In this summer of political discontent, some of the lines from the musical “1776” keep coming to mind as we interview those who represent us in Washington and to a much lesser degree those who represent us in Jefferson City. We pass them along in these times of hard-line political positions and antagonistic attitudes for whatever humor, verbal ammunition, or insight they might offer. Perhaps they offer a tale for our times. Or maybe it’s just a play.
John Adams, played by William Daniels in both the original Broadway production and in the film, is the protagonist, a member of the Continental Congress pushing for “independency.” He is frustrated by a Congress that is unwilling or unable to make a decision, particularly a decision on something as important to him as declaring independence from Great Britain. At the beginning of the play, the intense Mr. Adams, expresses his frustration to the Almighty:
“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?”
Adams continues to rant against a Congress that does not see things his way. He is, after all, “obnoxious and disliked,” a condition he recognizes but seems unwilling to correct so that he might have a more fruitful discussion with those who differ with him. Instead of asking what he might do about his own attitude to foster less-confrontational debate that could further his interests, he continues to blame others:
“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! And by God, I have had this Congress!”
And in a scene with his wife, Abigail, who has stayed in Massachusetts, he proclaims:
“Oh, Abigail, Abigail, I have such a desire to knock heads together!”
But knocking heads together doesn’t work for John Adams. And insulting his colleagues (“Three or more [useless men] become a Congress.”) seems only to antagonize the very people whose support he needs to achieve his goal doesn’t either.
As the production moves on, Adams’s allies, Jefferson, Franklin, and others who are less lightning rods than he is address those reluctant to support what Adams wants. They make political moves, bargains, and compromises that Adams will not make. As the play moves toward the adoption of a Declaration of Independence, Georgia delegate Lyman Hall reveals the conflict many feel in congress. As the vote on the document is called, Hall tells the president of the congress, John Hancock:
“Mr. President, Georgia seems to be split right down the middle on this issue – the people are against it, and I’m for it. [laughter] However, I’m afraid I’m not quite certain whether representing the people means relying on their judgment or on my own. In all fairness, until I can figure that out, I’d better lean a little on their side. Georgia says nay.
The congress is deadlocked. The delegates adjourn and Adams is left in the darkened Pennsylvania State House—we know it today as Independence Hall—asking: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see….what I see?” Out of the shadows steps Hall.
Hall : Yes, Mr. Adams, I do.
Adams : Dr. Hall, I didn’t know anyone was…
Hall: I’m sorry if I startled you. I couldn’t sleep. In trying to resolve my dilemma I remembered something I’d once read, “that a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.” (He smiles, mostly to himself, then looks at Adams). It was written by Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament.
Hall then walks to the tally board at the front of the chamber and moves Georgia’s “nay” vote into the “yea” column.
Adams fought South Carolina’s demand that language attacking the institution of slavery be removed from the Declaration. In the play’s most decisive moment South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge declares his delegation’s determination to kill the entire movement, if Adams does not back down. When Adams cannot force himself to do so, someone else does it for him.
Rutledge: Well, Mr. Adams?
Adams: Well, Mr. Rutledge.
Rutledge: Mr. Adams, you must believe that I *will* do what I promised to do.
Adams: What is it you want, Rutledge?
Rutledge: Remove the offending passage from your Declaration.
Adams: If we did that, we would be guilty of what we ourselves are rebelling against.
Rutledge: Nevertheless… remove it, or South Carolina will bury, now and forever, your dream of independence.
Franklin: John? I beg you consider what you’re doing.
Adams: Mark me, Franklin… if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.
Franklin: That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, 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. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?
Adams pauses, then turns to Jefferson: Jefferson, say something.
Jefferson: What else is there to do?
Adams: Well, man, you’re the one that wrote it.
Jefferson: : I *wrote* ALL of it, Mr. Adams.
Jefferson goes to the table where the document lays and crosses out the clause. Adams grabs the declaration and takes it to Rutledge.
“There you are, Rutledge, you have your slavery; little good may it do you, now VOTE, damn you!”
Rutledge takes the declaration, and tells Hancock, “Mr. President, the fair colony of South Carolina…(he pauses and looks at the defiant Adams) says yea.”
It’s just a play.
This is one of my favorite plays and films of all time–I quote from it constantly and watch it at least once a year! Is it historically accurate? Not completely, for reasons I will not go into here. Does it give the flavor and ambience of 1776? Is it still relevant and reflective of Congress today? Ab-so-lutely!
I often wonder if a lone Senator or Congressperson in Washington steps into the chamber at dusk sometimes and whispers, “Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”