18th Century America, American Presidents, Benjamin Franklin, Colonial America, George Washington, Howard Da Silva, James Wilson, John Adams, Ken Howard, The American Revolution, The Declaration of Independence, The Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, William Daniels
The best thing about 1776 (1972, dir. Peter H. Hunt) is that it does a very good job of approaching the debate over American independence as a complex historical event whose outcome was less clear than it seems in retrospect. One of the great challenges to understanding the past is to realize that what happens always seems in retrospect like the most probable outcome when it reality it was usually only one of many possible outcomes. The job of a historian to is understand the events as they happened and try to work out why a particular outcome happened without assuming that outcome was inevitable.
Whereas Americans tend to picture the 13 colonies as being united as one in opposition to the British monarchy, the reality is much more complex. The southern states were heavily agricultural and had developed an economy that relied to a considerable extent on slave labor. The New England colonies, in contrast, were much more focused on commerce and manufacturing and had much less use for slavery. The Mid-Atlantic states were generally more cautious and protective of their economic interests than the New England states, which were more politically rebellious. The culture of the New England colonies was heavily shaped by the dour work ethic of the Puritans, whereas the southern states were characterized by a more morally-relaxed Anglicanism that celebrated leisure more than labor (since labor was something slaves did). Neither had much in common with the Quaker pacificism of Pennsylvania.
1776 does a decent job of conveying the conflict of interests between the colonies. Most of the film’s dramatic tension lies in John Adams’ (William Daniels) and Ben Franklin’s (Howrd Da Silva) struggle to get all 13 colonies to commit to the issue of independence, and it highlights some of the complexities that the average American doesn’t think about in regard to the Revolution.
We tend to assume that the 13 colonies quite naturally hit on the idea of forming a federal government with authority over all member states. But that solution, embodied in the US Constitution, was a decade away in 1776. As Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (John Cullum) asks, will South Carolina rule South Carolina, or will Massachusetts? In other words, the colonies did not want to surrender their sovereignty to another state because they recognized that these states did not all have the same attitudes, concerns, or economic interests. And John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (Donald Madden) accuses Adams of trying to get the other colonies to fight Massachusetts’ war for it.
Dickinson, trying to scuttle the drive for independence, makes a motion that the vote for independence must be unanimous. Again, this is somewhat startling for modern Americans, who are used to a political system in which the Congressional majority and president determine what happens for the whole country. But as John Hancock of Massachusetts (David Ford) points out, if the vote is not unanimous, then some states will declare independence while others will remain under British authority, which will lead to the colonies having to fight each other, which would be disastrous. (It would also have split the rebellious colonies geographically, making a coordinated response to the British army almost impossible.) This raises the bar for Adams considerably. Dickinson’s opposition keeps the Pennsylvania delegation split, New Jersey’s delegation is not even present, New York’s delegation keeps abstaining from everything (in reality, because the delegation was waiting for instructions from home), Maryland opposes independence because they don’t think Washington’s army can defeat the British, and the Delaware delegation is split on the issue and cannot vote because Caesar Rodney (William Hansen) has fallen ill and has returned home. So the plot of the second act follows Adams’ efforts to square this unruly circle.
But to achieve maximum drama, the script resorts to a variety of devices that ratchet up the challenges. First, it claims that our protagonist Adams was unpopular in the Congress, which as I said last time is untrue. Second, it collapses the debate over independence into the debate over the Declaration of Independence as a document, so that accepting the Declaration is a vote for rebel. That’s untrue. In reality, the Congress voted for independence on July 2nd, and then debated the wording of the Declaration for two days before passing it.
The Issue of Slavery
That collapsing of two votes into one enables the film to get maximum tension out of the issue of slavery. The original draft of the Declaration included a passage accusing George III of having forced the institution of slavery onto the American colonies basically because George hates the idea of liberty. Adams insists that this statement of the principle of liberty needs to stay in because slavery is evil. But the southern colonies refuse to accept this because slavery is so important to them economically. So the fate of the whole American rebellion hinges on whether that passage stays in or gets removed.
This debate is used to demonstrate how complex the colonial relationship to slavery was. The New Englanders express their hatred of slavery, which offends the southerners. Lyman Hall of Georgia (Jonathan Moore) points out that Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who wrote the passage, is a slave owner, to which Jefferson replies that he has resolved to free his slaves. This is simply untrue. George Washington recognized the incongruity of his owning slaves while championing liberty, but acknowledged that he could not simply free his slaves because they were actually his wife’s property and doing so would force her into poverty; as a result he arranged to free some of his slaves at his death and the rest when Martha died. But Jefferson showed no such qualms, and never freed any of his slaves,other than his own children by his slave mistress Sally Hemmings. So the film tries to address the incongruity of the slave-owning Jefferson penning one of the greatest assertions of human liberty ever written basically by lying about it.
But after Jefferson says this, Adams repeats his condemnation of slavery, and Rutledge furiously accuses the New Englanders of hypocrisy. He sings “Molasses to Rum” about the three-sided slave trade, explaining how the New England merchants (particularly the Rhode Islanders) shipped slaves down to the Caribbean to exchange for molasses out of which rum is made; with the profits from the rum they then buy more slaves and repeat this ‘triangular trade’ as historians call it. So he indicts the New Englanders for being knee-deep in slavery despite not actually owning slaves personally. This sequence is perhaps the best moment in the film from the standpoint of illustrating the complexity of 18th century American politics. Here’s a version of the song from a performance of the musical.
Adams doesn’t want to remove the condemnation of slavery because he says the future will condemn them for it. But then Jefferson crosses the passage out, thus enabling the southern states to vote for the Declaration and for independence. In doing this, the film acknowledges that the Founding Fathers essentially kicked the problem of slavery down the road, admitting that independence and abolition were not compatible goals at that point. It’s a sobering lesson for Americans to realize that this group of men that we revere so much had to compromise on a key values to achieve immediate goals. The film doesn’t quite point out just how fateful that compromise would be, and that it would eventually provoke the Civil War, but to anyone with any understanding of American history, it’s not a hard conclusion to come to.
In reality, however, there is no evidence that the Congress got particularly riled up about the issue of slavery. In Jefferson’s recollection of the events, he simply says that Goergia and South Carolina were unhappy about the slavery passage and that some of the New England delegates “felt a little tender” about the issue. That doesn’t suggest a major dispute that nearly sunk the whole document.
The film employs another device to increase the dramatic tension. Although Washington is not a character in the story, his presence hovers over the proceedings because he is off leading the Continental Army against the British. Over the course of the film, he sends a variety of letters to the Congress telling them that things are going very badly. These letters arrive at various moments timed to make life harder for Adams and Franklin to accomplish their mission. He reports about the poor state of his troops, the low morale, the lack of supplies the fact that New Brunswick (where the troops are stationed) has been overrun by prostitutes, and that British General Howe has landed troops on Staten Island and taken control of New York harbor. This means that the British are about to cut the colonies in half. The burning of New York property is the thing that finally pushes the New York delegation to vote for independence.
The problem is that things didn’t happen that way. Washington was actually fairly confident about how things were going until August 27th, 1776, when Howe defeated Washington’s forces at the Battle of Long Island. Howe surprised Washington, attacking from the rear and causing casualties of around 20%. Washington was forced to retreat to Manhattan and was soon driven out of New York completely. So the film is here manipulating the timeline to make the stakes even higher.
In the film, this problem makes Samuel Chase of Maryland (nicknamed ‘Old Baconface’) (Patrick Hines) unwilling to support independence. What’s the point of declaring independence if the war can’t be won? But this problem has to get resolved for the plot to move forward. So in the film, Adams, Franklin, and Chase go to New Brunswick to find out how bad the situation is (and so that Franklin can get laid). They find that the troops are very demoralized from a lack of food, but when a flock of ducks fly overhead, the soldiers shoot them all out of the sky, thus impressing Chase with their marksmanship enough that he decides to support independence. It’s a rather silly idea that a single demonstration of marksmanship would sway an otherwise skeptical politician, and it’s a nod to the fiction that the American troops were remarkably good shots.
The film rather consciously employs a teleological view of history. That’s a fancy way of saying that the film understands its events as moving toward a specific goal, in this case late 20th century America. The characters in the film are constantly acknowledging a future that they cannot possibly know will happen. I’ve already mentioned that Adams argues that the future will condemn the Congress for removing the condemnation of slavery from the Declaration. That’s an argument that really only makes sense if Adams knows that slavery will eventually be abolished and Americans will come to regard slavery as terrible facet of their past. But in 1776, it’s highly unlikely that Adams would have been so confident of that fact.
And this is only one example of this teleological approach. Early on, Franklin comments about how Americans have become their own nation, sharply different from the British. Franklin might certainly have been able to notice this, since he had spent time in Britain, but he’s really speaking here to 20th century Americans.
The film seems to enjoy the irony of John Adams being considered obnoxious, given how respected the man has become. But Adams comments that he will be forgotten and Franklin and Washington will get all the credit. As he memorably remarks, “Franklin smote the ground and out sprang—George Washington. Fully grown, and on his horse. Franklin then electrified them with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington, and the horse—conducted the entire Revolution all by themselves.” In fact, Adams made a similar comment (sans the horse) when Franklin died in 1790, but that was after the Revolution.
Most egregiously, however, the film’s climax relies on teleology. The last delegation to vote is Pennsylvania, which consists of the pro-independence Franklin, the anti-independence Dickinson, and the mousy James Wilson, a timid little man whom Dickinson has been bossing around. Wilson gives a bizarre little speech in which he explains that unlike the other men in this room, he doesn’t want to be remembered by posterity. If he votes against independence, he knows that he will be remembered forever as the man who prevented American independence, and so he votes for independence so that he will be forgotten.The whole argument is so laughably nonsensical it’s almost embarrassing. It only makes sense if Wilson assumes that American independence will in fact happen; if he votes no logically there will be no United States whose members will look back at him for failing to create them, the same way that since my husband and I will never have children their own children will never look back at us and complain that we didn’t bring them into existence. It also views American independence as a once-in-a-lifetime sort of event; if America doesn’t become independent now, it never will. But again, such a view only makes sense from the perspective that America did declare independence in 1776. We don’t look at the First Continental Congress and complain that they didn’t declare independence in 1774, so Wilson has no reason to think that future Americans will complain about what he didn’t do in 1776. If Wilson wants to remain obscure, voting against independence would make much more sense. But to audiences in the 1970s, such an argument simply served to confirm how wise the Founding Fathers were to bring the United States into existence in 1776.
The whole reason I decided to review 1776 is that on May 23rd, 2016, Turner Hall will be hosting a one-night only performance of the musical. It’s sold out now, but reportedly they are selling tickets for standing room at the bar. So it might not be too late to see if you can snag a spot. Good luck!
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.