Characters: 1776

John Adams (William Daniels)

"I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!"

Our Hero, so to speak. A Boston revolutionary who really hates shutting up, Adams' abrasive nature belies his good intentions and brilliant mind.

  • Anti-Hero: The fact that he's frequently described as "obnoxious and disliked" (and remember, he describes HIMSELF that way) says a lot about his heroic disposition. The directors' commentary says that he's a difficult role to cast, as he must be disliked by Congress but likable to the audience.
  • Brutal Honesty: Finds Franklin sitting for a portrait. Franklin asks his opinion. Adams says "it stinks" to the artist.
  • Catchphrase:
    • Good God!
    • Incredible.
  • Character Development: Zig-zagged. While they wait for Richard Lee to return with the proposal from Virginia, Adams takes Franklin's advice to heart and, despite great provocation, holds his peace, to the great benefit of his cause. But he cracks much more easily during the multi-day editing process for the Declaration than Jefferson, the actual writer.
  • Composite Character: While he is largely the historical John Adams in his standoffish attitude, lack of charisma, and strained-but-happy family life, the character in the play has absorbed many aspects of his cousin Samuel Adams, including his radical politics, firebrand temper, and several very choice quotes about slavery.
  • Determinator: Commitment!
  • Eleven O'Clock Number: "Is Anybody There?" As it turns out, Lyman Hall was.
  • Establishing Character Moment: He storms into Independence Hall, gives Congress a "Reason You Suck" Speech, and then musically demands that they debate independence over their demands that he shut up.
  • Happily Married: To Abigail. Much of the lyrics in their duets are taken from the actual letters they wrote.
  • Hidden Depths:
    • The Declaration committee is shocked when he says that he misses his wife physically as well as emotionally, given his prudish New England attitude. (It will not be nearly so much of a surprise to those who know the historical figures, however; John and Abigail flirted passionately in their letters, usually but not always with Classical allusions.)
    • Similarly, Franklin is astonished to learn that John is an excellent dancer.
    "We still do a few things in Boston, Franklin!"
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: He is "obnoxious and disliked" (a phrase the real Adams used to describe how others viewed him), but he believes strongly in breaking from England's tyranny and is the only member of the core trio to really stick to his guns without hypocrisy about ending slavery. He also clearly loves his wife and misses her, which give him the idea to send for Martha Jefferson to help Thomas break his writer's block.
  • The McCoy: A rare instance where this element of the Freudian Trio is the protagonist. He wants independence now and he wants it done right. It takes a lot to make him bend on an issue.
    • Adams is so insistent that independence is done the right way that when Hancock basically offers to circumvent the proper procedure because he "is from Massachusetts too," Adams tells him that as President of Congress, Hancock has to follow the rules.
  • No Indoor Voice: Franklin complains that Adams' yelling hurts his gouty foot.
  • Obnoxious Snarker: He never misses an opportunity to be loudly sarcastic about Congressional gridlock.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: He has a whole song about Congress being a bunch of petty, pedantic and self-centered twits. Franklin calls him on this late in the play, pointing out that those men alone were selected by their colonies and insulting them alienates them from their cause.
  • You Need to Get Laid: More subtly than Tom, but the play implies that his blowhard attitude is caused by how much he misses his wife and his frustration at having to live "like a monk in [his] cell."

Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva)

Exactly What It Says on the Tin.

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Dickinson wins in a snark-off early on. Franklin laughs the loudest. (Ironically, this is because da Silva was irritated that Dickinson's final line was added and wanted Franklin to "win" by showing he was above getting irritated.)
  • Chessmaster: He plays Lee like a fiddle in the beginning by getting him to go to Virginia, get a motion for independence, and have Lee think it was his idea all along to avoid owing him a favor. And by the end of the play, he has Judge Wilson's measure.
  • Cool Old Guy: This is Ben Franklin, America's original Cool Old Guy.
  • Deadpan Snarker: As good as most of the other Founders are with witty retorts, Franklin was the master.
  • Dirty Old Man: And still quite the charmer.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Tries to teach John how to politic more effectively, but John is annoyed by Franklin's frivolity.
  • I Have No Son: After the Congress asks him to make feelers to is son, the Royal Governor of New Jersey, Franklin nearly says this word for word. When he learns William's been captured from the New Jersey delegation, the first words out of his mouth (once he knows his son is unharmed) is a delighted inquiry about "why [they arrested] the little bastard." In Real Life, the father never forgave the son for serving the Crown.
  • The Obi-Wan
  • The Spock: Franklin is emotionally invested in independence, but he tries to moderate Adams' attitude and is more willing to deal and compromise with others for the sake of the overall cause.

Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard)

Adams wants him to write the Declaration. Jefferson, however, has much more important things on his mind - namely, his wife Martha.

  • Establishing Character Moment: Dreamily staring out the window and thinking of home, when asked he offhandedly perfectly foretells the weather for the rest of Congress by sticking a wet finger out the window.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Subtle, but there.
    Adams: [referring to the lack of progress on the Declaration] You've had a whole week, man! The entire Earth was created in a week!
    Jefferson: Someday, you must tell me how you did it.
  • Happily Married: To his wife Martha; getting home to visit her preoccupies him immensely before Adams can arrange a conjugal visit.
  • Hypocrite: No punches are pulled by the writers or characters regarding the fact that the man who wrote the phrase "All men are created equal..." owned countless slaves.
  • The Kirk: But not the protagonist. He's more emotional than Franklin, but not nearly as hotheaded as John Adams and thus more able to accept the necessity of compromise.
  • The Quiet One: Adams claims never to have heard him string three sentences together before the start of the play. It lends enough weight to his speaking in support of Adams and Franklin's Declaration to cinch it for the rest of Congress.
  • Refused The Call: It takes Adams and Franklin to convince him to stay and write the Declaration... and it still takes Adams' effort to bring Mrs. Jefferson to Philadelphia to resolve the entire matter.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: With Martha to the degree that it impedes his writing ability.
  • Writer's Block: He can't even get a start on the Declaration. He tosses aside blank sheets and eventually the whole pad of paper.
  • You Need to Get Laid: Before Martha visits, he can't even start on the Declaration. After Martha visits, he bangs out what Adams happily calls "a masterpiece of the American mind" in record time.

Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff)

Our Hero's sensible, level-headed wife. Also wants pins - the sewing kind.

  • Deadpan Snarker: Which makes her well-suited for John.
  • Determined Homesteader's Wife: She capably managed the farm while Adams was away at Congress and turned a profit on it in Real Life, despite her gloomy letters in the musical.
  • Closer to Earth: She does her best to bring down John from his rages and get him going again when he's despondent.
  • Happily Married: Misses her husband very much.
  • Serious Business: The pin shortage in Massachusetts. Which it really is when you've got growing children and live in an era when you have to make your own clothing.

John Dickinson (Donald Madden)

Our Antagonist, so to speak. A Philadelphia gentleman, Dickinson revels in being cool and conservative. The only man in Congress able to match wits with Adams. Dead-set against Independence, but "regards America no less than does Mr Adams." Proves it.

  • Anti-Villain: Although he vehemently opposes independence for the whole show, it's because he truly believes that they still owe something to England and declaring war would be a disaster.
  • Gentleman Snarker: In speech and appearance, he's much more refined than Adams, but he's no less sarcastic.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The passage from "On the Necessity of Taking Up Arms" that Adams quotes was actually written by Dickinson, who was Jefferson's co-author,n and the real John Dickinson actually abstained from both debating and voting, and did nothing more than respectfully present his sentiments before official debate over independence even began. While the play goes out of its way to make its fictional version of Dickinson sympathetic, the hardline conservative powerhouse of the musical is a far cry from the reasonable moderate he was in real life, in the service of giving the play a strong antagonistic figure for Adams to play against.
  • Not So Different: Considers himself as patriotic as Adams, to the point where he leaves Congress for the Army when the Declaration is ratified so that he can defend the country.
  • Upper-Class Twit: A pointed aversion. While Dickinson is a wealthy, upper-class landlord and "gentleman of leisure" in the model of the British aristocracy, he is highly intelligent, charismatic, and silver-tongued, and his lack of interest in representing the common people of America has clearly not dulled his capacity to manipulate or politic.
  • Villain Has a Point: Well, it was verging on impossible for a collection of colonies with a ragtag army to beat what was then the greatest military in the Western world and the greatest navy ever to rule the seas. It's only with the benefit of hindsight that Adams' plan looks like anything other than lunacy.
  • Villain Song: "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" is a very cynical take on the common man and focuses on the material reasons they should stay at peace.
  • Worthy Opponent: He gets a standing ovation when he leaves Congress - instigated by Adams, of all people. (This goes to Adams being a Jerk with a Heart of Gold; Adams realized that Dickinson really was doing what he thought was right and was being gracious in victory.)

Edward Rutledge (John Cullum)

A Southern plantation owner from South Carolina. Gives possibly the most epic What the Hell, Hero? known to musical theatre in the form of "Molasses to Rum." The youngest man in Congress - except for Ben Franklin.

  • Age Lift: John Cullum was 39 in the original Broadway production and 42 in the film; the real Rutledge, at just 26, was the youngest signer of the Declaration.
  • Darker and Edgier: His song, in which he gives a one-man demonstration of a slave auction.
  • Gentleman Snarker: There really is no other way to be in these times!
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: There is no solid historical evidence that Rutledge specifically opposed the slavery clause, much less lead the opposition. But, as with Dickenson, the play needs to put a human face and voice to the single biggest black mark on American history.
  • Large Ham: Not at first, but when the debate turns to slavery he grabs hold of Congress and doesn't let go.
  • Man in White: The Southern delegates in general wear lighter-colored clothing, but Rutledge is their leader, and his signature song is quite unsettling.
  • Not So Different: When Adams and Bartlett condemn the slave trade, Rutledge reminds them, brutally, that it's northern businessmen who carry slaves to the South in the first place.
  • Show Stopper: "Molasses to Rum" will do this. Especially when it's John Cullum with his soaring baritone.
  • Southern Gentleman: Zig-zagged. He's initially quite genteel and polite, but he controls two-thirds of the Southern caucus and is ruthless on the question of slavery the moment it comes up.
  • Villain Has a Point: Of the central trio engineering the Declaration, one is a slave-owner himself, one represents the colony that is the most responsible of all for the horrors of the slave trade, and one is all-too willing to compromise the ideals of liberty to get the thing out the door.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: "Molasses to Rum" is this, in song form, to Adams and the northern colonies in general. Rutledge points out that for all their moral objections to slaves on plantations, it's Boston ships that are sailing to Africa. Even stone-faced Bartlet is broken and horrified. "My God Mister Rutledge! Please!" And Adams, for once, can find nothing to say in rebuttal.

Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate)

A Virginia Ham of epic proportions. Performs this role magnificent-Lee.

  • Evil Sounds Deep: Subverted for comic effect. The role is written for a bass baritone.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Franklin leads him on by lamenting how they just need to find a Virginian who can propose independence in place of Adams.
  • Historical Downgrade: Franklin's manipulating Lee into proposing independence is entirely fictional. Lee was a very capable and respectful Justice and politician in his own right. And he gets Put on a Bus to Virginia to serve as governor, something which never happened in history, because his silliness would undermine the more-serious tone of the later acts.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Makes puns on his name constant-Lee.
  • "I Am" Song: "The Lees of Old Virginia." Basically a laundry list of why he, his family, and Virginia are the greatest.
  • Large and In Charge: Often cast this way. Ron Holgate, the original Lee, is six feet three; Merwin Foard, the Broadway revival's Lee, is even taller, at six feet five.
  • Large Ham: "Forwaaaard-hooooooooo!" He even tries to come back and continue his song until Adams and Franklin push him offstage.
  • Minor Character, Major Song: Ron Holgate got a Tony Award for it. Lee leaves the musical right before the Declaration plot kicks into gear, having been appointed as governor of Virginia. In the original production, he's never seen again after about the first hour; revivals frequently sneak him back in for the signing at the very end.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: A very early example. He leaves the Congress to serve as the governor of Virginia (something that did not happen in history) because the show's gradual slide from comedy to drama would be heavily-damaged by Lee's buffoonish presence.
  • Skunk Stripe: The wig design in both the original Broadway production and the film; also an Actor Allusion, as that was how Holgate's hair was actually graying.
  • Show Stopper: "The Lees of Old Virginia," which explains the Tony nod. It was written this way because the next thirty minutes of the show had no music, so they needed a number that would carry the audience through until "But, Mr. Adams."

John Hancock

The long-suffering president of Congress. Too hot - literally. Philadelphia is steaming in the summer. (It really is—the summers are hot, and though it's too far from the sea to get a decent breeze, the Delaware River provides oceanic humidity).

  • Berserk Button: New York abstains...courteously! He nearly slaps Morris with the flyswatter and later roars at him.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After "Molasses To Rum."
    Hancock: McNair.
    McNair: [exasperated] Oh I know, the flies.
    Hancock: No. The rum.
  • Only Sane Man: He's more frustrated with Congress than Adams is. Especially with New York constantly abstaining.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: He's for independence, but he also breaks the tie in favor of unanimity, rightly pointing out that not having it would tear apart the country right from its intended inception. Later, Adams entreats him to stay this way after Hancock offers to use his position in the debate's Darkest Hour.
  • Running Gag: Swatting flies between words.
  • Suddenly Shouting: "Mister Morris... WHAT IN HELL GOES ON IN NEW YORK?!"

Caesar Rodney

Delegate from Delaware. Staunch defender of independence.

  • Badass Grandpa: Rode 80 miles overnight to cast the deciding vote for Delaware while suffering from debilitating cancer.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: His midnight ride is portrayed as this, although in Real Life he didn't die for several more years.

Judge James Wilson

Dickinson's toady. Continuously forgets that Pennsylvania cannot second its own motion.

  • The Ditherer: Judge Wilson, as portrayed in the play, is a colorless, weak-willed chameleon utterly dominated by Dickenson. Even his old court cases were all decided based entirely on precedent and the rules of order. However, at the end of the play, he finally makes the most fateful decision of his life, in an effort avoid making an even more fateful one: he breaks with Dickenson and votes for independence to become just another voice in the crowd, rather than oppose the motion and accept the responsibility of being the man who prevented it.
  • History Marches On: When the play was written, it was considered as good an interpretation of the historical record as any. Then new sources became available, and it turns out Wilson was probably hedging his bets the same way Lyman Hall was.
  • Running Gag: Trying to second Dickinson's motions.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Dickinson protests the use of the word "tyrant" in the Declaration and rhetorically asks Wilson if he considers George III a tyrant. Wilson actually starts to disagree until Dickinson gives him a Death Glare, so he lamely finishes by saying "he's not a tyrant... in Pennsylvania."
  • Yes-Man: To Dickinson, but see History Marches On.

Dr. Lyman Hall

The new delegate from Georgia. He seems friendly, but doesn't say much about his opinions on independence.

  • Audience Surrogate: His introduction to Congress is a handy way for the writers to name and sketch out his colleagues.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: He initially seems to be just a vehicle to introduce the other main characters. He's not.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Downplayed. Initially, though his private opinions are in support of independence, his state's are not, and since he's unsure what to do he decides to err on the side the people support. Towards the end, while reading the works of Burke, he decides that he owes his constituents his judgement rather than his obedience, and votes his convictions on the matter.
  • Naïve Newcomer: He expects the Congress to be more impressive than it actually is.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: Discussed with Caesar Rodney, who asks if he's a doctor of medicine or theology.
    Hall: Both, Mr. Rodney. Which can be of service.
    Rodney: By all means, the physician first. Then we shall see about the other!
  • Renaissance Man: Early on, Caesar Rodney asks if he's a doctor of medicine or theology. He offhandedly admits to being both.
  • Straight Man: The only delegate to avoid snarking, embarrassing, or humiliating behavior. He even manages to maintain face against an intimidating Rutledge.
  • Wild Card: With no instructions from his colony, he's able to vote according to his own judgment. He walks out with the South, but later returns to change his vote.

Col. Thomas McKean

A loud Scotsman. Also from Delaware. His loud voice belies his soft heart.

  • Boisterous Bruiser: Not a very effective one, granted.
  • Book Dumb: He mistakes Rutledge's Latin sarcasm (tria juncta en uno!) for French.
  • Large Ham: He's very loud and bombastic.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: When Rutledge remarks on the "eternal peace and harmony" of Delaware's delegation, McKean is angrily confused because everyone knows they can't stand Read.
  • Violent Glaswegian: His arguments with Read are at bombastic high volume, sometimes including threats. In the film he seems to have brought a musket into the chamber, which he fires into the ceiling to break up the fight between Adams and Dickinson.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: At the very end, he and his personal nemesis Read are cracking jokes at one another's expense, and laughing at them all.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: To Adams' request that he fetch the dying Rodney back to swing Delaware's vote to independence. McKean does it, but not happily.
    "God, what a bastardly bunch we are!"

George Read

  • The Dandy: He's noticeably better-dressed than Rodney and McKean, with his yellow clothing matching the Southern delegation—you see, Delaware literally straddles the Mason-Dixon (the northern part is in the orbit of Philadelphia, while the southern part is more like Maryland or Virginia).
  • Token Enemy Minority: He's the only anti-independence member of the Delaware delegation.

Joseph Hewes

  • Yes-Man: When called to vote, he always "respectfully yields" to South Carolina.

Josiah Bartlett

  • Heroic BSOD: Expresses the sentiments of the whole Northern bloc after "Molasses to Rum" when he stops the song with "For the love of God, Mr. Rutledge, please!" The writers have said that the correct interpretation of this line is not exasperation but desperation.
  • Name's the Same: The great-grandson of his great-grandson would later become President of the United States. (No, really — Aaron Sorkin explicitly said that President Jed Bartlet was most definitely one of those Bartletts.)
  • “Stop Having Fun” Guys: invoked He proposes a piece of legislation to ban gambling, horse-racing, drinking, etc... and is immediately shouted down by the rest of Congress.

Rev. James Witherspoon

  • Nice Guy: He's very pleasant and polite, unlike most of his colleagues.
  • The Vicar: He insists that a reference to Providence be added to the Declaration. He's also quite horrified to hear Washington's dispatch about the whoring and drinking in New Brunswick and rather walks into it:
    Witherspoon: There must be some mistake. I have an aunt who lives in New Brunswick!
    Dickinson: [as Congress roars with laughter] You must tell her to keep up the good work!

Stephen Hopkins

  • The Alcoholic: Frequently shouts at McNair to get him more rum. He gets cut off early in his first scene, only to get his drinks back after settling the vote in favor of debating the question of independence.
  • Drunken Master: Claims that drinking rum helps him.
  • Grumpy Old Man: He's always pretty ornery, although the orneriness helps in voting for a debate on independence.
  • In-Series Nickname: "Grape and Guts." Only mentioned once, but his fellow congressmen did actually call him that.

Charles Thomson

  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: He gets visibly fed-up with Congressional antics and continual interruptions.
    "Oh for heaven's sake, let me get through it once!"
  • Bearer of Bad News: He's the one who's charged with reading George Washington's relentlessly gloomy dispatches.
  • Genre Savvy: Apparently has a lot of experience with Congress' tendency to break into song; witness how smoothly he steps into the lyrics of "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men."
  • Hidden Depths: He's developed a feeling of admiration for and kinship with General Washington after reading so many of his messages.
  • Take a Third Option: Near the end, Adams asks if Thomson stands with him or Dickinson. Thomson's response? "I stand with the General."

Samuel Chase

  • Big Eater: He's always seen with a loaded plate on his desk.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Of the major representatives opposed to independence at the start of the play, Chase is the least ideological. He freely admits that he wants independence, but is highly skeptical that it can be taken. He changes his tune after seeing the troops drilling in New Jersey.

Roger Sherman

  • Book Dumb: Cites being unable to tell "a participle from a predicate" as proof of his inability to write the Declaration of Independence.

Lewis Morris

  • Catch Phrase: "New York abstains courteously!"
  • It's Personal: After his home gets destroyed by British troops and his sons enlists in the Continental Army, he supports the independence movement regardless of New York's wishes.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Well, more like his state, but states were considered similar to countries at the time anyway; he abstains from voting because New York didn't actually give him instructions on whether or not to vote for independence.

Robert Livingston

The Courier

  • Darker and Edgier: "Mama, Look Sharp" is sung from the point-of-view of a minuteman (not even a trained soldier, really) dying alone.
  • No Name Given: He's the only character who was not derived from history and as such is not named.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Seeing as how he's always carrying distraught messages from George Washington.
  • Minor Character, Major Song: He spends most of the show walking in and out without any lines. Then he sings "Mama, Look Sharp," reminding everyone that the Revolution is not just about a bunch of rich, irritable gentry arguing semantics in a hot room.

Andrew MacNair

  • Beleaguered Assistant: To the whole of Congress, who are forever shouting at him to open or close windows or fetch rum.
  • Catchphrase: "Aww, suh-weet Jesus!
  • If I Want Your Opinion: At one point, he tries to butt into a debate to mention that he's not all that hot on "the United States of America" as a name for a country. John Hancock grumpily shoos him off on the ground that he's not actually a delegate and doesn't get to voice his opinion.
  • Servile Snarker: On watching the conservative caucus sweep imperiously out at the conclusion of their number: "How'd you like to try and borrow a dollar off one of them!"

Martha Jefferson (Blythe Danner)

  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: She never visited hubby in Philadelphia. (The real reason Jefferson was so desperate to see her was because Martha was ill from a miscarriage, complicated by what's thought to be diabetes.)
  • Happily Married: To Tom, which she sings about at length.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Snogs Jefferson long enough to completely ignore Franklin and Adams at their first meeting and completely forget them until the next day, so busy is she being swept up into Jefferson's arms fro a makeout session.

George Washington

  • The Eeyore: His letters to Congress are always about the miserable state of the Continental Army and its dim hopes of ever winning any battles.
    Col. Thomas McKean: That man would depress a hyena.
  • The Ghost: Only enters the play via his dispatches.
  • Mood Whiplash: Played for Laughs. Congress always groans when the Courier comes in because they know Washington is going to depress them regardless of whatever they were doing beforehand.