An entire musical about creating the Declaration of Independence and most famously stars William Daniels (K.I.T.T. from the original Knightrider, and Mr. Feeney in Boy Meets World) as John Adams (yes, that is why the school is named John Adams and the schools in Girl Meets World are Quincy Adams and Abigail Adams). He created the role on Broadway. This musical did feature into a section of curriculum in my sophomore English class; but I was well familiar with the show before then; I was watching this in kindergarten. I even found and read a published copy of the screenplay. And Lin-Manuel Miranda does credit 1776 as a bit of inspiration for his smash hit of Hamilton. I like to watch this film around the Fourth of July, for obvious reasons and I tend to listen to The Lees of Old Virginia when I visit Virginia. And I am descended from some Lees; not related to Robert E. or Richard Henry; mine were miners from Wales in the early twentieth century (though my mother did find it funny when they attended a performance of the show and the actor pointed to them, not knowing they were Lees).
The film begins with John Adams musing near the Liberty Bell, then fetched to help vote on the very important issue of whether all the Rhode Island militia must wear matching uniforms. Good God, indeed. Adams thunders down several flights of stairs to enter the hall, rebuking “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace. That two, are a law firm. And that three or more become a Congress! And by God I have had this Congress!” For ten years, King George has imposed more and more taxes on the colonies and when they begin to stand up for themselves, the British have blockaded their ports and started a fight. But Congress still refuses to hear any of Adams proposals on independence; even so much as the courtesy of open debate. “Good God, what in hell are you waiting for!” Sit Down, John the members of Congress cry. Adams implores them to “vote yes!” “Good God, consider yourselves fortunate that you have John Adams to abuse, for no sane man would tolerate it!” he cries, then storms out to discuss the matter with God. For one year, the Congress has been sitting there, Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve, and done nothing. Adams would rather have a catastrophe than Congress; “good God, sir, was that fair?” Then his wife, Abigail [one of two female roles in the entire show] chimes in. Adams asks about the salt peter he asked the women to make; they have not done as he asks, because he neglected to tell them how to make it. Besides, they require pins. But they finish affectionately “till then/ till then/ I am/ as I ever was/ and ever shall be/ yours.” (A lot of this is taken from letters they wrote to each other as well as diaries and documents the men kept during the time)
Adams seeks out Benjamin Franklin the next day to discuss their next step. Both are dispirited by their fellow Congressmen’s actions: “with one hand they can raise an army, dispatch of their own to lead it, and cheer the news from Bunker’s Hill. And with the other, they wave the olive branch, begging the king for a happy and permanent reconciliation. Fat King George has declared us in rebellion, why in bloody hell can’t they?” Adams moans. “Reconciliation, my ass. The people want independence.” Franklin points out that what America is doing has never been done before; no colony has broken from the parent nation. Then thinks of a humorous saying that treason is an excuse for the winners to hang the losers. Besides, “the people have read Mr. Paine’s Common Sense, I doubt very much that Congress has.”
Congress doesn’t like to listen to Adams, Franklin continues, because the man is obnoxious and disliked. Thus, if Adams wants the topic of independence to be discussed, it would be best if someone else proposes it. “Never!” Adams declares. Well, did Franklin have anyone in mind? Perhaps…and in rides flamboyant Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia. Adams is not keen on the notion, but Richard is happy to help. Virginia is a known supporter of independence, but its government in Williamsburg has not formally committed to the cause. Richard eagerly muses that once Virginia is official, the middle colonies and then the south will follow. “Gentlemen, to Virginia, the mother of American Independence!” “Incredible, we’re free and he hasn’t even left yet,” Adams grouses. Richard knows he will succeed because “my name is Richard Henry Lee/ Virginia is my home…for I am FFV/ the first family/ in the sovereign colony of Virginia/ yes, the FFV/ the oldest family/ in the oldest colony in America!” “You see it’s here a Lee/ there a Lee/ everywhere a Lee, a Lee!” Franklin joins in on The Lees of Old Virginia starting words that end with “l-y,” so Richard can announce “Lee!” Adams mutters “spoken modest-Lee/ God help us.” Richard is so confident, he feels that “God leans a little on the side/ of the Lees, the Lees of Old Virginia!” He names several Lees, including his nephew, General “Light-horse” Harry Lee [father of Robert E. Lee from the Civil War].
Quick historical note: there were families known as the FFV, the First Families of Virginia and the Lees were one of them. They were not necessarily the first settlers of the colony, but were the most socially prominent and wealthiest. Most had strong ties back in England and friends with King Charles II. Hence why Virginia was sometimes referred to as “Old Dominion” and “Cavalier Country.” The first Lee in Virginia was Richard Henry’s grandfather, who emigrated to Jamestown in 1642. At one point, I wanted to move to Virginia to utilize my history degree, since colonial history has many ties to British history and the Stuarts (Charles II was a Stuart; George III was a Hanoverian, the subsequent dynasty in England) were a topic of interest.
Carrying on, Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia arrives to Congress and both sides are eager for him to join, though Rutledge of South Carolina mandates that the deep South speak with one voice; it’s traditional. We witness the dynamics of Congress; Pennsylvania is divided between Franklin and Dickinson, Judge Wilson bows to Dickinson’s requests. Delaware is also divided. New Jersey hasn’t shown, New York continually abstains, courteously (because they have no instructions; everyone in New York government speaks very loud and very fast; no one hears anyone else and thus, nothing gets done). North Carolina respectively yields to South Carolina. And just when Dickinson, leader of the opposition to independence, starts to believe that the upstart idea has blown itself out, Lee returns with the proposition from Williamsburg: “Resolved, that these united colonies are and have a right to be, free and independent states. That they are absolved of allegiance to the British Crown and that all political alliance between them and the stage of great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved!” [Historically known as the Lee Resolution]
Now comes the debate. Dickinson asks Adams ‘why.’ Why do the New England colonies want to break with the greatest empire the world has ever known? Why forsake Hastings and Magna Carta , Tudor and Plantagenet? Is not England the noblest and most civilized nation known to man? Adams is simply an agitator. If he has disagreements, he must provide a gentler mean of breaking with England, short of revolution. Well, Adams first point is that the colonists are no longer Englishmen, they are Americans. Franklin wakes from his nap when Dickinson starts banging his stick, “Englishmen!” After a joke about bulls, the elder statesmen points out that Americans are being denied the rights of Englishmen. The colonists are a rougher breed; they are a new nationality and require a new nation. Rutledge of South Carolina chimes in, wanting to know who will govern South Carolina in the new nation. The people of South Carolina, or the people of Massachusetts? Adams insists it will be one nation. Well, South Carolina desires independency, for South Carolina. They envision sovereign states united for mutual protection; meaning that South Carolina does not have to do what Massachusetts or Pennsylvania does. Another Congressman argues that they should wait until they somehow win the war (for the are fighting against the largest army of that time period); once they win, they can declare anything they please. Adams urges that the men fighting need a purpose or goal that they are fighting for. They more than make up for Britain’s army with spirit. Adams and Dickinson start name calling, ending with “landlord!” and “lawyer!” beating each other’s sticks.
The fight breaks up with Cesar Rodney of Delaware collapses. But New Jersey has arrived, finally, led by Reverend John Witherspoon [an actual ancestor of mine on my father’s side]. And they have been instructed to vote for independence. But Dickinson moves that any vote for independence must be unanimous. And Hancock agrees; so no brother is fighting his brother [oh boy, bit of foreshadowing]. Adams must stall for time and moves for a postponement, so they can craft a document listing their reasons for separating from England, keeping with European tradition. In essence, declaring their illegal rebellion in fact legal. Thus, a committee is created, including Adams, Franklin, Sherman (CT), and Livingston (NY). They ask Lee, but he has been invited to join the Virginian government, so they derail Jefferson’s plans to leave for home and have him join; they need a Virginian.
Franklin figures he can get Adams to write the declaration, “to your legal mind/ and brilliance, we defer.” But Adams reminds Franklin “well, if I’m the one to do it/ they’ll run their quill pens through it/ I’m obnoxious and disliked/ you know that, sir;” it would be better if Franklin wrote it. But, Mr. Adams, Franklin “won’t put politics on paper/ it’s a mania/ so I refuse/ to use the pen/ in Pennsylvania.” Sherman is not controversial, but he doesn’t “know a participle from a predicate.” Livingston is a diplomat, but has a new son at home, so he’s “going home to celebrate/ and pop a cork.” That leaves Jefferson. Adams flatters him, saying “you write ten times better than any man in Congress, including me. For a man of only thirty-three years, you have a happy talent of composition and a remarkable felicity of expression.” Jefferson insists on going home. Adams refuses to let him; he will make Jefferson write it, by physical force if necessary (note: there’s about a foot difference in height between the two men). Adams knows how Jefferson feels, startling everyone; he continues to yearn for his own wife. But it’s Jefferson’s duty, damn it. Adams shoves the quill pen into Jefferson’s hands and declares, “do as you like with it!” Jefferson struggles to start and it’s not until Adams sends for his wife that he shows any inspiration. Well, after he attends to his wife first.
Adams reminisces on his wife; they both live solitary, celibate lives at the moment and hate it. But Abigail ensures her husband “what was there, John/ still is there, John.” Yours, Yours, Yours. When Franklin returns in the morning, Adams remarks that he won’t be remembered in the history books, only Franklin. “Franklin did this, and Franklin did that, and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod, and the three of them, Franklin, Washington, and the horse, conducted the entire Revolution all by themselves.” (Adams has a point; we hear far more about Franklin, especially as young students, and when we do hear about Adams, he’s usually regulated to a background character. Washington and Jefferson are both better known.)
Martha finally emerges to see Franklin and Adams and they ask how Jefferson wooed such a lovely young woman, for he is not a verbose man. Instead, He Plays the Violin; “he tucks it/ right under his chin/ and he bows/ oh he bows/ for he knows/ yes, he knows/ That it’s high, high, high/ diddle diddle/ twixt my heart/ Tom, and his fiddle/ my strings are unstrung/ high, high, high, high/ I am undone.” (As a young child and even into my teenage years, the innuendo of this went over my head; I learned it innocently and that is how I viewed it, despite my friends attempts to change my mind.) When Tom is not playing the violin, they dance. So Martha dances with both Franklin and even Adams (such a pretty gown, with a poufy skirt).
While Jefferson writes, Franklin and Adams must see to persuading the other colonies. When news of whoring and drinking amongst the army in New Brunswick is reported to Congress (most of Washington’s dispatches were filled with doom and despair), Adams and Franklin take Samuel Chase to win Maryland’s vote. Dickinson cheers that Adams is gone. So it is time for the Cool, Cool, Considerate Men to reign (supposedly President Nixon ordered this song removed and it was from the video release, but the film was not destroyed and thus restored when released on DVD). These conservative men [meaning they are not the fiery men like John and Samuel Adams; it has nothing to do with present political standings and viewpoints] “have land/ cash in hand/ self command/ future planned/ fortune thrives/ society survives/ in neatly ordered lives.” “What we do/ we do rationally/ we never ever/ go off/ half-cocked, not we/ why begin/ till we know we can win/ and if we cannot win/ why bother to begin?” Why risk losing? (Hmm, Adams was right a bit, calling Dickinson a coward.) Dickinson asks Hancock to join them as a man of property, but Hancock would rather join Adams. Dickinson warns that Adams and his friends will be branded traitors. “Traitors to what, Mr. Dickinson? The British Crown, or the British half-crown (piece of money)? Fortunately, there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy.” Dickinson argues that “most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that is why, they will follow us.”
The film takes a sad tone after this, when the Congressional custodians ask the dispatch rider about himself. He begins to eagerly recount he’s seen fighting and two of his best friends got shot in the same day, not far from their homes. Then their mothers look for them on the battlefields, Momma Look Sharp.
Everyone reconvenes for the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson wait outside the room. Adams vows it’s a masterpiece. What’s left to decide is the symbol of America. Should it be a dove, an eagle, or a turkey? Franklin pushes the turkey, but Adams swoops in and declares it will be an eagle. “Though the shell/ may belong to Great Britain/ the eagle inside/ belongs to us!” Then comes nearly a week of revisions. Adams tries to shut down some of the extensive ones; “it’s a revolution, dammit; we’re going to have to offend somebody!” Jefferson insists that the king remains a tyrant; up till now, he’s been going along with Congress, but he insists that passage be scratched back in. Franklin counsels Dickinson that “those that give up some of their liberties in order to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty, nor safety.”
But a larger battle comes to head; the issue of slavery. South Carolina wants the passage removed from the Declaration, for they wish to retain their peculiar institution. Rutledge points out that Jefferson himself owns slave, for all that he comments the Good Book abhors it. Adams insist they are Americans; they are people and they are here. But Rutledge brings up that New England profits from the slave trade as well, despite their propriety; they provide the ships and trade on the African coast. Molasses to Rum to slaves is the trade triangle, and Rutledge illustrates an auction until he is warned. “Hail Boston/ Hail Charleston/ who stinkest/ the most?” he finishes. Then the whole South walks out. Franklin and Adams argue. Adams storms up to the bell tower and ponders the position he is in with Abigail. She urges him to remember commitment. And there is a surprise waiting for him. She sent the salt peter. Adams orders one of the aids to go out and buy every damn pin in Philadelphia for the ladies.
Reinvigorated, Adams urges Franklin and Jefferson to continue working; the vote is in the morning. Hancock offers to do what Adams wants; he’s still a Massachusetts man, but Adams implores him to remain a fair man. Then Adams has the hall to himself in the dark for a moment, looking over Washington’s last dispatch, quoting Is Anybody There? Does anybody care? Passionately shouting “Does anybody see/ what I see…I see fireworks/ I see the pageant/ and pomp and parade/ I hear the bells ringing out/ I hear the canons roar/ I see Americans/ all Americans free/ forevermore.” Dr. Hall startles him by entering and moves his vote to ‘yay,’ openly recalling something he read from Edmund Burke, a member of Britain’s Parliament, that a representative owes his people his judgment and he fails if he does not do so.
The vote is called in the morning. Delaware brings Cesar Rodney back to have a majority vote. Pennsylvania passes so they can continue to debate amongst themselves. When they come to South Caroline, Rutledge faces down Adams and Jefferson and Jefferson himself scratches the passage out. Adams and Franklin argue amongst themselves that they will be guilty of the same thing they are rebelling against; how will posterity forever them? Franklin states that the issue right now is independence. Yes, posterity will frown on them, but they will be dead. And they’re men, not demi-gods. With the South on their side, the vote for independence comes down to Pennsylvania. Franklin votes yes. Dickinson votes no. Now, it all rests on Judge Wilson. There is no precedence here to go by. And he’s not like Dickinson, he doesn’t want to be remembered. If he sides with the majority, he’s one of many. If he sides with Dickinson, he’ll be the man who prevented American independence. He votes ‘yay.’ Dickinson will not sign the Declaration and thus cannot remain in Congress, but he is still loyal to America and will join the fight in her defense, even if he hopes to one day reconcile with England. Adams leads the cheer for Dickinson as he leaves. The official copy is brought out for signing, John Hancock’s signature being the first and largest, so King George can read it without his glasses. The bell chimes as each man signs, the date reading July 4th, and the camera pulls back to show a mirror image of John Trumbull’s famous painting.
Yes, there are a few historical inaccuracies in the show. The Declaration of Independence was ratified on July fourth, but it wasn’t signed until August second. Some of the debates were re-worked for a bit for dramatic effect. Still, it is a lot more accurate than many other shows and movies (cough-Braveheart-cough). There have since been further retellings of these men, such as an HBO miniseries in 2008 on John Adams based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, starring Paul Giamatti (I believe my mother has read the book and I’m not sure if she has watched the series). There is of course, the recent smash Broadway hit of Hamilton (which premieres on Disney+ on July 3rd). But this show owns a piece of my heart. It was probably one of my first history lessons. When we covered it in sophomore English, my classmates would come to me for answers because I sat there, reciting the whole film. A friend and I wanted to do a gender-swapped production; she’d be Franklin and I’d be Adams. Though I love The Lees of Old Virginia, it would be fun to sing Cool, Cool, Considerate Men. While Molasses to Rum is not a pleasant song, John Cullum performs it well. William Daniels is wonderful as John Adams, though he is of equal status as Mr. Feenie.
If you have any questions, feel free to message me.
Up Next: Delving more into my childhood, Bedknobs and Broomsticks