Congress not for reasons of health (although he was already plagued by the skin cancer that would eventually kill him) but to deal with problems with Loyalists back home in Delaware. When McKean wrote to him about the deadlock on the Delaware delegation, Rodney rode 70 miles at night during a thunderstorm to arrive in Philadelphia the next day just in time to cast the deciding vote committing Delaware to independence. For his troubles, his constituents ousted him from office the next year.


Rodney’s ride commemorated on the Delaware State Quarter

Stone made the choice to focus his story on the three best-known figures of the Congress, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson. Adams and Franklin are essentially the driving engine of independence, constantly acting to rally the others (including each other) when their morale flags or quarrels threaten to collapse the whole proceeding, while Jefferson is mostly just the author of the Declaration of Independence. The film depicts Adams as passionate, righteous, and mostly humorless, while Franklin is constantly throwing out memorable quips (some of which he actually said elsewhere, some of which Stone invents). Franklin is a bit pompous but able to laugh at himself. The film repeatedly nods to Franklin’s randy side; when he learns that New Brunswick has been overrun with whores, he’s eager to go and find out what conditions are like there. The historical Franklin was in fact notorious for his many sexual liaisons (he may have had as many as 15 illegitimate children), a side of him that most modern Americans never hear about. The film glosses over Franklin’s deep hostility to the British, although it references his falling out with his loyalist son William, who was the British governor of New Jersey until he was arrested.


John Dickinson

The biggest misrepresentation in the film is its treatment of John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. In the film, he is Adams’ primary antagonist, at one point actually getting into a brawl with him in the Congress chamber. The film depicts him (Donald Madden) as being a stout Loyalist and basically worried more about his wealth and property than issues of principle. The reality is far enough from this that the cinematic Dickinson is essentially a fiction. Dickinson was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, but he was also a staunch proponent of independence. In fact, he helped write both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. In 1767 and 68, Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer” helped unify Colonial opinion against the Townsend Act as a form of illegitimate taxation. But in the film, it’s Adams who makes this argument against Dickinson.


John Dickinson

In the film, the Pennsylvania delegation is split between Dickinson, Franklin, and James Wilson (Emory Bass), who is depicted as a rather timid judge easily brow-beaten by Dickinson. But when the critical vote comes, Wilson rather bizarrely says he prefers to be forgotten and knows that if he votes with Dickinson, he will be remembered forever as the man who prevented American independence. So he votes with Franklin for independence. Leaving aside the silliness of this argument, which presumes that America will become its own country before it has actually done so, the depiction of Wilson is simply untrue. In 1776, he wasn’t yet a judge, but he was one of the leading political theorists in the colonies; in 1768, he wrote perhaps the first treatise offering a legal justification of American independence from Great Britain. One modern author has called Wilson “perhaps the greatest intellect in America after James Madison.” At the Congress, he was a firm supporter of independence all the way through the proceedings, although he felt that he was bound by the will of his constituents and therefore insisted on polling his district before he committed himself. George Washington eventually appointed him to the Supreme Court.


Madden’s Dickinson

When Dickinson loses the vote, he announces that he cannot in good conscience sign the Declaration of Independence, although he will enlist in his local militia to fight for the cause. But Dickinson’s actual objections to the Declaration were quite different from the ones he offers in the film. He felt that the Declaration should wait until the Articles of Confederation were written and foreign allies secured. He was intentionally absent from the critical vote on the Declaration. As a lawyer, he strongly objected to Adams and Jefferson basing the Declaration of Independence on the notion of Natural Law derived from a Supreme Being. He preferred to ground the document on the notion of ‘Rights of Persons’, a much more limited legal principle, because he was worried about re-opening a key political debate from 17th and early 18th century British politics. His opposition to the concept of ‘Rights of Man’ is the reason why the US Constitution approaches the question from the ‘Rights of Persons’ angle and makes no mention of Natural Law concepts like the Rights of Man’. (And yes, I’m simplifying things to avoid a long explanation of the difference between these two theoretical models.) Dickinson also had a number of other concerns. He represented a Quaker faction that felt that violence was not the appropriate way to achieve independence; he preferred civil disobedience. He also worried, correctly as it turns out, that independence would lead to the Quakers getting overshadowed politically.

Because the film doesn’t address any of Dickinson’s actual concerns, it simply makes him a bad guy seeking to protect his own position and wealth and turns him into a bully and loyalist, who then needs to be redeemed right at the end because he’s still a Founding Father, even if he didn’t sign the Declaration. It’s shabby treatment for a man whom Jefferson later called “one of the great worthies of the revolution.”


Want to Know More?

1776 is available at Amazon. The Director’s Cut includes a number, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” that was removed at the request of the Nixon administration because it was thought to be a dig at 20th century Republicans.

I’m a bit out of my league in terms of historical scholarship on the Continental Congress. But if you want to know more about John Dickinson, try The Cost of Liberty  or try reading his Letters from a FarmerFor John Adams, David McCullough’s John Adams won the Pulitzer and is worth reading.