1776 is a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone. It dramatizes the events leading to the writing and signing of the United States Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1776.
The musical was produced on Broadway in 1969, running for 1,217 performances, and was made into a film of the same name in 1972. The show was nominated for five Tony Awards and won three, including Best Musical.
Adams flees the chamber and reads the latest missive from his loving wife Abigail, who, far away at their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, appears in his imagination. He asks if she and the other women are making saltpeter for the war effort, but she replies that the women have a more urgent problem: no straight pins. They each promise to do something about the other's problem. In "Till Then," they pledge their love to each other, and Abigail disappears.
The entire New Jersey delegation is absent. Thomas Jefferson, a young delegate from Virginia, announces that he is leaving for Virginia that night to visit his wife. As Hancock opens the floor to new resolutions, Richard Henry Lee canters into the chamber, having finally returned from Virginia. Lee reads his resolution and Dickinson moves to indefinitely postpone the question of independence. A vote is taken. Josiah Bartlett, Adams, Lee, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and two-thirds of the Delaware delegation vote for debate, while Lewis Morris of New York abstains "courteously." Dickinson, Samuel Chase of Maryland, Rutledge, and Joseph Hewes of North Carolina votes against debating independence. Dr. Hall explains that though he is for independence, Georgia is against it. He prefers to err on the side of his constituency and votes nay, leaving the deciding vote to Hopkins, who votes in favor of debate, proclaiming that he'd "never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about."
The most vocal of the delegates debate independence, which grows so heated that Adams and Dickinson begin to fight. Caesar Rodney separates them, berating them for not focusing on the real enemy: England. He collapses from the overexertion; he has cancer. Colonel McKean takes him back home. This leaves the Delaware delegation with only one man present, George Read, who is not in favor of independence.
Rutledge, seeing the majority swinging in his favor, moves for a vote on the question of independence. The new New Jersey delegation arrives, led by Rev. John Witherspoon. They have been instructed to vote in favor of independence. The vote now stands at six for independence and six against (with New York abstaining), and Adams reminds Hancock of his duty as president to break all ties. Dickinson moves that any vote for independence must pass unanimously on the grounds that "no colony [may] be torn from its mother country without its own consent." The vote produces the same tie, which Hancock breaks by unexpectedly voting for unanimity. He reasons that without unanimity, any colony voting against independence would be forced to fight on England's side, setting brother against brother.
Adams, thinking fast, calls for a postponement of the vote on independence, expressing the need for a declaration defining the reasons for independence. Franklin seconds Adams, but when asked why such a declaration should be written, both are lost for words. Suddenly, Thomas Jefferson proclaims the reason: "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent." The vote on postponement is called, producing yet another tie, with New York abstaining yet again. Hancock breaks the tie by voting in favor of postponement, choosing a committee of Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Jefferson to draft the declaration. Hancock adjourns the session over Jefferson's complaints that he must go home to his wife.
The Committee of Five argues about who should write the declaration ("But, Mr. Adams"). Adams declines, reminding Franklin that he is "obnoxious and disliked." Franklin argues that he is not a political writer, only a satirist. Sherman claims that he is not a writer at all, but "a simple cobbler from Connecticut." Livingston must return to New York to celebrate the birth of his son. All eyes turn to Jefferson; Adams quotes a passage of Jefferson's Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, bluntly telling Jefferson that he is the best writer in Congress. Jefferson tries to wriggle out of the responsibility, pleading that he has not seen his wife in six months. Adams, unmoved by Jefferson's arguments, thrusts a quill pen into Jefferson's hand. Defeated, Jefferson accepts the duty of drafting the document.
The remaining delegates depart, leaving Andrew McNair (the custodian), the courier and a workman in the chamber. The workman asks the courier if he has seen any fighting, and the courier replies that his two closest friends were killed on the same day at Lexington, Massachusetts. He describes the final thoughts of a dying young man as his mother searches for his body ("Momma, Look Sharp").
As Hancock is about to call for a vote on the Declaration, Rutledge rises to object to Jefferson's denunciation of slavery in his list of redresses. He reminds them that the process of "Molasses to Rum" to slaves (the triangular trade) ensures prosperity for the North. The delegations of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia angrily leave the chamber. The resolve of the remaining delegates is broken, and they also leave.
Adams, growing desperate, sends McKean to Delaware to bring back Caesar Rodney. Franklin sagely insists that Adams agree to the removal of the slavery clause from the Declaration. Alone with his thoughts, Adams conjures Abigail in his mind and pours out his fears and feelings of hopelessness to her. She reassures him, quoting from his own letters: "Commitment, Abby, commitment! There are only two creatures of value on the face of this earth: those with a commitment, and those who require the commitment of others." During their exchange, McNair delivers two kegs to the chamber: saltpeter from Abigail and the women of Massachusetts.
With Adams's faith in the cause renewed, he tells Franklin and Jefferson to talk to Wilson and Rutledge: they need each and every vote. Thomson reads the latest dispatch from General Washington, who wonders if he is ever to receive a response to his last fifteen missives. Re-reading the dispatch, Adams echoes Washington's words, "Is Anybody There?" Discouraged but determined, Adams declares his vision of his new country: "Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory!"
Dr. Hall returns to the Chamber. He has been thinking: "In trying to resolve my dilemma I remembered something I'd once read, 'that a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.' It was written by Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament." He walks over to the tally board and changes Georgia's vote from "nay" to "yea".
It is now July 2, 1776. The delegates slowly return to the chamber, including Caesar Rodney. Hancock calls for the vote on the Lee Resolution. Thomson calls on each delegation for their vote. Pennsylvania passes on the first call, but the rest of the northern and middle colonies (save New York, who with some self-disgust abstains) vote "yea". When the vote passes to South Carolina, Rutledge demands the removal of the slavery clause as the condition of the "yea" votes from the Carolinas. Franklin pleads with Adams to remove the clause ("First things first, John ... Independence. America. If we don't have that, what is the rest worth?") and Adams turns to Jefferson. Jefferson reluctantly crosses the chamber and scratches out the clause himself. Rutledge and the Carolinas vote "yea", as does Georgia.
When Pennsylvania's vote is called again, Dickinson declares that "Pennsylvania votes...", only to be stopped by Franklin who asks Hancock to poll the delegation: Franklin votes "yea", Dickinson "nay", leaving the swing vote to the voiceless Wilson, who normally adheres to Dickinson. Seeing his hesitancy, Dickinson tries to entice him: "James, you're keeping everybody waiting ... the issue is clear." Franklin remarks that "most issues are clear when someone else has to decide them", and Adams mercilessly adds that "it would be a pity for a man [Wilson] who has handed down hundreds of wise decisions from the bench to be remembered for the one unwise decision he made in Congress." Wilson doesn't want to be remembered as "the man who prevented American independence") and votes "yea". The motion is passed.
Hancock asks that no man be allowed to sit in Congress without affixing his signature to the Declaration. Dickinson announces that he cannot in good conscience sign such a document, and still hopes for reconciliation with England. However, he resolves to join the army to fight for and defend the new nation. Adams leads the Congress in a salute to Dickinson as he leaves the chamber.
Hancock leads the delegates in signing the Declaration, but is interrupted by the courier with another dispatch from Washington, "Commander of the Army of the United Colonies ... of the United STATES of America." He reports that preparations for the Battle of New York are under way, but expresses concern about America's badly outnumbered and under-trained troops. Washington's note to Lewis Morris that his estates have been destroyed but that his family has been taken to safety emboldens Morris to state that he will sign the Declaration, regardless of the lack of instructions from the state legislature. The New York delegates vote "yea" and make the Declaration unanimous.
On the evening of July 4, 1776, McNair rings the Liberty Bell in the background as Thomson calls each of the delegates to sign their name to the Declaration of Independence. The delegates freeze in position as the Liberty Bell rings to a fevered pitch.
The central departure from history is that the separation from Great Britain was accomplished in two steps: the actual vote for independence came on July 2 with the approval of Lee's resolution of independence. The wording of the Declaration of Independence—the statement to the world as to the reasons necessitating the split—was then debated for three days before being approved on July 4. The vote for independence did not hinge on some passages being removed from the Declaration, as implied in the play, since Congress had already voted in favor of independence before debating the Declaration. For the sake of drama, the play's authors combined the two events. In addition, the Declaration was not signed on July 4, as shown in 1776. In reality, after the wording was approved, the Declaration was rushed off to be printed, and carried only the names of John Hancock (president) and Charles Thomson (secretary). The famous signed version of the Declaration was created later and signed by most delegates on August 2, 1776. The authors of 1776 had the delegates sign the Declaration on July 4 for dramatic reasons.
Many characters in 1776 differ from their historical counterparts. Central to the drama is the depiction of John Adams as "obnoxious and disliked". According to biographer David McCullough, however, Adams was one of the most respected members of Congress in 1776. Adams's oft-quoted description of himself in Congress as "obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular" is from a letter written forty-six years later in 1822, after his unpopular presidency had likely colored his view of the past. According to McCullough, no delegate described Adams as obnoxious in 1776. Historian Garry Wills earlier made a similar argument, writing that "historians relay John Adams's memories without sufficient skepticism", and that it was Dickinson, not Adams, who was advocating an unpopular position in 1776.
For practical and dramatic purposes, the play does not depict all of the more than 50 members of Congress who were present at the time. The John Adams of the play is, in part, a composite character, combining the real Adams with his cousin Samuel Adams, who was in Congress at the time but is not depicted in the play. James Wilson was not the indecisive milquetoast depicted in the play. The real Wilson, who was not yet a judge in 1776, had been cautious about supporting independence at an earlier date, but he supported the resolution of independence when it came up for a vote. Pennsylvania's deciding swing vote was actually cast by John Morton, who is not depicted in the musical. The play depicts Caesar Rodney as an elderly man near death. Although in 1776 Rodney did have skin cancer, which would eventually kill him, he was just 47 years old at the time and continued to be very active in the Revolution after signing the Declaration. In the play, Richard Henry Lee announces that he is returning to Virginia to serve as governor. He was never governor; his cousin Henry Lee (who is anachronistically called "General 'Lighthorse' Harry Lee", a rank and nickname earned later) did eventually become governor. Martha Jefferson never traveled to Philadelphia to be with her husband. In fact, she was extremely ill during the summer of 1776, having just endured a miscarriage. The play's authors invented the scene "to show something of the young Jefferson's life without destroying the unity of setting."
The musical also deviates from history in its portrayal of attitudes about slavery. In 1776, after a dramatic debate over slavery, the southern delegates walk out in protest of the Declaration's denunciation of the slave trade, and only support independence when that language was removed from the Declaration. The walkout is fictional, and apparently most delegates—northern and southern—supported the deletion of the clause. Thomas Jefferson is depicted as saying that he has resolved to free his slaves, something he did not do, except for a few slaves freed after his death 50 years later. Franklin says in 1776 that he is the founder of an abolitionist organization, but the real Franklin did not become an abolitionist until after the American Revolution, when he became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
1776 was revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company, opening on August 4, 1997, in a limited engagement at the Roundabout's home theatre, the Criterion Center, before transferring to the George Gershwin Theatre on December 3, 1997 for a commercial run. It closed on June 14, 1998 after 333 performances and 34 previews. The production was directed by Scott Ellis with choreography by Kathleen Marshall, and featured Brent Spiner as Adams, Michael Cumpsty as Dickinson, Pat Hingle as Franklin, and Paul Michael Valley as Jefferson.
John Chapman of the New York Daily News penned, "This is by no means a historical tract or a sermon on the birth of this nation. It is warm with a life of its own; it is funny, it is moving... Often, as I sat enchanted in my seat, it reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan in its amused regard of human frailities.... The songs and lyrics are, as I have indicated, remarkably original.
The New York Post noted, "In this cynical age, it requires courage as well as enterprise to do a musical play that simply deals with the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And 1776... makes no attempt to be satirical or wander off into modern bypaths. But the rewards of this confidence reposed in the bold conception were abundant. The result is a brilliant and remarkably moving work of theatrical art... it is Mr. Daniels' John Adams who dominates the evening, as he did the Congress. Peter Hunt's direction, the choreography of Onna White, and the setting by Jo Mielzelner are just right.
(Note:William Daniels, who starred as John Adams, was ruled ineligible for the Best Actor nomination because his name was not billed above the title of the show; he refused a nomination for Best Featured Actor. The Insider, Ken Mandelbaum, broadway.com) Theatre World Award Ken Howard (winner) Drama Desk Award