"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.
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 ending slavery.
He also clearly loves his wife and misses her.
It was John who sent 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.
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.
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.
Eccentric Mentor: Tries to teach John how to politic more effectively, but John is annoyed by Franklin's frivolity.
I Have No Son: When told by the arriving New Jersey delegates that they had arrested Franklin's Loyalist son, Franklin nearly says this word for word. In Real Life, the father never forgave the son for serving the Crown.
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.
The Kirk: But not the protagonist. He's more emotional than Franklin, but not nearly as hotheaded as John Adams.
The Quiet One: Adams claims never to have heard him string three sentences together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dawson Casting: Cullum was in his forties when he played the 26-year-old Rutledge. (They even reference him as the youngest man in Congress.)
Darker and Edgier: His song, in which he gives a one-man demonstration of a slave auction.
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.
Southern Gentleman: A veneer. He puts on a show of politeness, but he controls the Southern caucus and is ruthless on the question of slavery.
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.
Show Stopper: "Molasses to Rum" will do this. Especially when it's John Cullum with his soaring baritone.
Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate)
A Large 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.
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.
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."
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.
"I Am" Song: "The Lees of Old Virginia." Basically a laundry list of why he, his family, and Virginia are great.
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).
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.
Dickinson's toady. Continuously forgets that Pennsylvania cannot second its own motion.
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.
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."
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 try and break up the fight between Adams and Dickinson.
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).
"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!
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.
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 irritable men arguing semantics.
Beleaguered Assistant: To the whole of Congress, who are forever shouting at him to open or close windows or fetch rum.
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.)