Before there was Hamilton, there was 1776.
I honestly can’t believe that I’ve been posting on this blog regularly for about a year and a half and I’ve never once dedicated a whole post to the musical 1776. This makes no sense to me. Surely I’ve written about this before? But I looked back at my records and while I’ve definitely mentioned 1776 (for example in this post about queer activism and Grace and Frankie), I haven’t done a whole post about it. It’s time for that to change! Especially since this is one of my favorite films and 100% falls into the ‘Madeira Mondays’ remit (it’s historical fiction AND it’s about one of the most significant political events of the 18th century: the signing of the Declaration of Independence in America).
If you haven’t heard of 1776, it’s a musical that came out in 1969 (roughly around America’s bicentennial). It’s about the continental congress, a group of delegates from each of the 13 colonies who met in 1776 to decide (among other things) if the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain. Specifically it’s about John Adams, a representative from Massachusetts (later, our 2nd President!) who was – both in the musical and real life – a proponent of independence. He lobbied hard for it when some other representatives dragged their feet or were more conflicted.
Eventually the declaration was written and signed by the entire congress. It was a document that we now know was written by Thomas Jefferson (at the time, people just knew that it was written by the congress). It does what it says on the tin. It declared independence. It was addressed to the King of England, George III, and was like: ‘We don’t want to be part of you anymore and here’s why. You mistreated our colonies for x, y, z reasons. Goodbye!’ Naturally, the King was quite angry and didn’t want to let the colonies go without a fight and thus the Revolutionary War.
1776 loosely tells this story and captures the essence of what the congress was: a lot of men arguing in a hot room in Philadelphia for a long time until they came to a compromise.
These men were the cream of the crop from their own colonies – prominent lawyers, ministers, merchants, thinkers. But they had very different goals and ways of life (just like now – Americans from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds can have wildly different world views!). It’s a pretty interesting story and I would urge you to watch the 1972 film adaptation if you’ve not seen it. It stars William Daniels as John Adams (those from my generation might recognize him as Feeny from Boy Meets World).
The songs keep it pretty light-hearted most of the time but also manage to address some pretty complex topics with nuance as you’ll see below. Sherman Edwards (who wrote the lyrics and music) and Peter Stone (who wrote the ‘book’, which is theatre speak for the lines the characters say, not sing) create such a hugely enjoyable show.
So here are my top four songs from the musical 1776, which you can watch or listen to independently without having seen the musical. But you should totally watch the whole thing too – it’s great. 🙂
1- Sit Down, John
This is the opening song and needs very little context at all! It’s a lively ensemble number where we see John Adams storming around, begging everyone to vote for independence. The line ‘Sit down, John!’ is still famous and yes, Lin Manuel Miranda does reference it in Hamilton!
2 – The Lees of Old Virginia
This is the silliest and most fun song in the whole show. Richard Henry Lee wasn’t such a goofball in real life as he is in this song but…who cares? It’s hilarious! Natural-ly.
3 – Cool, Cool, Considerate Men
This is low-key one of the best and wittiest songs in the entire musical. It absolutely skewers the wealthy loyalist politicians that don’t want to put their necks on the line to risk supporting independence when the cause might fail. (Of course, in real life, doubts about independence were very reasonable – and everyone probably had them to some degree. To declare independence was treason and, if they had lost the war, everyone that signed the declaration would have been hung for treason). But this song is really about mocking modern day politicians who are slow-to-act in order to hold onto political and financial power. They ‘hold to (their) gold’ and are ‘reluctant to be bold’.
Richard Nixon got the reference and actually asked that the song be removed from a performance of 1776 that was going to be performed at the White House. The cast refused to take it out, and they performed it regardless, including the offending song (if I remember the story correctly!). However, Nixon did manage to get it cut from the original theatrical release of the film. BUT it was later restored to the film when Sony put together its laserdisc release. So much controversy for just one song. Have a listen.
4 – Molasses to Rum
This song is hands down one of the best explorations of American slavery I’ve ever seen in fiction. Big statement but true. I’ve heard 1776 get some criticism for having an all-white and mostly male cast and while yes, that’s absolutely true, it also explores and exposes racial slavery in much more depth (and, I would argue, with much more nuance) than, for example, Hamilton does. Instead of just being like ‘Slavery is bad! We’re against it!’, it actually looks at the economics behind it, explains the Triangle Trade, and ultimately condemns not just the American South but the northern colonies too for supporting slavery either directly or indirectly.
The strongest part is when Edward Rutledge (the representative from South Carolina, played with a silky and sinister Southern drawl by John Cullum) begins reenacting a slave auction towards the end of the song. It is only at THIS moment that one of the other Congress members begs him to stop the song. It is only when they see slavery embodied, there in the room, that it becomes too much. This parallels how many people are willing to participate economically in slavery, just so long as they’re not seeing its cruelties firsthand.
It is, ultimately, a song about hypocrisy. And it makes you think about what you’re willing to buy and participate in, so long as you don’t see the awful costs of it (I’m thinking of fast fashion, for instance, but there are many examples). Of course, I don’t have any answers. But it makes you stop and think, encouraging you to reflect on how economic convenience might fuel or sustain cruel, unjust, and inhumane practices. That is a lot to accomplish in just one song and 1776 does it beautifully.
Those are my four favorite songs from the musical but, once again, I’d urge you to go and watch the whole thing. It’s really tons of fun, while still (like with that last song) dealing with some pretty weighty material in a nuanced way. It would be perfect viewing this 4th of July (which is celebrated in America to mark the date of the signing of the Declaration).
Wishing you a happy 4th of July if you celebrate it and a good rest of your week! Here’s some recommended further reading if you’d like to know more.
- ‘Grace and Frankie and…John Adams’ (one of my posts from last year that looks at the links between 1776, the TV series Grace and Frankie, and gay activism)
- If you want to know more about the Declaration of Independence and slavery in early America, check out my post about Tracy K. Smith’s poem ‘Declaration’ (This is BY FAR the most-read Madeira Mondays post, and I think one of the best!)
- If you want to know more about John Adams, check out my post about the HBO John Adams miniseries OR this post about an academic presentation I gave looking at representations of John Adams in pop culture at Trinity College Dublin
- 1776 the movie from 1972, directed by Peter H. Hunt and written by Peter Stone
- Ben Franklin’s World podcast episode 141: A Declaration in Draft, about the writing of the Declaration
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!