In recognition of Independence Day next week, I repost the below, first published here in March of this year. 1776 will air on Turner Classic Movies next Tuesday at 10.15pm Eastern time.
For my birthday last week I treated myself to watching 1776, the 1972 film adaptation of the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone musical about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. It’s about as accurate as a musical comedy about the Declaration can be, what with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others singing and prancing around Independence Mall, built on a Hollywood back-lot; Wikipedia has a substantive list of the considerable liberties taken by the musical to history, and critic Roger Ebert was decidedly negative about the film. Nevertheless it still retains a great deal of silly charm, and as even The Columbia Companion to American History on Film concedes, “few [of the inaccuracies] are very troubling.” 1776 was the ur-Hamilton in a way, an attempt to render early American history palatable to those who may feel it rather dry and boring; as Hamilton anachronistically uses hip-hop to get its musical points across, 1776‘s score is more reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, fifes and drums added to the arrangements, than Mozart, a genuine contemporary of the Founding Fathers (though there are still enough gavottes and waltzes to go around). And I still find most of the performances delightful. To me, John Adams will always be William Daniels, never Paul Giamatti.
I first saw 1776 upon its original release in 1972, when I was ten years old. It was released then with a G rating; these days, what with its occasional swearing, sexual innuendo, and bathroom humor, it would likely earn a PG (perhaps we live in more, not less, innocent times today). But I was already familiar with Old City Philadelphia and its environs to a certain degree. I was born in center city — at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets, which itself was founded in 1751 — and visited there very often. My family lived in the city’s outskirts, but because my father’s parents still lived on Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of the city, we made it into town just about every weekend, and my brother and I were dragged along to Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Elfreth’s Alley, and other historical points of interest before we were ten. So I have rather deep roots in the city.
As the years went by I investigated Philadelphia more and more on my own. I live in New York now, and New York has its own history, but it isn’t living history to the extent that Philadelphia’s is. Just getting from one place to another in downtown Philadelphia — from home to work, say, or a night out on South Street — you regularly passed Carpenter’s Hall and the State House, these buildings still carefully maintained in an 18th century style, especially around 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, when Philadelphia expected an onrush of tourists that never really materialized. A part of the bicentennial celebration was a tab version of 1776 performed in an outdoor theatre on the Mall through the summer of ’76.
I watched 1776 last week with the Declaration of Independence fresh in my mind. Turning from that film to the New York Times political headlines the next day, I was reminded of this observation from Henry Adams, John Adams’ great-grandson, who wrote about President Ulysses S. Grant in his 1918 autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. Adams refers to himself in his memoirs in the third person:
What worried Adams was not the commonplace; it was, as usual, his own education. Grant fretted and irritated him, like the Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called — and should actually and truly be — the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.
And that was Grant, 100 years before Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump. Henry Adams can thank his God that he died in 1918, before this recent rush of evidence disproving evolution.
To fill in the film’s gaps and as a corrective to its inaccuracies, I’ve also been reading Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, a popular history of the events leading up to the Declaration. It’s quite the page-turner and I recommend it highly. As I read it, two things are occurring to me.
First, as Henry Adams suggests, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and the others were undoubtedly great men: Philadelphia from 1760 to 1800 was one of those unique locations in history to be blessed with people who participated in an intelligent, radical rethinking of the human spirit. The Declaration was not law, to be sure — it was propaganda directed at the world. But what effective propaganda it was. Of course, it reflects the flaws of its creators as well, its attitudes to slavery and women chief among them — though even here the founders allowed within the Constitution itself a way to amend it through the years; it was a living document. The Declaration, and the Constitution that would follow a decade later, made America unique among the modern nations in that its founding was based upon principles and ideals. That those principles and ideals were laid out in two documents that it may take you about two hours to read carefully is something of a miracle. It’s the only modern nation to come with an owner’s manual, and unlike the owner’s manual that came with your microwave, it reaches occasional poetic heights that it would behoove us to re-examine today.
Second, these ideals and principles are still clearly in the air. They are a part of our basic belief system as a nation and a people — religious tolerance, open discussion, a free press, the need for representative deliberation, but most especially, I think, for the right to agitate and become radicals against tyrannical powers of government. Eventually a “wait-and-see” attitude towards George III became impossible and unconscionable, a crime against the rights of man. They are as much in the air as history palpably surrounds you on the streets of Old City Philadelphia.
I often wonder whether such documents could have been created anywhere but Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Philadelphia is itself unique in world history, a city founded upon Quaker principles of religious tolerance, self-reliance, simplicity, humility, and the certainty of an Inner Light in each and every individual regardless of race, gender, or talent. Those principles fell by the wayside rather quickly — William Penn last saw Philadelphia in 1701, and even then the tide of immigration was revising those religious principles in the name of expansion, democracy, and commerce. But even now, walking Philadelphia’s streets, there is something of that sentiment still available to anyone willing to recognize it. But of course you do have to acknowledge it. And that, too, takes humility. My daughters were both born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village — they are native New Yorkers and always will be. But, in my own way, I’m a native Philadelphian, and always will be. That said, I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to drag them around Independence Hall as well. And hell, 1776 is a musical — maybe they’ll even enjoy that one day.
Below, a sample of one of the more charming songs of the show; Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams await the results of the first reading of Jefferson’s Declaration to the Continental Congress.