The Truth about the Movie 1776

It’s a masterpiece I say! They will cheer every word, every letter!

from “The Egg”
Adams, Franklin, Jefferson waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp of an eaglet being born. Photo from Columbia Pictures.

Yep, the movie is full of historical inaccuracies. But as the Columbia Companion to American Film says, “few are very troubling.” The musical 1776 was produced in 1969, during the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration, although it wasn’t especially anti-war or preachy. (Other than the song “Cool Considerate Men,” which was clearly aimed at Republicans, or at least Nixon thought so because he pressured the producer, his friend Jack Warner, to cut it from the cinema version. Warner tried to have the negative destroyed, but someone saved it, and you can see them minuet ever to the right in the restored version. And the anti-slavery part… Anyway…)

The movie was politely applauded at the time, and now it has a cult following. We watch it every year for the holiday. The original musical was more enthusiastically greeted, as it won the Tony for Best Musical, even though the idea of staging the story of Congressional debate over the wording of a political document seemed foolhardy. Where was the romance? Where was the action?

It comes from the moment John Adams bangs open the door to Independence Hall and yells at his colleagues: I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress! To which they respond:

Sit down, John
Sit down, John
For God’s sake, John
Sit down!

Samuel Chase:
Someone ought to open up a window!

It’s dramatic, it’s bold, it’s operatic, with Congressmen singing back and forth at each other, immediately debating hotly whether or not to let in the flies. Is that historically accurate? Surely, it must be! That’s the beauty of the film. Even if there isn’t proof for every single thing that happens–from Hopkins bullying the aide McNair to bring him rum or the delegates rushing outside when a fire wagon goes by or the stiff argument over about “unalienable” vs. “inalienable” –surely, most of these things happened.

Portraying the Founding Fathers

John Adams was short, cantankerous, and holier-than-thou. He came from Boston, where the Massachusetts Bay Colony defined “puritanical.” Literally. He didn’t along with a lot of people as his tenure as president proved. Obnoxious and disliked? Probably. Supposedly he was a respected member of Congress, but respected and liked are different things. He did not say, in 1776, that 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…” He said in 1790, at Franklin’s funeral. And it is how history works.

Jefferson was tall, aloof, charming, but out-of-touch. (Kind of a fill in your own colorful metaphor starting with ass____, if you ask me, as I explained in The Jefferson Paradox.)

Franklin, by 1776, really had done everything, from being the first postmaster general, to earning a spot in the Swimming Hall of Fame, to creating a mathematical magic square, to promoting nude “air baths.” Plus, abolition, independence, newspapers, almanacs, and the rest. He did say, “if we don’t hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”

But a few clarifications are also worth mentioning.

I Say Ye John Dickinson

Dickinson in the movie (and musical) is the main foil, the villain, if you will. He’s the guy that won’t agree to Lee’s resolution on independence. He is shown as deaf to the pleas of John Adams and expresses apathy to the gunfire happening outside of Philadelphia. The truth was more complicated.

Pacifist, writer, fighter, John Dickinson, photo from wikipedia.

Dickinson was one of the most prolific authors of influential pre-Revolutionary essays among the Founding Fathers. Although the movie depicts him as aloof to the problems of the colonists, he had by 1776 written multiple influential works: Letters from a Farmer, the 1774 Petition to the King, the Olive Branch Petition, and even Jefferson’s The Necessity of Taking up Arms.

So Dickinson wasn’t quite the total Tory that he was made out to be in the story. He was a pacifist Quaker–even though he served as a militia officer in the Revolutionary War. He abhorred violence and didn’t think confrontation was the solution. One of the wealthiest men in the colonies, though, he did support the pursuit of property which is enshrined in many of the early documents.

He didn’t vote for the resolution on independence in the end, so it did pass unanimously, without his assent. But after the declaration, after the war in which he served, after helping found universities and being voted in as delegate bunches of times, he helped write the Articles of Confederation, the first set of documents that the colonies supported between the surrender of Cornwallis and the ultimate Constitutional Congress of 1789. It wasn’t complete anarchy in those intervening 13 years. The states just kind of did their own thing, which was Dickinson’s live and let live vision. But ultimately Hamilton, Madison, and the Federalists had other ideas and now we have a Bill of Rights, too.

The Battle of Charleston

South Carolina, say some of the histories, wasn’t against independence. They became one of the first colonies to draft their own resolution for independence and to create their own constitution, in 1775 and early 1776. In Philadelphia, while the resolution was being debated, the Siege of Charleston was taking place at Fort Sullivan. So South Carolina was under attack by the British, at the time Edward Rutledge was standing on a chair singing “Molasses to Rum to Slaves….”

But! Despite wanting independence — primarily from taxation — the South Carolina plantation owners were generally loyalists. The reason that the British came for Charleston was to try to pit loyalists living in the colony against the “patriots.” Infighting! Civil War! This was also the point where the British started bribing slaves to join the Continental Army.

Which is where slaveowners like Rutledge and others became true “patriots,” resisting the British. Rutledge not only supported independence but worked tirelessly to ensure that blacks, whether free or slaves, would never be able to serve in the Continental Army. Which Amendment was that?

John Trumbull’s “Signing,” also not historically accurate.

The Signing and the Sequence

The one thing that 1776 gets the most “wrong” is the sequence of events. The resolution for independence WAS proposed by Virginian Richard Henry Lee. It was passed unanimously because the few who didn’t agree, like Dickinson, didn’t vote, and they were asked to leave. The debate ended on July 2nd. The document was not signed on July 4th because it took a few days for it to be printed and distributed. The actual signing ceremony happened several days later, and the document was actually brought to other locations for signature until August. But the vote happened on July 4th.

And yet. Even if the pages didn’t fall off the calendar and even if there was still debate occurring about the slavery passage after the resolution WAS adopted and even if the Liberty Bell wasn’t rung at the time… it’s still a great depiction of how revolutionary change can come about. Compromise and improvise, and sausage being made.

And insertions about deep sea fishing rights. ‘Tis a masterpiece!

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