J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sit Down, John! — 1776 Revived

Tomorrow the Lyric Stage Company of Boston opens its season with the musical 1776, the all-singing, rather-little-dancing portrayal of the Second Continental Congress's debate on independence. Songs by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. (I much enjoyed the Lyric Stage's production of Noises Off a coupla years ago.)

Back in the bicentennial year of 1976, my elementary-school class took a field trip into Boston to see the movie of 1776. We also did a little presentation based on the musical at the end of the year. The part of John Adams was taken by a pretty Japanese-American girl named Karen. Hey, she had the ponytail, and she could carry a tune.

Impressionable youth that I was, I accepted the musical's portrayal of the Contintental Congress debates as basically accurate. Oh, I knew that John Hancock and friends didn't actually sing, and that some important figures (such as Samuel Adams, who actually could sing) got little screen time. But I thought the conflicts dramatized on screen matched the real disagreements over declaring independence.

Oh, what disillusionment lay in store! To start with, 1776 depicts a debate over slavery that never happened at that Congress. It presents Thomas Jefferson as writing an anti-slavery clause into the Declaration and planning to free his own slaves when he returned to Virginia. In fact, Jefferson never suggested concrete steps to end slavery, and freed very few of his slaves.

The language at issue in the draft Declaration was about the transatlantic slave trade—about bringing new enslaved people into the colonies, not about freeing any who were there already. Virginia, Massachusetts, and a couple of other colonies had voted to prohibit slave imports in the decade before 1776. The royal authorities had vetoed those laws. Jefferson and his committee put that grievance into the Declaration, and it was deleted. But their language never objected to the continuance on slavery within the colonies. (In fact, if I wanted to be very cynical, I'd point out that any prohibition on an import benefits the domestic producers—who in this case would be owners of many male and female slaves, like Jefferson.)


In the end, the plot of 1776 comes down to an argument within the Pennsylvania delegation: Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and James Wilson. Franklin wants the colony to vote for independence, Dickinson against. Throughout the play Wilson has meekly sided with Dickinson. But Wilson doesn't want to be remembered for standing in the way of independence, so at the last moment he chooses to vote with Franklin and the Congress's majority. Meaning that American independence rested on a Profile in Lack of Courage, as it were. This article on EarlyAmerica.com transcribes the crucial dialogue among the three characters, as well as portraying Wilson exactly as the musical does.

In fact, James Wilson was strongly pro-independence all along. He argued that Parliament should have limited authority over the colonies in a pamphlet titled "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament," published in 1774 but drafted as early as 1768. In Congress, Wilson was among the radicals, noted for his oratory and debating skills. He asked for a delay in voting on independence only to be sure his constituents agreed with him on the need for that drastic step. (Better capsule biographies of Wilson are at USHistory.org and UPenn Law School.)

Furthermore, there were more than three delegates from Pennsylvania at the Second Continental Congress. Look at the Declaration, and you'll see nine signers from that state. (They're the top of the column to the right of Hancock's name.) Pennsylvania credits delegate John Morton with casting the decisive vote among the seven delegates present. Franklin, Wilson, and Morton voted for independence. Two other men voted against. Dickinson and the seventh man, Robert Morris, refused to vote at all. (And yet Morris signed the Declaration.) But that mishmash of politics and egos would have been even harder to put to music.

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