Is the musical “1776” a Lesson in History?
Patriotism on Broadway from George M. Cohan to “1776” to “Hamilton”
BY ANTHONY CHASE
After seeing the musical 1776 by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, now being performed with an all-female cast at O’Connell & Company, many people might wonder about specific events in the play. Are they historically accurate?
“Did the final adoption of the Declaration of Independence really come down to one delegate’s desire for obscurity?”
In the musical, Benjamin Franklin warns James Wilson, his fellow delegate from Pennsylvania that it would be a shame, after having made so many wise decisions from the bench as a judge, for him to be remembered for one bad decision over American independence.
That never happened.
Wilson did not even become a judge until after the revolution, and he did not cast the deciding vote on independence. In fact, James Wilson supported the resolution.
“Did Edward Rutledge of South Carolina actually threaten to kill the cause of American Independence by leading a walkout of southern states in opposition to an anti-slavery clause?”
That never happened either.
Rutledge was the youngest member of the entire Continental Congress, and therefore the most junior member of South Carolina’s four-man delegation. The slavery clause, which had been included to counter the British tactic of offering escaped slaves employment in their army, was opposed by South Carolina, Georgia, and unknown Northern States. As the proceedings of the Congress were secret and records where not maintained, nothing more is known about the slavery clause. We do know that the Congress had already voted on and adopted a resolution on independence before they began debating the exact text of the Declaration of Independence. The musical combines the two events and fantasizes a confrontation over the slavery clause for dramatic impact.
The musical’s slavery episode, with its terrifying reenactment of a slave auction in Rutledge’s powerful song, “Molasses to Rum,” may not be an accurate lesson in the history of 1776, but it is a telling lesson in the history of the United States in 1969.
In 1969, the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and protests over the Cold War, civil rights, human rights, youth culture were at a fever pitch. The year before, the nation had seen police and National Guardsmen Democratic beat, club, and tear-gas hundred of demonstrators, news reporters, and bystanders at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the musical, when Franklin admonishes Adams with the advice that if all of the Congressional delegates, with their opposing viewpoints, are to be part of the same nation, then we need to get along with each other, the advice was really being directed at the Broadway audience of 1969.
In 1968, a divided America was reflected in the fact that flag-waving George M, which nostalgically celebrated old time patriotism, opened on Broadway at the same time as anti-war rock musical Hair.
In manipulating the relationship of the founding fathers to the slavery issue, 1776 has a lot in common with Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The fact is that these patriotic musicals were not written for colonial audiences, they were written for modern audiences for whom slavery is a horror and an American embarrassment. Still, we dearly want to hold onto the heroes of American mythology. This can prove tricky, for many of the nation’s founders opposed slavery in varying degrees, but the issue does not seem to have been a pressing priority for them. The issue was certainly not important enough for them to risk economic uncertainty or independence itself.
So despite what the character in the musical claims, Benjamin Franklin did not form the nation’s first anti-slavery society. He only became an abolitionist well after the revolution.
And while, in the musical, Jefferson proclaims his decision to free his slaves, he never actually did that. Indeed, his relationship to slavery was enormously complex. After his death he did arrange five of his 135 slaves to be freed. Three of those slave were elderly and two, we know, thanks to modern DNA technology, were his own biological children. Jefferson had fathered four children with enslaved Sally Hemings. During his lifetime, he allowed two of these children to “escape.”
The mere thought that Jefferson would keep his own children as slaves adds complication to his legacy, as does the belief held by many historians that their mother, Sally Hemings, was actually the biological half sister of Jefferon’s wife Martha. Nonetheless, he continuously advocated for abolishing slavery, and under his leadership importation of slaves was outlawed in Virginia in 1778.
Other little liberties that facilitate the plot of 1776 include Martha Jefferson’s visit to Philadelphia, which never happened. Richard Henry Lee never served as the Governor of Virginia. And believe it or not, Adams and Franklin were not great pals. In fact, they disliked each other.
Hamilton simplifies its title character’s attitudes toward slavery and conveniently glosses over his belief that the American president should be more like a monarch and that senators should serve for life.
This impulse to tidy up history to avoid offending modern audiences is not new. The American theater has long been a vehicle for inclusion in America, a fact the leads to some paradoxes, and has inspired some distortions. For instance, racist minstrel shows would become the primary venue for African Americans to embark on lucrative show business careers after the Civil War. The vaudeville phenomenon features a litany of ethnic acts, complete with ethnically oriented jokes that were enjoyed by the very people being made fun of. By being featured on the vaudeville stage, even as the object of humor, new immigrants were being included in America.
George M. Cohan wrote patriotic musicals in the early years of the 20th century, churning out songs like "Over There", "Give My Regards to Broadway", "The Yankee Doodle Boy" and "You're a Grand Old Flag.” He typically featured a working class Irish American hero at a time when classified advertising still featured the phrase, “No Irish Need Apply.” By doing this, he was staking his claim to America as much as Lin Manuel Miranda was in creating a Puerto Rican Alexander Hamilton, or as much as Mary Kate O’Connell is in playing Benjamin Franklin in drag.
This bit of American myth making requires us to ignore a few inconvenient historic facts, or at least to forgive the founding fathers for being men of their times. The conventional theatrical wisdom seems to be that these may have been flawed or limited by their moment in history, but they opened the doorway for all the freedoms that have come since.