1776 is a musical with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone. It is based on the events leading to the writing and signing of the United States Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1776.
The musical was produced on Broadway in 1969, running for 1,217 performances, and was made into a film of the same name in 1972. The show was nominated for five Tony Awards and won three, including Best Musical.
- Stage Musical (1969), Film Musical (1972).
- Music and lyrics: Sherman Edwards, Book: Peter Stone.
On May 8, 1776, in Philadelphia, as the Second Continental Congress proceeds with its business. John Adams, the widely disliked delegate from Massachusetts, is frustrated, because none of his proposals on independence has been given even "the courtesy of open debate." The other delegates, sick of Adams's constant agitation, implore him to "Sit Down, John."
Adams flees the chamber, complaining that Congress has done nothing for the last year but "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve." He reads the latest missive from his loving wife Abigail, who, far away at their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, appears in his imagination. He asks if she and the other women are making saltpeter for the war effort, but she replies that the women have a more urgent problem: no straight pins. They each promise to do something about the other's problem. In "Till Then," they pledge their love to each other, and Abigail disappears.
The next day, Adams finds delegate Benjamin Franklin outside. Adams bemoans the failure of his arguments for independence. Franklin suggests that, because Adams is "obnoxious and disliked", a resolution for independence would have more success if proposed by someone else. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia enters, having been summoned by Franklin. The cocky Lee crows that he is the best man to propose the resolution. Adams has reservations, but Lee is convinced he cannot fail: he is a member of the oldest and most glorious family in America: "The Lees of Old Virginia." He is prepared to ask the Virginia House of Burgesses to authorize him to offer a pro-independence resolution. Adams and Franklin get him off to Williamsburg, Virginia.
June 7, 1776. A new delegate from Georgia, Dr. Lyman Hall, enters the congressional chamber and meets the others. Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island roars into the room shouting for rum, while Colonel Thomas McKean and George Read of Delaware bicker, with the sickly Caesar Rodney stuck in the middle. The charismatic Edward Rutledge of South Carolina informs Hall that the colonies of the Deep South traditionally vote as one. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, followed by the meek James Wilson, states that he is firmly against what he calls treason. Franklin and Adams enter, and the delegates, along with the President of Congress, John Hancock, and the Secretary, Charles Thomson, take their places. Hancock gavels the 380th meeting of the Congress to order.
The entire New Jersey delegation is absent. Thomas Jefferson, a young delegate from Virginia, announces that he is leaving for Virginia that night to visit his wife. Soon after Hancock opens the floor to new resolutions, Richard Henry Lee canters into the chamber, having finally returned from Virginia. Lee reads his resolution, but Dickinson moves to indefinitely postpone the question of independence. A vote is taken. Five colonies—New Hampshire (represented by Josiah Bartlett), Massachusetts (Adams), Connecticut (Roger Sherman), Delaware (Rodney and McKean outvoting Read), and Virginia (Lee)— vote in favor of debate. Five vote to postpone indefinitely and thus kill the proposal: Pennsylvania (Dickinson), Maryland (Samuel Chase), North Carolina (Joseph Hewes), South Carolina (Rutledge), and Georgia (Hall). Dr. Hall explains that though he personally favors independence, the people of Georgia are against it, and he prefers to err on the side of his constituency and vote nay. The 5-to-5 split, with Lewis Morris of New York abstaining "courteously," leaves the deciding vote to Hopkins. He votes in favor of debate, proclaiming that he has "never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about."
The most vocal of the delegates debate independence, and the debate grows so heated that Adams and Dickinson get into a physical altercation. Rodney separates them, berating them for not focusing on the real enemy: England. He collapses from the overexertion; he has cancer. Colonel McKean departs with Rodney to take him back home. This leaves the Delaware delegation with only one man present, George Read, who is not in favor of independence.
Rutledge, seeing the majority swinging in his favor, calls for an immediate vote on the question of independence. The new New Jersey delegation arrives, led by Rev. John Witherspoon. They have been instructed to vote in favor of independence. The vote now stands at six for independence and six against (with New York abstaining), and Adams reminds Hancock of his duty as president to break all ties. Dickinson then moves that any vote for independence must pass unanimously on the grounds that "no colony [may] be torn from its mother country without its own consent." The vote produces the same tie, which Hancock breaks by unexpectedly voting for requiring unanimity. He reasons that without unanimity, any colony voting against independence would be forced to fight on England's side, setting brother against brother.
Adams, thinking fast, calls for a postponement of the vote on independence, expressing the need for a declaration defining the reasons for independence. Franklin seconds Adams, but when asked why such a declaration should be written, both are lost for words. Suddenly, Thomas Jefferson proclaims the reason: "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent." The vote on postponement is called, producing yet another tie, with New York abstaining yet again. Hancock breaks the tie by voting in favor of postponement. He appoints a committee of Adams, Franklin, Sherman]], Robert Livingston of New York, and Jefferson to draft the declaration. Hancock adjourns the session over Jefferson's complaints that he must go home to his wife.
The Committee of Five argues about who should write the declaration ("But, Mr. Adams"). Adams declines Franklin's suggestion that he do so, reminding Franklin that he is "obnoxious and disliked." Adams asks each of the others, in turn, to be the drafter, but each demurs: Franklin argues that he is not a political writer, only a satirist; Sherman claims that he is not a writer at all, but "a simple cobbler from Connecticut"; and Livingston must return to New York to celebrate the birth of his son.
All eyes then turn to Jefferson; Adams quotes a passage of Jefferson's Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, bluntly telling Jefferson that he is the best writer in Congress. Jefferson tries to wriggle out of the responsibility, pleading that he has not seen his wife in six months. Adams, unmoved by Jefferson's arguments, thrusts a quill pen into Jefferson's hand. Defeated, Jefferson accepts the duty of drafting the document.
A week later, Adams and Franklin visit Jefferson to see how the work is coming along. Jefferson has spent the week moping, but is brightened when his beloved wife Martha enters (Adams has sent for her). The two older gentlemen leave the young lovers in peace. Adams, alone, again exchanges letters with his wife Abigail. They pledge each other to be eternally "Yours, Yours, Yours." Martha finally appears when Franklin and Adams return the next morning, and the two gentlemen ask her how a man as silent as Jefferson won a woman as lovely as she. She tells them that she loves him because "He Plays the Violin."
On June 22, 1776, Congress has reconvened. A letter is received from General Washington. He reports that the troops are suffering from venereal disease and drunkenness. He implores the Congress to send the War Committee to New Brunswick, New Jersey to boost morale. Chase challenges Adams: how could an army composed of "drunken militiamen" hope to defeat the British Army? Adams rejoins by asking whether, if Chase were convinced that the Continental Army, could defeat the British, Maryland would then vote in favor of independence. Chase eventually agrees, and Adams, Franklin, and Chase leave for New Jersey.
The remaining delegates in favor of independence also leave the chamber. Alone with his fellow conservatives for the first time, Dickinson leads them in a minuet, singing of their desire to hold onto their wealth and remain "Cool, Cool Considerate Men."
The remaining delegates depart, leaving Andrew McNair (the custodian), the courier, and a workman in the chamber. The workman asks the courier if he has seen any fighting, and the courier replies that his two closest friends were killed on the same day at Lexington, Massachusetts. He describes the final thoughts of a dying young man as his mother searches for his body ("Momma, Look Sharp").
Jefferson is outside the chamber as Thomson reads the declaration to Congress. Adams and Franklin meet him delightedly: an exhibition of shooting by the Continental Army has convinced Samuel Chase, and Maryland will vote in favor of independence. They congratulate Jefferson on the excellence of the document, and Franklin compares the creation of this new country to "The Egg." This leads the trio to debate which bird is breaking out of its metaphorical shell and would best represent America. The three settle on the eagle, as insisted upon by Adams.
On June 28, 1776, Hancock asks if there are any alterations to be offered to the Declaration of Independence, leading many delegates to voice suggestions. Jefferson acquiesces to each recommendation, much to Adams's consternation, until Dickinson suggests the removal of a phrase calling the King a tyrant. Jefferson refuses, stating that "the King is a tyrant whether we say so or not. We might as well say so." When Thomson comments that he has already scratched the word out, Jefferson orders him to "scratch it back in." An exasperated Adams exclaims "It's a revolution, damn it! We're going to have to offend somebody!"
As Hancock is about to call for a vote on the Declaration, Rutledge rises to object to Jefferson's denunciation of slavery in his list of redresses. He reminds them that the process of "Molasses to Rum" to slaves (the triangular trade) ensures prosperity for the North. The delegations of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia angrily leave the chamber. The resolve of the remaining delegates is broken, and most of them also leave.
Adams, growing desperate, sends McKean to Delaware to bring back Caesar Rodney. Franklin insists that Adams agree to the removal of the slavery clause from the Declaration. Alone with his thoughts, Adams conjures Abigail in his mind and pours out his fears and feelings of hopelessness to her. She reassures him, quoting from his own letters: "Commitment, Abby, commitment! There are only two creatures of value on the face of this earth: those with a commitment, and those who require the commitment of others." During their exchange, McNair delivers two kegs to the chamber: saltpeter from Abigail and the women of Massachusetts.
With Adams's faith in the cause renewed, he tells Franklin and Jefferson to talk to Wilson and Rutledge: they need each and every vote. Thomson reads the latest dispatch from General Washington, who wonders if he is ever to receive a response to his last fifteen missives. Re-reading the dispatch, Adams echoes Washington's words, "Is Anybody There?" Discouraged but determined, Adams declares his vision of his new country: "Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory!"
Dr. Hall returns to the Chamber. He has been thinking: "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.' It was written by Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament." He walks over to the tally board and changes Georgia's vote from "nay" to "yea".
It is now July 2, 1776. The delegates slowly return to the chamber, including Caesar Rodney. Hancock calls for the vote on the Lee Resolution. Thomson calls on each delegation for its vote. Pennsylvania passes on the first call, but the rest of the northern and middle colonies (save New York, which with some self-disgust again abstains) vote "yea". When the vote reaches South Carolina, Rutledge demands the removal of the slavery clause as the condition of the "yea" votes from the Carolinas. Franklin pleads with Adams to remove the clause ("First things first, John ... Independence. America. If we don't have that, what is the rest worth?") and Adams turns to Jefferson. Jefferson reluctantly crosses the chamber and scratches out the clause himself. Rutledge and the Carolinas vote "yea", as does Georgia.
Pennsylvania's vote, which is the last vote needed to obtain the required unanimous approval, is called again, Dickinson declares that "Pennsylvania votes...", only to be stopped by Franklin who asks Hancock to poll the members of the delegation individually. Franklin votes "yea" and Dickinson "nay", leaving the swing vote to Wilson, who normally adheres to Dickinson. Seeing his hesitancy, Dickinson tries to entice him: "James, you're keeping everybody waiting ... the issue is clear." Franklin remarks that "most issues are clear when someone else has to decide them", and Adams mercilessly adds that "it would be a pity for a man [Wilson] who has handed down hundreds of wise decisions from the bench to be remembered for the one unwise decision he made in Congress." Wilson doesn't want to be remembered as "the man who prevented American independence" and votes "yea". The motion is passed.
Hancock suggests that no man be allowed to sit in Congress without affixing his signature to the Declaration. Dickinson announces that he cannot in good conscience sign such a document, and still hopes for reconciliation with England. However, he resolves to join the army to fight for and defend the new nation. Adams leads the Congress in a salute to Dickinson as he leaves the chamber.
In the book of the musical, Peter Stone referred to this famous engraving (by Edward Savage and Robert Edge Pine) as a reference for how the actors should pose in the final moment of the play.Hancock leads the delegates in signing the Declaration, but is interrupted by the courier with another dispatch from Washington, "Commander of the Army of the United Colonies ... of the United States of America." He reports that preparations for the Battle of New York are under way, but expresses concern about America's badly outnumbered and under-trained troops. Washington's note to Lewis Morris that his estates have been destroyed but that his family has been taken to safety emboldens Morris to state that he will sign the Declaration, despite the lack of instructions from the state legislature. New York's vote is moved into the "yea" column.
On the evening of July 4, 1776, McNair rings the Liberty Bell in the background as Thomson calls each of the delegates to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence. The delegates freeze in position as the Liberty Bell rings to a fevered pitch.
Overture "Sit Down, John" – Adams and Congress "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve"/"Till Then" – Adams "Till Then" – John and Abigail Adams "The Lees Of Old Virginia" – Lee, Franklin and Adams "But, Mr. Adams" – Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Sherman and Livingston "Yours, Yours, Yours" – John and Abigail Adams "He Plays the Violin" – Martha Jefferson, Franklin and Adams "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" – Dickinson and The Conservatives "Mama Look Sharp" – Courier, McNair and Leather Apron "The Egg" – Franklin, Adams and Jefferson "Molasses To Rum" – Rutledge "Compliments" – Abigail Adams "Is Anybody There?" – Adams Finale