A second flood, a simple famine, Plagues of locusts everywhere, Or a cataclysmic earthquake I'd accept with some despair, But no! You sent us Congress! Good God, sir, was that fair?
1776 is the name of a 1969 Broadway play, and its 1972 film adaptation, featuring William Daniels of Knight Rider and Boy Meets World fame in the role that made him a star. It's a mostly accurate depiction of the hurdles and loopholes that the Founding Fathers went through in order to separate from Great Britain... well, once you take out the all-singing, all-dancing part, it is, anyway.Daniels plays John Adams (later the first-ever Vice President), a Boston revolutionary who spearheads the American effort to turn from a British Crown Colony into its own nation. All sorts of reasons are brought up for this, including taxation sans representation and the alienation that the Atlantic Ocean brings. With the help of Yoda-like Ben Franklin and a heel-draggingThomas Jefferson — who is so homesick he can barely write the Declaration of Independence — he puts forth these reasons... which are almost immediately savaged. It takes a minor miracle just to get the whole thing to a spot where it can be voted on, much less ratified; that would require unanimity.Though light-hearted in many parts (it's almost impossible to get through the number about who will write the Declaration without laughing), it also contains poignant looks at how difficult decisions had to be made (the South viewed slavery as an economic necessity and walked out en masse upon hearing Jefferson, a fellow Southerner, condemn it). In addition, a report from a soldier on the front (the haunting "Mama, Look Sharp" number) drives home just how much (and yet how little) the piece of paper will mean.Not to be confused with a 300parody made by Robot Chicken.
This work contains examples of the following tropes:
Absentee Actor: On the original Broadway cast recording, thanks to Howard da Silva's heart attack just before opening night. That's his understudy, Rex Everhart, singing Franklin.
Acting for Two: Standard practice in the straw hat circuit tours during the 1970s. Livingston and Morris, the delegates from New York, were frequently played by the same actor. And in one production number cut after the initial tryout, most of the cast doubled as (mostly incompetent) soldiers.
All There in the Manual: There is a souvenir program out there that shows pictures from the movie and some behind the scenes stuff. Namely (and what puts it as this trope), the names of the rest of the delegates seen in the movie, mostly Southerners to fill out the dance line in "Cool Considerate Men".
Example: The man that yelled "won't someone shut that man up?" during "Sit Down John", is Georgian delegate George Walton.
Anachronism Stew: While mostly accurate, the song "Cool Considerate Men" contains the line "Always to the right, never to the left". The concept of Left and Right Wing politics came about due to the French Revolution, more than a decade later.
Armor-Piercing Question: Jefferson, speaking of black slavery, says that "the rights of man are deeply wounded by this infamous practice!" And Rutledge utterly nails him with, "Then see to your own wounds, Mr. Jefferson, for you are a practicioner! Are you not?!" Jefferson is clearly shaken by this highlighting of his hypocrisy.
Artistic License: Since they didn't have transcripts of the actual events beyond the basic parliamentary records of Congressional activity, putting all the notes and diaries into a narrative required this.
Many historical figures were dropped from the production, as the entire compliment of the Congress would have been too unwieldy for Broadway (particularly as some, like John Adams' firebrand cousin Samuel, would have been crying out for a signature scene or song).
They do make a halfhearted attempt to list some of the congressmembers not present, presenting those 7, plus New Jersey, as all those absent, even though many more are not present or even mentioned. Basically, the only full delegation is Delaware, which was only three men, though Massachusetts does get a full rollcall, with three absent. Getting it the worst may be Pennsylvania, presented as three men, plus the absent John Morton, excluding another five delegates. So Congress, in the movie, at least, is roughly 30-35 members, out of the 65 delegates in reality.
The debate over American Independence did not boil down to an argument over the phrasing of the Declaration and whether slavery ought to be legal, as it more or less does in the movie. While the wording of the Declaration was debated, Congress had, in a surprisingly lucid moment, decided to vote on the issue first and argue the wording of the document after the fact, i.e. Congress had already voted in favor of independence before making changes to the Declaration. The fictionalized debate did serve to make the musical more politically correct by modern standards, and more dramatic since it added an element of "what are you willing to compromise?" to the mix. And it set up one of the musical's most profound comments on American Politics, Franklin's "Whether you like it or not, John, these men will become part of the country you hope to create" (a very, very significant line in this era where phrases like "un-American" are used so frequently in political debate). Still, historically speaking, slavery was not in any way the point on which the issue of independence hinged. It probably could have been, but the Revolutionary leaders, as a whole and by silent agreement, passed the buck for the next generation to deal with.
As admitted in the DVD Commentary, Martha Jefferson never visited her husband in Philadelphia.
There was no vote mandating that a motion for independence had to be unanimous ... but, as Hancock acknowledges in the play, there was an understanding that acting on anything less than unanimity risked a fatal split in the colonies.
Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with the Declaration signed and an independence declared — and years of a turbulent and desperate war that did not look winnable ahead of them. As Washington had mentioned, his army was in terrible shape, his money and credit were all gone, and the British had the strongest navy in the world. That bit in the Declaration about pledging "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" wasn't just emotionalism.
Blood On The Debate Floor: Adams - dear Mr. Adams - and Dickinson calmly talking out their differences. With canes. Secretary Thompson recorded several stick fights during congressional debates, but didn't name the participants.
Bowdlerise: Up until recently, the only version of the movie to reach TV was a severely-edited copy that obscured or completely removed many of the raunchier bits, including the whole "New Brunswick" sequence and the latter half of Franklin's "it's like calling an ox a bull" exchange with Dickinson. Even the version that hit the theatres was badly chopped, among other things excluding lines that made it clear Rutledge's opposition to the slavery clause was not due to mindless evil, but because he saw it as a betrayal of a promise that the independence faction would allow states to govern themselves as they saw fit.
MacNair: "Suh-weet Jesus!", echoed at least once by Franklin
Adams: "Oh good God" and "Incredible."
Chekhov's Gun: The absence of the delegation from New Jersey is repeatedly brought up, which keeps their arrival from being a deus ex machina.
Chessmaster: Franklin. The director's commentary points out that Franklin is often staged in the background of the big debate scenes, observing.
Composite Character: The John Adams in this musical is something of an amalgam of the real John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams.
Cool Horse: Lee's horse, especially during "The Lees of Old Virginia". It begins when Lee remarks "may my horses turn to glue..." — at which point the horse nudges Lee in the chest. And it ends when Lee rides away — because any horse capable of standing still whilst someone runs up behind him (in his blind spot, no less) and leaps onto his back without bucking, rearing, or bolting automatically qualifies for the description. You can see the clip here, with the nudge at 1:05, and the leap onto its back in the final 15 seconds
Covers Always Lie: The posters and DVD cover for the film version of 1776 seem to imply that there is going to be a major romantic plot point involving John and Abigail. While there are some very emotional and heartwarming scenes between the two, they take a backseat to the major historical themes of the movie.
The DVD cover also features One-Scene Wonder Richard Henry Lee as often as it does Mr. Adams, dear Mr. Adams.
Crowd Song: No one in Congress likes John Adams, apparently. "Sit down, John!"
Cutting the Knot: Franklin asking that the Pennsylvania delegation be polled. That leaves Wilson as the swing vote. He instantly buckles and votes with the majority.
Darkest Hour: This musical does not end on the triumphant note you'd expect. The British have landed at New York, the newly formed U.S. of A. is facing the British Imperial Navy at a time when it was the biggest, best, most dominant navy in the world, over a quarter of the colonists are on the British side, and every man in that room is at risk of being hanged for treason. Nobody expected to win that war. For Doom the Bell Tolls indeed...
David Versus Goliath: A comical version in "But, Mr. Adams," seeing as how Ken Howard (Jefferson) stands a full eleven inches taller than William Daniels.
Deadpan Snarker: Mostly Franklin, but Adams and Jefferson get their moments in.
Adams: Do you mean to tell me it's not yet finished?! Jefferson: No, sir. I mean to say that it is not yet begun. Adams:(flabbergasted) You've had a week, man! A whole week! The entire earth was created in a week! Jefferson: Someday, you must tell me how you did it.
Franklin: ...to call me [an Englishman] without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He's thankful for the honor, but he'd much rather have restored what's rightfully his. Dickinson: When did you first notice they were missing, sir?
Hancock: I'm concerned over the continual absence of one-thirteenth of this Congress. Where is New Jersey?? Dickinson: Somewhere between New York and Pennsylvania.
Foregone Conclusion: Thomas Jefferson is going to write the declaration, and it's going to be signed. It speaks to the musical's worth that even though the audience obviously knows how it's going to end, there is still actual conflict and suspense found in how it's going to be done.
As mentioned below, it's a sign of a good production if one forgets that this trope is in play.
Adams: Did you sleep we— ...erm. Franklin:(gasps) Adams: What I mean is, did you lie comforta— ....uhh.
Fridge Logic: In-universe, when Martha Jefferson explains that she and Tom dance to his violin playing (and uses Franklin to demonstrate) Adams is perplexed and wants to know who is playing the violin.
Flynning: The brief stickfight between Adams and Dickinson in the Congressional chamber is rather unconvincing flynning when it's not just the two men grappling.
Gallows Humor: Before signing the Declaration, and thereby committing treason, for which they very well could end up on a gallows.
Grammar Nazi: John Adams, dear Mr. Adams. It's "unalienable," not "inalienable" — but he'll speak about it with the printer later. Funny thing is, he did! Jefferson used inalienable in his draft, but unalienable was used on the published declaration. Whether or not John Adams actually was the source of this is unknown, but he did use "unalienable" in his personal handwritten copy.
Happily Married: John and Abigail Adams, Thomas and Martha Jefferson. Both of them, incidentally, are Truth in Television; the Adamses in particular were quite happily married for fifty-four years. Sadly, despite how much in love they were, Jefferson and his wife didn't have nearly as much time together, as Martha died tragically young. (The Martha Jefferson listed as Jefferson's First Lady is actually his daughter.)
Hidden Depths: Franklin is surprised to learn that Adams is an excellent dancer.
Adams [to Franklin]: We still know how to do some things in Boston!
Historical Domain Character: With the exception of the courier and MacNair's assistant — called only "Leather Apron" — every single person who appears in the Congressional chambers, speaking role or not, is a historically documented personage. Yes, even Thomson and MacNair were real people.
Historical Hero Downgrade/History Marches On: James Wilson, portrayed in the film and musical as a non-entity who voted for independence because he didn't want the notoriety of being the one who voted it down, was in fact a committed independence man who delayed his vote until after he checked with his constituents to make sure they agreed with him — and to do so, was partially responsible for the postponement that the film shows as engineered by Adams and Franklin. However, to be fair to the playwrights, this historical data was not easy to find at the time the play was written (the late 1960s), mainly because Wilson was considered a relatively inconsequential figure. (Indeed, even Adams' role in the process had frequently been trivialized by historians well into the twentieth century.) This led the playwrights to believe his apparent change of heart was unexplained.
Historical Villain Upgrade: Mostly averted. Rutledge and Read do come around, and while Dickinson does not sign the Declaration, he still joins the American army and is given a standing ovation when he leaves Congress. Not to mention that he would become one of the architects of the Constitution eleven years later.
If approached from the real Adams' point of view, this Rutledge is definitely upgraded. Adams thought Rutledge was a waste of political space ("jejune, inane, and puerile," among other things); likewise, he thought Dickinson was "very modest, delicate, and timid" — quite a difference from the political steamroller in the play/movie. He was much more impressed by Richard Henry Lee (whom the stage/movie version of Adams apparently considers an idiotic blowhard).
Hot Blooded: John Adams. He's so hot-blooded, in fact, that the temperature of every environment shoots up to NINETY DEGREES when he's around.
Hollywood Night: Both averted and not. The "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve" number is clearly shot at night in front of the Independence Hall facade, but the later duet where John and Abigail walk across their farm at "night" is obviously a blue-filtered daytime shot. Then again, it is an imaginary/dream sequence, and the filter use may have been an intentional stylistic decision to emphasize that.
Hypocritical Humor: Richard Henry Lee's first scene. In the opening number, Lee darts his eyes around and suggests opening a window, and is shouted down. Seeing his position is unpopular with the chorus, he prompt-Lee joins in.
I Need a Freaking Drink: With the southerners ready to vote them down, the other delegates immediately start calling for MacNair to fetch their rum.
Indy Ploy: The entire struggle for a motion on independence. (Note especially that Adams makes up the whole concept of a declaration of independence purely to stall for time.)
It's Personal: Lewis Morris of New York abstains ("Courteously!") from every vote since New York never told him what to vote for. Then when it comes time to sign the Declaration of Independence he finds out the British have seized and destroyed his home, his family has fled their state and his eldest sons have joined the Continental Army to fight the invaders. "To hell with New York. I'll sign it anyway!"
Edward Rutledge: "I was wondering if you could repeat a small passage: The one beginning 'He has waged Cruel War'" *Jefferson stands up abruptly*
Moments earlier, when Rutledge takes the floor, Franklin murmurs to Adams, "Look out."
The Oner: In the movie, the opening scene of Adams descending the staircase from the bell tower, entering the Continental Congress, and delivering his opening monologue before the first song is all one take. The filmmakers note in the DVD commentary how difficult it was building a camera rig that would give a smooth transition from descending from the ceiling into the Congress chamber. There's a noticeable bump as the camera is wheeled off the extending platform used to film the stairs part of the shot.
One Scene, Two Monologues: The Continental Congress segments of "Sit Down, John" are a rare occasion on which this trope is pulled off well with singing.
One Steve Limit: Very much averted; three of the biggest characters (Adams, Dickinson, and Hancock) are all named John, plus there's Jonathan Witherspoon. Also, we have two Thomases (Jefferson and McKean), and, if we're counting The Ghost, two Georges (Washington and Read). Played somewhat straight, however, since the men use their last names most of the time.
Over Used Running Gag: Usually lampshaded at the end of the "Lees of Old Virginia" reprise. Lee would keep going, if only Franklin and Adams were not forcib-Lee removing him from the stage.
Overly Long Gag: The cards Hopkins had printed up, of which Franklin wants a dozen — "Dear sir: You are, without any doubt, a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double-damned no-good son-of-a-bitch."
Franklin: What would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.
Reality Is Unrealistic: In the DVD Commentary recorded many, many years later, the play's writer revealed that he originally intended Adams to note that if they leave in the slavery clause war would break out in about a century, in yet another example of lifting dialogue directly from the founders' writings. He used only the second half of the quote, "posterity will never forgive us," because he was afraid people would think it was him speaking in hindsight, rather than an actual historic observation by Adams.
In something of a meta-example (and another use of Adams' own writings), Adams' comment to Franklin about history forgetting him and focusing exclusively on Franklin and Washington (and Washington's horse) is dead-on — until well into the twentieth century, Adams' pivotal role in getting the Declaration passed and signed was almost systematically overlooked by historians besotted with the more traditionally heroic Washington and the polycompetent Franklin. The horse was an embellishment of the writers', however.
Roger Ebert (and probably others) blasted the film version in his review calling it "an insult to the real men who were Adams Jefferson, Franklin and the rest" for being an unrealistic portrayal, unaware just how much of the conflict was true.
Red-Headed Hero/Heroes Want Redheads: Abigail Adams. Her insight and willingness to support her husband when he's at a loss even for words, spur him into action in the Continental Congress.
And of course, there's also Thomas Jefferson.
Rule of Three: "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and three or more become a Congress!!"
"Law practice down the pipe. Farm mortgaged to the hilt. At a stage when most men prosper, I am reduced to living in Philadelphia."
Running Gag: Several, with different scopes: John Adam's being obnoxious and disliked being the most obvious — and, like many of the others, historically accurate.
Thomson's attempts to read the resolution
Lampshaded with "Oh, for heaven's sake, let me get through it once!"
The Heat Wave, and whether or not they should open the windows.
"Mr. Morris... What in hell goes on in New York?!"
Jefferson borrows the phrase, for "Virginia abstains," in a slightly different context.
The absence of the New Jersey delegation (because it's stuck somewhere between New York and Pennsylvania)
Stephen Hopkins and the rum gags, hollering out for MacNair to fetch him something.
With John Hancock joining in once.
"...Except for Ben Franklin."
Every telegram from the army is from your obedient — drumroll — G. Washington.
Subverted by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who, in an attempt to keep the Congress from ignoring him, keeps seconding fellow Pennsylvanian John Dickinson's motions even though each delegation only has one vote. Until the moment he breaks with Dickinson to cast the deciding vote on independence in a poll of the Pennsylvania delegation. Franklin deliberately points out that now all eyes are on him, "every mapmaker in the world is waiting for your decision," and he can't bring himself to agree with Dickinson and go down in history as the man who prevented American independence.
Richard Henry Lee's addiction to adverbs. He uses them constant-LEE!
John Hancock's flyswatter.
Self-Deprecation: "Two [useless men] are called a law firm." John Adams was a lawyer — in particular, he was famous for defending the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
Adams could have been aiming a bit of self deprecating humor at himself and/or a Take That at his lazy contemporaries, much like when he decries the Congress he's a part of.
Surrounded by Idiots: John Adams' lament up until near the end, echoed by George Washington's dispatch about the "reek of stupidity" among his officers.
Ben Franklin straightens Adams out by telling him that his fellow congressmen are "not ribbon clerks to be ordered about. They're proud, accomplished men; the cream of their colonies...Now either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home!"
Tableau: The final moments of the film — and the play — reproduce a famous painting of the signing of the Declaration. Arguably inverted, as it's portrayed from the back, since the painting is from the point of view of Hancock's chair.
Actually, the final moments of the film do not reference Trumball's painting, but instead another—arguably less—famous one, seen here◊
Take That: To the New York Legislature. New York only ever abstains ("Courteously!") when called upon to vote, because the New York Legislature had never bothered to give the New York delegation any instructions, as "they all talk very loud, and very fast, and nobody listens to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done." This was just as true in 1972 as it was in 1776, and as any New Yorker will tell you, it's still true today.
In the show's Broadway debut, this line got the biggest laugh out of all of them.
Morris: To Hell with New York, I'll sign the damned thing anyway.
Another Take That is to the City of Brotherly Love, described by Adams as "foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia."
John Adams: At a stage in life when other men prosper, I'm reduced to living in Philadelphia.
Adams: Do you stand with Mr. Dickinson, or do you stand with me? Thomson:(frostily) I'm with the General.
Toilet Humor: "Rhode Island passes"; also the "calling an ox a bull" exchange.
Truth in Television: Vast amounts of dialogue and even song lyrics were lifted intact from the writings of the various Founding Fathers. In particular, "obnoxious and disliked" was John Adams' own description many decades after the fact of how he felt he was viewed by the Founders and the nation in general (although many historians feel he was an unreliable narrator in this respect), and his duets and discussions with the mental image of his wife Abigail are composed of passages from their letters to each other — including the "Saltpeter!"/"Pins!" Running Gag. Some of e most poetic sounding passages, including "write to me with sentimental effusion" are direct quotes.
Similarly, every motion made on the floor of Congress, and every modification proposed or made to the Declaration (including the briefly heard objection about it not mentioning deep-sea fishing rights!) come directly from either the Congressional minutes or Jefferson's own notes from the revision of the Declaration into its final form.
The five dispatches read during the play are all composed of snippets taken from General Washington's actual dispatches.
Thomson recorded the final vote as 12 to nothing, with one abstention, but his records don't state if it was indeed New York.
And even though the passage of the Declaration did not in actuality work out to a nail-biting final vote the way the movie portrays, Judge Wilson did in fact switch sides at the very last minute, changing Pennsylvania's vote from "nay" to "yea"; his reason for this has been debated by historians for decades.
Victorian Novel Disease: Played very straight with Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney, who had skin cancer that was killing him at the time of the Continental Congress, although it's dramatically underplayed with the small patch covering his cheek — in truth, Rodney was missing literally half of his face due to primitive surgery/cauterization treatments and kept the afflicted area hidden under a green kerchief wrapped around his head. Truth in Television here as well, including how he rode eighty miles to break a deadlock in the final vote on independence for his home state — a feat celebrated on the commemorative Delaware quarter.
Not so much Truth in Television... at least not in regards to his reason for being away from Congress. While Caesar Rodney did die of skin cancer, he was in no ways the "dying man" Colonel McKean describes him as in 1776, and had not returned to Delaware to take to his deathbed; in fact, he lived another eight years after the signing of the Declaration before the cancer killed him. In actuality, he had gone home to make a speaking tour to try to stiffen the spines of his fellow Delawarians, who were wavering on Independence and the Revolution. To be fair, though, he did still make what then amounted to a two-day-plus trip overnight — through a thunderstorm — while suffering from the effects of both his cancer and asthma.
Villain Song: "Cool, Considerate Men" fits, "Molasses to Rum" defines.
Thomson, who has been unfailingly dull throughout the story, chokes back tears when reading Washington's lament over sending so many boys to their deaths.
Thomson: Lately, I get the feeling he's been writing to me.
We ARE Struggling Together: One of the big, big takeaways from the play is that independence was not a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the victory of the independence movement was built on a lot of backroom dealing and hustling. And what's more, the new nation's ability to back the Declaration was and would remain in serious question for at least half a decade.
Welcome Episode: Dr. Lyman Hall's arrival at Congress allows the audience to meet all the remaining (important) members of the cast.
What the Hell, Hero?: All the damn time to Adams. And he always deserves it, too. "Molasses to Rum" is this for the entire North.
Wild Card: Lyman Hall, the new delegate from Georgia. Cautiously, he sticks to the party line of the southerners, but overrules them by the end.
Worthy Opponent: When Dickinson says "I regard America no less than does Mr Adams," he's not kidding; Adams and Dickinson are portrayed as both fundamentally good men and true patriots who merely differ on what they believe is best for their country. As Dickinson resigns from Congress, unable to sign the Declaration in good conscience, and sadly leaves to join the Army, Adams leads the delegates in rapping the tables with their knuckles (in the German tradition) in salute. Dickinson would later go on to sign the United States Constitution.
John Adams: Gentlemen of the Congress, I say, "Yea, John Dickinson."
Writer's Block: Jefferson versus the Declaration, to the consternation of Adams.
John Adams: Do you mean to say that it is NOT YET FINISHED?
Thomas Jefferson: No sir. I mean to say that it is not yet begun.