PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

While General George Washington is conducting the struggle against the British Empire on the battlefield, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia piddles away its time over trivial matters and cannot begin debating the question of American independence. The leader of the independence faction is the abrasive John Adams of Massachusetts, whose continuous pushing of the issue has brought their cause to a complete standstill. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania leads the opposition that hopes for reconciliation with England. During his quieter moments, Adams calls up the image of his wife Abigail Adams who resides in Massachusetts and gives him insight and encouragement. Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania suggests another colony that supports independence should submit a proposal.

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia is sent off to Williamsburg to get authorization from the Virginia Colony to propose independence. Dr. Lyman Hall arrives to represent Georgia, and immediately, he is interrogated by his fellow delegates regarding his views on independence (with Dickinson framing it as “treason”). Weeks later, Lee returns with the resolution, and debate on the question begins. The New Jersey delegation, led by Reverend John Witherspoon arrives just in time to provide a vote supporting independence. However, in the midst of debate, Caesar Rodney falters because of his cancer and is taken back to Delaware by fellow delegate Thomas McKean, leaving the anti-independence George Read to represent Delaware.

After heated discussions, the question is called without a majority of positive votes present. In a move intended to defeat the resolution, Dickinson calls for a vote requiring unanimity for passage, and the vote ends in a tie between the colonies which is ultimately decided in favor of unanimity by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, who argues that any objecting colony would fight for England against independence. Stalling for time to rally support for the resolution, Adams and Franklin call again for a postponement, justifying their call by stating the need for a declaration describing their grievances. Once again tied and ultimately decided by Hancock, the vote is successfully postponed until such a document can be written.

Hancock appoints a committee that includes Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson (after Lee declined due to an appointment to serve as governor of Virginia). Jefferson resists participation because he desires to return home to Virginia to see his wife, Martha, but is left with the task when all other members of the committee present more compelling reasons to avoid the responsibility. Adams sends for Martha so that Jefferson can remain in Philadelphia; the rest of the committee opine that Jefferson’s diplomatic nature and superior writing skill are required to draft the declaration. Both Adams and Franklin are quite taken with Martha. While maneuvering to get the required unanimity for the vote on independence, Adams, Franklin and Samuel Chase of Maryland visit the Colonial Army encamped in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at the request of General Washington to help convince Maryland.

When they return to Philadelphia, the declaration is read and then subsequently debated and amended. Jefferson agrees to most alterations to the document, much to Adams’ consternation. The debate reaches a head when the Southern delegates, led by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, walk out of Congress when a clause opposing slavery is not removed. Adams remains adamant that the clause remain, but Franklin appeals to him to allow the passage to be removed so that they can first achieve the vote on independence and the formation of the nation and defer the fight on slavery to a later time. Adams defers the final decision on the passage to Jefferson, who agrees to its removal. After removing that clause, 11 colonies are in favor, but New York continues to abstain.

The question is up to the Colony of Pennsylvania, whose delegation is polled at Franklin’s request. Franklin votes for the declaration, but Dickinson votes against. The outcome is now in the hands of their fellow Pennsylvanian, Judge James Wilson. Wilson has always followed Dickinson’s lead, but in this case Wilson votes in favor of the declaration, securing its passage, so that he would not be remembered by history as the man who voted to prevent American independence. After receiving word of the destruction of his property from General Washington, Lewis Morris finally withdraws New York’s abstention and agrees to sign the document. Finally, with the Declaration of Independence ready to be signed, each colony (including New York) affixes their signature to the Declaration, establishing the United States on July 4, 1776.


The other day I was looking through some material at work that was related to musicals and 1776 came up, probably because of its educational leanings, even if it does veer off quite a bit from the actual historical events. I’m always up for a musical, and if some history can be learned in the process, I’ll give it a shot, as long as it doesn’t put me to sleep.

What is this about?

Peter Stone’s Pultizer Prize-winning musical (starring much of the original Broadway cast) about the internecine congressional squabbling that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence makes a glorious transition to the big screen. A very funny — and poignant — history lesson.

What did I like?

Subject matter. There are books, movies, plays, and even a couple of video games about this era is history, but I do believe that this is the only musical on the subject. is it because this is a particular hard era to write music and lyrics for? No, I wouldn’t say that, I just think there is a tremendous amount of respect, especially in the US, for this period of time and no American really wants to be the one that skewers our history if the production is no good. At least, that’s my theory.

Serious-lee. With the exception of a few comedic moments thrown in here and there, some shoved in, this is a film that seems like it is a lot more serious than it really should be. Enter Richard Henry Lee, a man who finds a way to end every sentence with Lee or -ly, rather. He is quite the character aside from this little quirk and we get just enough of him to satisfy our need for some humor, without him being shoved down out throats, which was a good decision on the part of the playwright and/or screenwriter.

Fenney. I grew up hearing William Daniels’ voice every week as KITT on Knight Rider, then I would see him every week on Boy Meets World (I still ponder how he conveniently managed to follow them up from 6th grade to college graduation). Some of the same mannerisms that he displayed as Mr. Feeney, I noticed he did as John Adams, most notably the talkative nature, but given that Adams is supposed to be convincing the Congress that the Colonies need to break from England, I think that’s understandable.

What didn’t I like?

South. As we are nearing the last act of the film, there is a vote to rebel against England and accept the Declaration of Independence. Because of some writing that was put in there involving slavery, Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina makes an impassioned speech leading to a fire and brimstone song about how they need slaves for their way of living and it is their right to own people. It really is a disgusting display of human behavior, but perhaps one of the best performances of the film. It is just a shame that it nearly stopped the picture in its tracks, or come close to it.

Red Herring. Of all the fathers of our country, the one that we never see is George Washington. He is mentioned quite a few times as a downer with the letters he sends, but for the most part he is used just as a red herring, as we never see him actually make an appearance. Given the period of history this is from, I can excuse not seeing Washington, but it still would have been nice, at least at the beginning. Hell, this is a movie, not a stage production, they could have cut to him at any time and had him read his own letters. They did something similar with John Adams and his wife, and it was quite effective.

Music. Long have I said that the biggest flaw a musical can have is to not have music that the audience will be singing long after the final credits have rolled. Well, its been about 30 minutes and I can’t remember a single song from this film. I remember that there were some in there and that the best were sung by the aforementioned Sen. Rutledge and a nice little jaunt by Blythe Danner and Martha Jefferson, but everything else is forgettable. It is no wonder no one knows anything about this film. The music is unmemorable!

What can I say about 1776? Well, for starters, it is in the same vein as Amadeus in terms of historical accuracy, but nowhere near as good. Come to think of it, I believe this film would have worked better as a straight up drama, rather than a musical. They did seem to forget the musical part for about an hour, anyway. Do I recommend this? As I was telling my friend a little while ago, I felt that this isn’t a bad film, but it isn’t anything to write home about, either. I guess if you’re into forgotten musicals, give this a shot, or just need something patriotic to watch. Otherwise, it is best to bypass this one.

3 1/3 out of 5 stars

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