One cannot view the 1972 movie “1776”, which centers on the ongoing sessions of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in June and July, 1776, leading up to the passing of the Declaration of Independence, without realizing that this event was a miracle.
The music is eminently forgettable, save for a couple of songs, but the story itself is riveting. This movie, based on the Broadway play, depicted John Adams, whom history has largely forgotten, as the leading advocate for independence. For this reason he arguably deserves a memorial in Washington D.C. But he was also “obnoxious and disliked”, as was sung about in the movie, and perhaps this is the reason there is no Adams memorial. But there is no doubt of his advocacy, his leadership, which paved the way for independence.
To get there, many obstacles had to be faced and overcome, not the least of which was the pacifism of Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson. Dickinson was strongly against splitting from England and in the end was out polled by the Pennsylvania delegates, voting 2-1 in favor of independence, including Benjamin Franklin. The crucial vote here was that of Judge James Wilson, who stood up to Dickinson’s bullying to vote “yea” on the independence resolution. Since unanimity on the resolution was required, any one colony votiong against it would have spelled defeat, and the the Judge did not want to be remembered in history as the one vote defeating independence. Dickinson left the room after the favorable polling on independence, but vowing to join the Continental Army to prove his patriotism.
A further major concern was the position of South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, who took a firm stand against the clause condemning slavery. He demanded that it be removed and vowed to vote “nay” on the resolution otherwise. Although John Adams originally argued against removing the clause, Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice convinced him to give in on this point to save the fight for independence, leaving the slavery question for another day.
The show is an effective lesson in history, providing a realistic look at the day-to-day operation of the Continental Congress as it continued to struggle with its own bickering, contentiousness, politics, and personality issues, as it faced the question of independence from England. It is also a study in human bravery, considering that at the time Great Britain fielded the strongest military and naval forces on earth, and that all members faced likely execution as traitors if the ongoing revolutionary war was lost. Notable was the courage of Ceasar Rodney of Delaware who road back to Philadelphia from Delaware, while dying from cancer, to vote “yea.” A statue in downtown Wilmington attests to his courage and determination. But, considering that never before in history had a colony torn itself away from its Mother Country to establish its independence, one can also see the working of a greater, overriding force in the mix which would not allow failure. Perhaps the result was preordained.