Long before Hamilton there was another Tony-award winning musical about the founding of America called 1776. It’s always been a Fourth of July tradition for my mother and I to watch the 1776 film adaptation, forgoing fireworks for a comedic musical about John Adams. While not a perfect movie by any means, many themes in 1776 still remain relevant decades after it was released.
He’s Obnoxious and Disliked
There’s a clever reference to 1776 that Lin-Manuel Miranda included in Hamilton. During the song, “The Adams Administration,” Hamilton sings his disapproval of John Adams with the lyric, “Sit down John, you fat mother****!” This is a fun callback to the opening number of 1776, where the entire Continental Congress angrily sings, “Sit Down, John.” While Adams is not actually in Hamilton, but is the leading man in 1776, played brilliantly by William Daniels. What’s great about 1776 is that Adams is not popular with most of his fellow delegates. He’s obnoxious and disliked, which definitely doesn’t help his goal of getting Congress to vote on a resolution for independence.
Is Anybody There?
While this show lacks the diversity that made Hamilton so groundbreaking, 1776 does address slavery in a ways that showcases the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers. When the delegates are debating over Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the Southern delegates demands that the clause condemning slavery be stricken out. Adams refuses (the real Adams never owned slaves) but then the delegate from South Carolina counters Adams with the song, “Molasses to Rum,” which is basically calling out Adams from benefitting from slavery even though he doesn’t own slaves. It’s basically explaining white privilege in musical verse.
The thing is, there’s a lot of funny moments in the musical, but it doesn’t ignore the dark parts of our history. Adams warns Ben Franklin that history won’t forget that they struck out the slavery clause. Franklin says they’ll be long gone by then anyway. In my opinion, what makes 1776 and Hamilton so great is the fact that they remind the audience that the Founding Fathers were just human beings and many of them WERE slave owners.
While we can celebrate how they helped found America we shouldn’t put these men on glorified pedestals. That’s what 1776 does well. There’s also a soldier that periodically interrupts the insipid arguments from the delegates with dispatches from George Washington. The soldier steals the show by singing about a mother looking for her son dying on the battlefield with the song, “Momma, Look Sharp.”
1776 is a fun film that doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t ignore issues of our past history. The antics of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson are entertaining to watch (try not to laugh when Adams criticizes a portrait being made of Franklin by saying, “The artist is no Botticelli,” with Franklin retorting, “Well the subject is no Venus.”) This movie was made back in 1972 but it doesn’t feel outdated by any means. Musicals like 1776 and Hamilton are important because they take a spotlight on the founding of our country and remind us that these were actual human beings with faults and all achieving the impossible.
While we all know that ending of the founding of America, all the delegates know at the ending of 1776 is that they might be signing their own death warrant by putting their name on the Declaration of Independence. Here’s to the rebels who fought for America, and lets keep in mind that we must keep fighting to create a better nation, where there truly is liberty and justice for all.