The Musical “1776” and History’s Most Obnoxious Revolution

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend SOMEBODY!” – John Adams, in the musical 1776

Last night, I had the opportunity to see a charming production of 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical that did much to humanize the Founding Fathers and present the issues surrounding American independence in a literate and often humorous light. What I saw was an excellent local production, so you will have to tolerate a momentary and shameless plug for the Camelot Theater Company: The show runs through July 22, and it is well-worth seeing if you happen to be in Oregon’s Rogue Valley any time soon.
There is a lot of commentary regarding the historical accuracy of 1776. True, there are dramatic liberties that still grate on my nerves when I see the musical, including the brilliant Oscar-nominated 1973 film adaptation of the Broadway play. Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia delegate who offered the resolution for American Independence, was called the “Cicero of Virginia,” hardly the openly horny doofus portrayed on stage for comic relief. Half of the Second Continental Congress did not walk out over the issue of slavery, although national unanimity hinged on the removal of the anti-slavery clause from Jefferson’s Rough Draught of the Declaration. John Adams did not import Jefferson’s wife to Philadelphia to sexually refresh the Pen of Liberty – in fact, Jefferson’s frequent absences from Monticello while he was in Congress contributed to the physical stress that almost certainly exacerbated Martha Jefferson’s chronic illness. (In the musical, Jefferson’s character is portrayed as wishing to leave Philadelphia for a conjugal visit rather than write the Declaration. Actually, in the summer of 1776 Martha Jefferson had a miscarriage and was grievously ill. Jefferson wished to depart because he feared for the life of his beloved spouse). John Adams, the Voice of Liberty, was known for his prickly demeanor and outspoken embrace of independence far ahead of most of the other delegates – yet, he was one of the most respected and admired men in Congress from any colony.
Still, the musical “gets it” when it comes to the majority of the history. Much of the dialogue is the words of the actual men. Musical numbers in the production often do a better job than some history books in teaching people why American Independence was such a thorny problem. “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” points out that Americans (not just those at the top of the colonial social pyramid) were among the wealthiest, least-taxed people in the world. Why would anybody in their right mind in any century sever that kind political and economic relationship in exchange for an untried democratic experiment? (As an educational comparison, I often half-teasingly point out to my environmentally sensitive students that for a generation anxious about global warming I still see a lot of gasoline-powered autos in student parking.) “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” will make anyone cringe when they understand how the song accurately points out that all of America was economically tied to slavery: “Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade/Hail slavery, the New England dream!/Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:/Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!/Who stinketh the most?” It is an intensely powerful indictment of our nation’s greatest weakness during the greatest revolution in world history. Even more powerful are the steady stream of dispatches from George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Like much of the musical, the lines are based on Washington’s actual writings and they portray the grinding difficulties and overwhelming odds that he and the soldiers in the field faced when fighting the most well-funded and militarily adept empire since ancient Rome. Anyone interested in a summary of the historical facts presented in 1776 would do well to look at James Troutman’s Web page or this article from the Yeshiva University newspaper.

However, one of the best things about 1776 is how it portrays the incivility of our democratic revolution and why conflict aided our nation’s cause. While reading the Director’s Notes written by Livia Genise, I was struck by her comments: “This is an election year. What may be at stake, in the opinion of many Americans, is our very way of life. So many people have already lost their homes, their pensions, their jobs. In the last four years, gun sales have soared and civility diminished. We seem to be, as a nation, on the verge of a not so-civil-war. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from our founding fathers [sic] is empathy, compassion and respect for all who make up the melting pot that is America.” I won’t win any popularity contests by dumping on a local theater director, and I want to make clear she directed a fine performance. But, the frequently expressed idea that America has somehow lost a Golden Age of Civility always strikes me as well-meaning but ahistorical and naïve sentimentalism. Furthermore, it ignores the historical themes (highly accurate ones, I might add) captured by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, the authors of 1776 , that are there for all to see. (As for gun sales, two thoughts: Is Ms. Genise perhaps thinking of the Obama administration’s ill-advised Operation Fast and Furious? In 1776, would Great Britain have walked away from their wealthiest colonial prize without armed struggle? Sometimes, harsh language against an adversary isn’t enough and the British sent the largest amphibious invasion force in history before D-Day to destroy the American Revolution.)
The Second Continental Congress was often a contentious group. The colonies were notorious for the sheer absence of continental, i.e. intercolonial, cooperation. John Adams once wrote:

“The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”

Differences, even brusquely expressed, are part of the mechanism of a healthy democracy. Often, the conflict will eventually lead to compromise of surprising kinds. The musical puts it even more succinctly when Benjamin Franklin’s character urges John Adam’s character to compromise on slavery for the sake of founding a liberty-loving nation:

“John, the issue here is independence! Maybe you have forgotten that fact, but I have not! These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, they are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about – they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like them or not, they and the people they represent will be part of this new nation that YOU hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home! In any case, stop acting like a Boston fishwife.”

One can’t forgive slavery, but forming a new nation with the institution of slavery intact either demonstrates the limits of civility or the power of differences in a democracy – or both. We are still working that issue out as a nation.

Finally, calling George III a tyrant was about as uncivil an act as one could accomplish in the free-wheeling political life of British North America. The Declaration of Independence declares that “a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Throughout the Declaration the words tyrant, tyrants, and tyranny occur a total of four times. Definitions of “tyrant” and “tyranny” were both specific and potent in the political vocabulary of the age – and very rarely used. Kings were expected to consider their people’s welfare and the just administration of government as their first duties. Certainly, Mr. Jefferson and others could have named numerous examples both ancient and modern of men who had breached that expectation, but all the more reason for men who had come from the freest political culture of the time to watch a king and judge his actions. Their grandfathers had memories of a similar situation in English history, and knew the dangers of a king who placed self-interest above all else. “For he being supposed to have all, both legislative and executive power in himself alone, there is no judge to be found, no appeal lies open to any one, who may fairly, and indifferently, and with authority decide, and from whose decision relief and redress may be expected of any injury or inconviency [sic], that may be suffered from the prince, or by his order …,” wrote John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), which provided the intellectual arguments for the removal of James II during the Glorious Revolution as he described the dangers of a king dedicated to absolute power above all else. “For he that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary. He that would have been insolent and injurious in the woods of America, would not probably be much better in a throne; where perhaps learning and religion shall be found out to justify all that he shall do to his subjects, and the sword presently silence all those that dare question it.”
Again, the musical presents the main idea very clearly:

John Dickinson: Mr. Jefferson, I have very little interest in your paper, as there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve all but heard the last of it, but I am curious about one thing. Why do you refer to King George as a… tyrant?
Thomas Jefferson: Because he is a tyrant.
John Dickinson: I remind you, Mr. Jefferson, that this “tyrant” is still your king.
Thomas Jefferson: When a king becomes a tyrant, he thereby breaks the contract binding his subjects to him.
John Dickinson: How so?
Thomas Jefferson: By taking away their rights.
John Dickinson: Rights that came from him in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson: All except one. The right to be free comes from nature.
John Dickinson: And are we not free, Mr. Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson: Homes entered without warrant, citizens arrested without charge, and in many places, free assembly itself denied.
John Dickinson: No one approves of such things, but these are dangerous times.

There is one kind of safe society where no words are ever raised in harsh criticism. Jefferson once wrote, “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.[I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful slavery.] Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
That’s the beauty of the musical 1776. As I often written on these pages, I do not expect popular culture to present in-depth historical analysis. But a historically accurate, entertaining dramatic production (with more than a little light-hearted comedy as forgivable distraction) will sometimes do more than volumes of history to teach people why the United States is an exceptional nation. One of our exceptional qualities is like the Founding Fathers’ old habits. We often argue our way to liberty, not always with the hand-holding, “kumbayah” moralizing that some want but with a messy process called democracy. Like one of the characters in the play says, “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.”


Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

2 responses to “The Musical “1776” and History’s Most Obnoxious Revolution

  1. Very well done. Also liked your mentioning John Dickinson, who deserves much more widespread recognition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s