"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!"
Our Hero, so to speak. A Boston revolutionary who really hates shutting up, Adams' abrasive nature belies his good intentions and brilliant mind.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. In the film, Franklin, whenever he isn't participating in the debates, is constantly observing and filing away the actions and reactions of the other delegates.
- 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 his 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 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.
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. And while he professes a desire to free them eventually in the play, historically, it never quite worked out.
- 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: Originally, 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, and although that opposition is at least partly rooted in his private concern for his own wealth rather than any kind of public spirit, he is a genuine English patriot who loves his colony and his mother country and does not believe the rebellion is a war America can win. That last fact makes his willingness to join the Continental Army in the end all the more powerful.
- 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, 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 of leaving Congress to join the Continental Army when the Declaration is ratified so that he can defend the new 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 at first blush.
- 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 led the opposition. But, as with Dickinson, the play needs to put a human face and voice to the single largest 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 Deep 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 Bartlett is broken and horrified. "For the love of 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 respected 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 character's fictional 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."
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).
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. Continually forgets that Pennsylvania cannot second its own motion.
Dr. Lyman Hall
The new delegate from Georgia. He seems friendly, but doesn't say much about his opinions on independence.
Col. Thomas McKean
A loud Scotsman. Also from Delaware. His loud voice belies his soft heart.
- 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.
- Yes-Man: When called to vote, he always "respectfully yields" to South Carolina.
- 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 Bartlett was most definitely one of those Bartletts.)
- “Stop Having Fun” Guys: 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
- The Alcoholic: Frequently shouts at MacNair 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 get a man's heart started in the morning.
- 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.
- 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.
- Book Dumb: Cites being unable to tell "a participle from a predicate" as proof of his inability to write the Declaration of Independence.
- 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.
- 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 tromping 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.
- 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.
- No Hero to His Valet: When his assistant tells the courier he's planning to join the army, MacNair snarks that he doesn't have to fight, he's in Congress, and points out how eager the delegates are to send others to their deaths, yet reluctant to go themselves.
- 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.