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Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Spirit of 1776 or 1619?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the summer of 1776. But slavery still existed. And therein lies the inherent contradiction of the Declaration, Jefferson, and the latest revival of 1776 by directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus and the Roundabout Theater Company. 1776 excels by grappling with such tension even amidst turmoil within the cast that similarly asks the question: whose Revolution is it?
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Originally released in 1969, the musical tells the story of the Second Continental Congress meeting to discuss the possibility of declaring independence from Great Britain in the late spring and early summer of 1776. So “does anybody care” about 1776 in 2022? Americans need to care. Although many American may never see the show on Broadway, they will still be the voices that evaluate the Founders’ legacies and determine their place in today’s society.

In Flordia, Governor Ron DeSantis has claimed that no one questioned slavery “before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights.” Meanwhile, President Joe Biden embraces the traditional “Spirit of 1776,” proclaiming the U.S. to be founded on an “idea” and the Declaration to be “one of the greatest documents in human history.”


On the other hand, the New York Times’ 1619 Project asserts, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” And the New York City council members voted unanimously to remove a statue of Jefferson in City Hall because it “pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence, and were not worthy of freedom or right.”

Does 1776 embody the spirit of 1776 or 1619—or somewhere in between? Though 1776 the musical opened on October 6th, it’s really a dress rehearsal for the 250th anniversary of the United States of America in 2026.

The original came out (with the film version in 1972) during a time of radical social and political upheaval, with an approaching American Revolution anniversary. Sound familiar? However, the baseline of opinions of the Founders has changed since that time.

While there has been a portion of the population that’s clung to the Declaration with a “reverential, quasi-religious treatment” for decades, others who have maneuvered to have it contextualized with a “trigger warning” in the National Archives are something new. As July 4, 2026 approaches, 1776 revival once again faces a nation grappling with the definition of patriotism and its own past, present, and future.


On the surface, 1776 represents a fairly traditional, even celebratory view of the Founders. It won a Tony in 1969 and critics loved it. Reviewer Eric Atkins of the Tampa Bay Times called it “a Yankee Doodle Dandy show that takes historical figures, kids them a little bit, and in the process makes those men we’ve been reading about since first grade come alive as humans instead of symbols.” The original played with near-mythic figures with some deep cracks that are frequently poked and prodded for comedic and dramatic effects. But it fit fairly consistently with how historians wrote about the Revolution during the Cold War era—as in Bernard Bailyn’s 1967 Pultizer Prize-winning the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Although, there are glimpses of economic and personal motivations more consistent with Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), in sound, look, and feel, the 1776 of fifty years ago is pure Americana.

This is the fourth revival of 1776, with the last seen in 2016 while Hamilton-mania was just beginning to run wild. While the original cast was entirely thirty-something plus white males, later iterations of the show have used “color-blind” casting with Black actors and actresses. This 2022’s show’s PR team has put casting front and center; so have Playbill’s headlines. Taking an obvious cue from Hamilton, which was at first harshly criticized for its casting, 1776’s has gone further with “multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender” who “identify as female, transgender and nonbinary.” It’s a fantastic choice that brings the American Revolution to a wider audience and creates fresh dialogue. Some may cry historical inaccuracy—the Continental Congress weren’t women. But Adams and Franklin didn’t launch into musical numbers in Independence Hall either (that we know of).

Yes, the play is a work of fiction, written by Peter Stone and composed by Sherman Edwards, but it’s accurate in feel if not outright fact. 1776 gets right the different factions within the Continental Congress and that individual colonies even viewed themselves more as separate countries. It successfully grapples with questions of regional rivalries and collective interests. Was this an American war or a Massachusetts war?

The Declaration of Independence that emerges from the play is one of compromise, but one that reflects unifying principles. The new inclusion of Abigail Adams’ “remember the ladies” drew rousing applause and illustrated another of the contradictions of the Declaration. As she explained to her husband in March 1776: “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” As figures like Elizabeth Cady Staton, would do later, Abigail Adams used her husband’s political language to advance female rights. Adding the enslaved Robert Hemings alongside a very pregnant Jefferson performed similarly. As Revolutionary-based musicals go, 1776 is by far the most accurate— although the real John Adams would never wear skintight black leather pants.


Unlike the pro-Founders Hamilton with its few cursory references, slavery is a looming specter and a major theme in 1776. And it needs to be— although the theater and the play’s website display trigger warnings about it (and a prop gun). To not place slavery front and center in the American story is historical negligence.

“If we give in on [slavery], posterity will never forgive us,” predicts John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry). “That’s probably true,” replies Benjamin Franklin (Patrena Murray). “But we won’t hear a thing, John—we’ll be long gone.” This is still the central issue of national debate.

The play deftly highlights the removal of the passages on slavery from the Declaration that begins, “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.” Complete with the cross-outs. Though its omission is no secret, it’s not exactly common knowledge. Even Paulus didn’t know about it. What’s not mentioned is that Jefferson’s earlier draft of the Virginia Consitution also held antislavery passages or that he pushed for “the emancipation of slaves” in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. The Virginian statesman certainly feared God’s “wrath” and “justice” for the sin of slavery. The character Jefferson publically declares “I have already resolved to release my slaves.” In reality, despite owning hundreds of people, Jefferson only ultimately freed two slaves (five more in his will). Still, he did set the precedent for slavery’s eradication.

For all of the scholarly writing on slavery and the American Revolution, 1776 has one of the most nuanced and well-reasoned arguments about the tensions between Revolutionary liberty and slavery. “What will posterity think we were—demigods?,” Franklin asks Adams, “We’re men—no more, no less—trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. John—first things first! Independence! America! For if we don’t secure that what difference will the rest make?” Regardless of the Declaration’s obvious limitations, it was the source of the expansion of rights for all Americans over the centuries.


The Adams-Franklin debate on slavery versus independence remains the heart of the show. While the original presents it as a moment of reluctant compromise that forged a nation that would eventually fulfill the promise of the Declaration, the ending of the 2022 version makes a sharp detour. No longer do the actors pose like John Trumbell’s 1818 painting that hangs in the Rotunda of the Capitol. Now, after the signing, the cast looks out at the audience, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” The set background opens to an obvious allusion to a “slave ship” (a cargo hull filled with casks of rum from an earlier number). The cast turns its back on the audience and sings the phrase again. In the limited room allowed by copyright, the directors offered themes more fitting with the 1619 Project.

2022’s 1776 represents a hybrid of the spirits of 1776 and 1619. The directors want it to be a revolutionary show at the same time they want to play it “cool” and “considerate.” The directors naturally read the 1619 Project and antiracist activist Ibram X. Kendi, and it shows. They also work in modern politics, an activist slogan, light conservatives in red (positively Republican), and even seemingly link the Founders to Confederates. In embracing the original text, it leans 1776, but in its conclusions are 1619. The central theme is so muddled that the directors’ choices have even drawn dissent from within the cast. Sara Porkalob (Edward Rutledge) complained that the directors didn’t go far enough with its political message, while also accusing them of creating a “false narrative by assimilating non-Black POC folks into whiteness” by “prioritizing the Black folks.” Page dismissed Porkalob as “fake-woke” and insinuated she was an “example” of “white supremacist ideology.” The overall message of the show is clearly conflicted – something the nation needs to avoid in 2026.

Much like Ken Burns’ recent documentary Benjamin Franklin, the directors tried to make the Founders complicated and tell all sides. But 1776 suffers from trying to have it both ways.

No one can deny that Jefferson’s words had an impact. Starting with the French Revolution in 1789, these words spread across the globe. They served as a guide for the world and inspired a better future for humankind. The 1945 Vietnamese Declaration of Independence not only opened by quoting Jefferson but recognized what he meant in a “broader sense”: “All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.” If we take that view then President Biden is indeed correct.


We are at the start of the road to celebrating our nation’s 250th anniversary. From the Boston Tea Party to Lexington and Concord to Bunker Hill, there are many milestones to commemorate. But how we remember the start of this country on the Fourth of July matters most because it helps us guide our future. If we focus more on the flaws than the greatness, we’ll be lost.

And finally, the answer to the inescapable question: 1776 is the better play, but Hamilton is the better show. Still, anything that brings the Declaration and our founding principles to a public audience is a good thing. By providing diverse representation both shows allow more groups to recognize the importance of 1776 (and I don’t mean the play).

from TIME
via Time.com


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