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Performing Arts Blog

Is It True?: Fact-Checking 1776

March 9, 2016 by New York City Center
Ben West Painting

Benjamin West’s unfinished 1783-1784 painting of the delegations at the Treaty of Paris.

Rose Hovick really did love Chinese food, and Fanny Brice was actually fired from a chorusline after it was discovered that she couldn’t dance. Still, despite the crumbs of truth sprinkled into musicals like Gypsy and Funny Girl, we don’t exactly look to Broadway shows for historical accuracy. 1776 may be unique, then, in that its creators were such devoted sticklers for the truth; composer Sherman Edwards even brought textbooks to rehearsals and handed them out to the cast. When the show’s libretto was published in 1970, Edwards and his librettist Peter Stone wrote a fascinating essay about what is true, what’s almost true, and what was cheerfully invented in 1776. With an Encores! revival on the way, we’re pleased to reprint their essay.

The first question we are asked by those who have seen—or read—1776 is invariably: “Is it true? Did it really happen that way?”

The answer is: Yes.

Certainly a few changes have been made in order to fulfill basic dramatic tenets. To quote a European dramatist friend of ours, “God writes lousy theater.” In other words, reality is seldom artistic, orderly, or dramatically satisfying; life rarely provides a sound second act, and its climaxes usually have not been adequately prepared for. Therefore, in historical drama, a number of small licenses are almost always taken with strictest fact, and those in 1776 are enumerated in this addendum. But none of them, either separately or in accumulation, has done anything to alter the historical truth of the characters, the times, or the events of American independence.

First, however, let us list those elements of our play that have been taken, unchanged and unadorned, from documented fact.

The weather in Philadelphia that late spring and early summer of 1776 was unusually hot and humid, resulting in a bumper crop of horseflies incubated in the stable next door to the State House (now Independence Hall).

John Adams was indeed “obnoxious and disliked”—the description is his own.1

Benjamin Franklin, the oldest member of the Congress, suffered from gout in his later years and often “drowsed” in public.

Thomas Jefferson, the junior member of the Virginia delegation, was entrusted with the daily weather report.

Thomas Jefferson Weather Notes

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s weather memorandum book, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins, known to his colleagues as “Old Grape and Guts” because of his fondness for distilled refreshment, always wore his round, black wide-brimmed Quaker’s hat in the chamber.

Portly Samuel Chase, the gourmand from Maryland (pronounced Mary-land in those times), was referred to (behind his back, of course) as “Bacon-Face.”

Connecticut’s Roger Sherman always sat apart from his fellow congressmen, sipping coffee from a saucer-like bowl.

Caesar Rodney of Delaware, suffering from skin cancer, never appeared in public without a green scarf wrapped around his face.

The dress of the congressmen graduated from the liberal greens, golds, brocades, and laces of the conservative Southerners, to the conservative browns, blacks, mean cloth, and plain linen of the radical New Englanders.

The only two known employees of the Congress were Charles Thomson, secretary, who kept no minutes of the debates (recording only those motions which were passed), and Andrew McNair, custodian and bell-ringer.

A motion concerning Congress’s liability for a certain Mr. Melchior Meng’s dead mule was debated and approved prior to the motion on independence.

Ben Franklin’s illegitimate son William was royal governor of New Jersey until he was arrested, in June 1776, and exiled to Connecticut.

The New York delegation abstained on many votes, including the final vote on independence (that tally being recorded by Mr. Thomson as twelve for, none against, and one abstaining), though later the New York legislature (the members of which “speak very fast and very loud and nobody pays any attention to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done”) approved the action after the fact.

John Adams in NYC

While visiting New York in August 1774, John Adams griped that there was “very little good breeding to be found. They talk very loud, very fast, and all together.” His complaint was paraphrased in 1776.

George Washington’s dispatches arrived on an average of three a day, and almost all of them were “gloomy” to the point of despair.

The strength of the armed forces under Washington’s command was as dismal as he reported. On May 12, 1776, for instance, the duty roster of the Continental Army listed:

Commissioned officers .............................. 589
Non-commissioned officers ....................... 722
Present & fit for duty ................................. 6,641
Sick but present ........................................ 547
Sick but absent ......................................... 352
On furlough .............................................. 66
On command [A.W.O.L.] ......................... 1,122

This was the total strength of the American army.

Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, the youngest member of the Congress, was the leading proponent of individual rights for individual states.

The committee to “manage” the Declaration of Independence consisted of five congressmen: Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston (of New York—he wasn’t available to sign the Declaration, but he obligingly sent his cousin, Philip, to affix the powerful family name), and Jefferson. The fifth member had originally been Richard Lee, the offerer of the motion of independence, but he subsequently declined in order to return to Virginia, where he had been proposed for governor of that “country” (as Virginians referred to their colony). None of the five members of this committee wanted the assignment of actually writing the Declaration, and all of them begged off for one personal reason or another. But Jefferson, whom Adams accused of being the finest writer in Congress, possessing “a happy talent for composition and a remarkable felicity of expression,” was finally persuaded. Later he recalled that the purpose of the Declaration had been “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”

Jefferson was, besides being an author, lawyer, farmer, architect, and statesman, a fine violinist. His wife, Martha, a young, beautiful widow of 24 when they married, was often praised for her “uncommon singing voice.” (She died ten years after their wedding, a full nineteen years before Jefferson inhabited the White House, and he never remarried. The Martha Jefferson who is often listed as First Lady was their daughter.)

Jefferson, during those early years in Congress, was not a loquacious man. Adams remembered him as “the most silent man in Congress. . . . I never heard him utter three sentences together.”

Adams and Jefferson Paintings

John Trumbull painted these miniatures of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Adams knew he would not receive his proper due from posterity. He wrote that “the whole history of this Revolution will be to lie, from beginning to end.” And, equally, he knew that Franklin was the stuff of which national legends are built. They would certify that “Franklin did this, Franklin did that, Franklin did some other damned thing….Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse….Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington, and the horse—conducted the entire Revolution by themselves.” 2

The seemingly endless list of congressional committees (and their redundant titles) spoken by Secretary Thomson at the beginning of Scene 5 are all taken from his own report as it appears in the “Journal of Congress.”

The Declaration of Independence was debated by the Congress for three full days. It underwent 86 separate changes (and withstood scores of others, including an amendment calling for clear and sovereign “fishing rights”) and the deletion of over 400 words, including a strong condemnation of that “peculiar institution” slavery (accusing King George III of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere”), which called for its abolition. This paragraph was removed to placate and appease the southern colonies and to hold them in the Union.

Jefferson, though a slaveholder himself, declared that “nothing is more certainly written in the Book of Fate than that this people shall be free.” And further: “The rights of human nature are deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”

The deadlock existing within the Delaware delegation was finally and melodramatically broken by the arrival of the mortally ill Caesar Rodney, who, in great pain, had ridden all night from Dover, a distance of some 80 miles, arriving just in time to save the motion on independence from being defeated. His sacrifice was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that by voting for the motion he was abandoning forever all hope of receiving the competent medical treatment of his illness that was available in England; he had become a traitor with a price on his head.

When the motion on independence had passed, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the leader of the anti-independence forces (desiring reconciliation with England), refused to sign the Declaration, a document he felt he could not endorse. But, asserting a fidelity to America, he left the Congress to enlist in the Continental Army as a private—though he was entitled to a commission—and served courageously with the Delaware Militia. Some years later he was appointed to the Constitutional Convention, representing Delaware, and returned to Philadelphia to contribute greatly to the writing of that extraordinary document, the United States Constitution.

John Dickinson Painting by Peale

John Dickinson, as painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1770, courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

All these historical facts appear in the play. But there are, as has been stated, many other instances where changes were effected. In all cases, however, we believe they were the result of sound dramatic decisions which were aesthetically, as well as historically, justified.

These changes can be divided into five categories: things altered, things surmised, things added, things deleted, and things rearranged. Following are examples of all five categories, plus the reasons for the changes.

Things Altered

Of the two main alterations that were made, one was in the interest of dramatic construction, the other for the purpose of preserving dramatic unity.

First, the Declaration, though reported back to Congress for amendments and revisions prior to the vote on independence on July 2, was not actually debated and approved until after that vote. However, had this schedule been preserved in the play, the audience’s interest in the debate would already have been spent.

Second, the Declaration was not signed on July 4, 1776, the date it was proclaimed to the citizenry of the thirteen colonies. It was actually signed over a period of several months, many of the signers having not been present at the time of its ratification. The greatest number signed on August 2, but one, Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, did not even enter Congress until November 4, and the name of Colonel Thomas McKean of Delaware, probably the last to sign, had not yet appeared on the document by the middle of January 1777. It seems fairly obvious, however, that the depiction of a July 4 signing, like the famous Pine-Savage engraving of this non-event, provides the occasion with form and allows the proper emotional punctuation to the entire spectacle.

Savage Engraving

Edward Savage’s 1801 engraving Congress Voting Independence (based on a possibly unfinished painting by Robert Edge Pine) was mass-produced in the 19th century.

Things Surmised

Because Secretary Thomson did not keep a proper record of the debates in Congress, and because other chronicles are incomplete in certain key areas, a small number of educated suppositions had to be made in order to complete the story. These were based on consistencies of character, ends logically connected to means, and the absence of other possible explanations.

It is unknown, for instance, whether Richard Henry Lee was persuaded to go to the Virginia House of Burgesses in order to secure a motion for independence that could be introduced in Congress, or if he volunteered on his own. Certainly Adams was getting nowhere with his own efforts; he had, on 23 separate occasions, introduced the subject of independence to his fellows in Congress, and each time it had failed to be considered. It was also true that whenever an issue needed respectability, the influence of a Virginian was brought to bear. (Virginia was the first colony, and its citizens were regarded as a sort of American aristocracy, an honor that was not betrayed by their leaders. The Virginian Washington was given command of the army, and the Virginian Jefferson was given the assignment of writing the Declaration.) Certainly Franklin would have delighted in appealing to Lee’s vanity and deflating Adams’s ego at one and the same time, as Scene 2 of the play suggests. But the actual sequence of these events is unknown.

Congress Political Cartoon

Congressional Pugilists, a 1798 cartoon depicting the stick fight between Congressman Roger Griswold and Representative Matthew Lyon.

And when Lee returned from Virginia (in Scene 3), a transcript of the debate in Congress on his motion for independence was never recorded. But the positions of individual congressmen are known, and it was possible to glean phrases, attitudes, and convictions from the many letters, memoirs, and other papers that exist in abundance, in order to reconstruct a likely facsimile of this debate. (Stick fights, such as the one occurring between Adams and Dickinson in this scene, were common during congressional debate, and though there is no report of this particular one, the sight of the two antagonists whacking away at each other certainly would have surprised no one.)

Similarly, a record of the debate on the Declaration was never kept. But in this case there was even more to go on. Jefferson himself, in his autobiography, provided two versions of the document—as originally written and as finally approved. Who was responsible for each individual change is not known, but in most instances convincing conclusions are not too hard to draw. McKean, a proud Scot, surely would have objected to the charge of “Scotch & foreign mercenaries [sent] to invade and deluge us in blood.” And John Witherspoon of New Jersey, a clergyman and the congressional chaplain, no doubt would have supported the addition of the phrase “with a firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence,” which had not been present in Jefferson’s original draft. Also, Edward Rutledge must be charged with leading the fight against the condemnation of slavery, being the chief proponent of that practice in Congress. And the exchange between Jefferson and Dickinson, occurring in our version of this debate, includes lines written by Jefferson on other occasions, most notably: “The right to be free comes from Nature.” 3

Declaration of Independence Draft

Jefferson’s “original rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, with emendations made by Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin.

The conversion of James Wilson of Pennsylvania from the “nay” to the “yea” column at the last minute (in Scene 7) is an event without any surviving explanation. All that is definitely known is that Wilson, a former law student of Dickinson’s and certainly under his influence in Congress, as his previous voting record testifies, suddenly changed his position on independence and, as a result, is generally credited with casting the vote that decided this issue. But why? A logical solution to this mystery was found when we imagined one fear he might have possessed that would have been stronger than his fear of Dickinson’s wrath—the fear of going down in history as the man who singlehandedly prevented American independence. Such a position would have been totally consistent with his well-known penchant for caution.

The final logical conjecture we made concerned the discrepancy between the appearance of the word “inalienable” in Jefferson’s version of the Declaration and its reappearance as “unalienable” in the printed copy that is now in universal use. This could have been a misprint, but it might, too, have been the result of interference by Adams (he had written it as “unalienable” in a copy of the Declaration he had drafted in his own hand), who believed that this seldom-used spelling was correct. There is no doubt that the meddlesome “Massachusettensian,” a Harvard graduate, was not above speaking to Mr. Dunlap, the printer.

Handwritten Declaration

The telltale “unalienable” in John Adams’ handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

It is also consistent with both men’s behavior that Adams and Jefferson should have disagreed on this matter, as they did on most. They were to become bitter enemies for much of their lives, only to make up when they had both survived to extreme old age. Both lived long enough to be invited (by Adams’ son, John Quincy, who was then occupying the White House) to the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence. But on that very date, July 4, 1826, exactly a half-century later to the day, both of these gigantic figures, Jefferson at 83, Adams at 91—each believing and finding solace in the thought that the other was attending the jubilee—died. Surely this was one of the greatest coincidences in all history and one which never would be believed if included in a play.

Things Added

The three instances of elements that were added to the story of American independence were created in the interest of satisfying the musical-comedy form. Again, it must be stressed that none of them interferes with historic truth in any way.

The first concerns Martha Jefferson’s visit to Philadelphia in Scene 4. While it is true that Jefferson missed her to distraction, more than enough to affect an unscheduled reunion, it is believed that he journeyed to Virginia to see her. The license of having her come to see him, at Adams’s instigation, stemmed from our desire to show something of the young Jefferson’s personal life without destroying the unity of setting.

Second, in Scene 5 of the play, Adams, Franklin, and Chase are shown leaving for New Brunswick, New Jersey, for an inspection of the military. This particular trip did not actually take place, though a similar one was made to New York after the vote on independence, during which Adams and Franklin had to share a single bed in an inn. Originally the New Jersey junket was included in the play, represented by two separate scenes (one in an inn, showing the sleeping arrangements mentioned, the other on the military training grounds, showing inspection of “a ragtag collection of provincial militiamen and irregulars” who could do nothing right until a flock of ducks flew by; the men’s hunger molded them into a smoothly operating unit). These scenes were removed, however, during the out-of-town tryout, in the interests of the overall length of the play and because they were basically cinemagraphic in concept. Needless to say, both should appear in the filmed version of 1776. 4

And third, the account of General Washington’s dusty young courier, at the end of Scene 5, of a battle he had witnessed, while an actual description of the village green during and after the Battle of Lexington, is a wholly constructed moment, designed to illustrate the feelings and experiences of the Americans outside Congress, who were deeply influenced by the decisions made inside the Congress.

Battle of Lexington

A depiction of the Battle of Lexington, circa 1850, courtesy of the New York Public Library’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art.

One further note: The tally board used throughout the play to record each vote did not exist in the actual chamber in Philadelphia. It has been included in order to clarify the positions of the thirteen colonies at any given moment, a device allowing the audience to follow the parliamentary action without confusion.

Things Deleted

Certain elements that are historically true have been left out of or removed from the play for one of three separate reasons.

The first of these was the embarrassment of riches; there are just too many choice bits of information to include in one, two, or even a dozen plays. The fact that Franklin often entered the congressional chamber in a sedan chair carried by convicts, for instance; or that, on several occasions, Indians in full regalia would appear before the Congress, petitioning for one thing or another, and accompanied by their interpreter, a full-blooded Indian who spoke with a flawless Oxford accent.

Then there was the advisability of cutting down on the number of congressmen appearing in the play in the interests of preserving clarity and preventing overcrowding. There is, after all, a limit to an audience’s ability to assimilate (and keep separate) a large number of characters, as well as the physical limits of any given stage production. For this reason several of the lesser-known (and least-contributory) congressmen were eliminated altogether, and in a few cases two or more were combined into a single character. James Wilson, for example, contains a few of the qualities of his fellow Pennsylvanian John Morton. And John Adams is, at times, a composite of himself and his cousin Sam Adams, also of Massachusetts.

But by far the most frustrating reason for deleting a historical fact was that the audiences would never have believed it. The best example of this is John Adams’s reply (it was actually Cousin Sam who said it) to Franklin’s willingness to drop the anti-slavery clause from the Declaration. “Mark me, Franklin,” he now says in Scene 7, “if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.” But the complete line, spoken in July 1776, was, “If we give in on this issue, there will be trouble a hundred years hence; posterity will never forgive us.” And audiences would never forgive us. For who could blame them for believing that the phrase was the author’s invention, stemming from the eternal wisdom of hindsight? After all, the astonishing prediction missed by only a few years.

Things Rearranged

Some historical data have been edited dramatically without altering their validity or factuality.

The first example of this would be the play’s treatment of Adams’s relationship with his wife, Abigail. Two separate theatrical conventions have been employed; the selection and conversion of sections of their actual letters, written to each other during this period of their separation, into dialogue; and the placing of them in close physical proximity though they remain, in reality, over 300 miles apart. The notion for this last device sprang, oddly, from a line in one of these same letters: Adams was complaining about their continued separation and finally pleaded, “Oh, if I could only annihilate time and space!” 5 (The description of scenes, at the beginning of the play, defines these meetings by listing the area of dramatic action as “certain reaches of John Adams’s mind.”)

The exchanges, spoken and sung, between John and Abigail Adams are, as has been stated, the result of distributing, as dialogue, sections and phrases from various letters. The list of their children’s diseases, the constant requests for “saltpetre for gunpowder” (and the counter-request for pins), the use of the tender salutation “Dearest friend,” the catalogue of Abigail’s faults, the news of the farm in Braintree failing—even certain song lyrics transferred intact (“I live like a nun in a cloister” and “Write to me with sentimental effusion”) 6 —all these were edited and rearranged in an attempt to establish a dramatically satisfying relationship.

Abigail Adams History

Sherman Edwards plucked this phrase from a November 1775 letter from Abigail Adams, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

This same process was used to construct George Washington’s dispatches from the field. Literally dozens were selected, from which individual lines were borrowed and then patched together in order to form the five communiqués that now appear in the play. Therefore, though the dispatches as now constructed were not written by the commander-in-chief, each sentence within them is either an actual quotation (“O how I wish I had never seen the Continental Army! I would have done better to retire to the back country and live in a wigwam”) 7 or paraphrase, or comes from a firsthand report (the final line of the last dispatch, “But dear God! what brave men I shall lose before this business ends!” was spoken by Washington in the presence of his adjutant, who later reported it). 8

And finally, John Adams’s extraordinary prophecy, made on July 3, 1776, describing the way Independence Day would be celebrated by future generations of Americans and written in a letter to his wife on that date, has been paraphrased and adapted into lyric form for the song “Is Anybody There?” sung by Adams in Scene 7. The original lines are:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.

You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust God we shall not.

Union Square Parade 1876

“Pomp and parade” in Union Square on July 4, 1876 as depicted in a Harper’s Weekly wood engraving, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We have attempted, in the paragraphs above, to answer the question, “Is it true?” What we cannot answer, however, is how such a question could possibly be asked so often by Americans. What they want to know is whether or not the story of their political origin, the telling of their national legend, is correct as presented. Don’t they know? Haven’t they ever heard it before? And if not, why not? As we say, it’s a question we cannot answer.

There are those who would claim that the schools just don’t teach it, and we would have trouble disagreeing with them. The authors of 1776 are both products of the American public-school system—one from the West Coast, the other from the East. Both were better than average students with a deeper-than-average curiosity about American history. But neither of them was given any more than a perfunctory review of the major events, a roster of a few cardboard characters, and a certain number of jingoistic conclusions.

But what of the arguments, the precedents, the compromises, the personalities, the regional disputes, the perseverance, the courage, the sacrifices, the expediencies? What of the similarities between those times and these (states rights versus federal rights; property rights versus human rights; privileged rights versus civil rights) and the differences (if any)? What of the lessons of the past applied to the problems of the future, for what society can plan a future without an intimate knowledge of its own past?

It is presumptuous of us to assume that 1776 will be able to fill even a portion of this lamentable void (though doubtless no small portion of its success is due to the “new” information it offers); the crime is that it should even have to. The United States owes its citizens, at the very least, an educational system that describes, defines, and explains our own existence.


1776 will run for seven performances at New York City Center from March 30 to April 3.

 

Endnotes

1 Adams’ actual self-description was “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.”

2 Edwards and Stone seem to have thrown in the horse themselves. The actual passage, from a letter John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1790, reads, “The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislation, and war.”

3 Jefferson’s words, uttered while acting as a defense attorney in the case of Howell vs. Netherland: “Under the law of nature, all men are born free.”

4 Neither scene appeared in the 1972 film.

5 Abigail is responsible for this sentiment. In a letter to John on May 27, 1776, she wrote, “O that I could annihilate Space.”

6 These lines weren’t quite transferred intact. Abigail wrote “I have been like a nun in a cloister” in a November 12, 1775 letter, and wrote “I want some sentimental Effusions” in a July 16, 1775 letter.

7 Washington did indeed contemplate the wigwam life, but not in that exact phrasing. In a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Reed on January 14, 1776, he wrote, “I have often thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting of a command under such circumstances, I had taken my musket upon my shoulder and entered the ranks, or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity and my own conscience, had retired to the back country and lived in a wigwam.”

8 Washington’s words were actually reported as “Good God, what brave fellows I must lose.”