Director: Peter H. Hunt.
Starring: William Daniels (John Adams), Howard da Silva (Benjamin Franklin), Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), Donald Madden (John Dickinson), Ron Holgate (Richard Henry Lee), David Ford (John Hancock), Blythe Danner (Mrs. Jefferson), Roy Poole (Stephen Hopkins), Virginia Vestoff (Abigail Adams), John Cullum (Edward Rutledge).
Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone musical dealing with the American Congress declaring its independence from Britain.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1776. John Adams is up in the bell tower. Andrew McNair, congressional custodian, calls out for Mr. Adams, but the man from Massachusetts is deep in thought. The messenger has to come all the way up to the tower to tell Adams that the Congress is getting ready to vote on whether or not to grant General Washington's request that all members of the Rhode Island militia be required to wear matching uniforms. Adams comments: "Oh, good God."
Adams comes into the room with the other delegates and says that for 10 years the British have laid illegal taxes on the thirteen colonies: Stamp Acts, Townshend Acts, Sugar Acts, Tea Acts. And when the colonists revolted, Britain blockaded their ports and spilled their blood. "And still this Congress refuses to grant any of my proposals on independence even so much as the courtesy of open debate. Good God, what in the hell are you waiting for?" The delegates sing a song telling John to sit down. John gets so disgusted that he has to go out and get some fresh air.
Outside he vents his anger saying that for a year Congress has been sitting in Philadelphia and nothing has been accomplished. Adams sings a song complaining about Congress. This is followed by John in his mind talking to his wife back in Massachusetts. She suggests that he come home, but he feels he just can't do that. Since John is not coming, Abigail suggests that he get Congress to accept a declaration of independence. She sings a song about the matter. Adams asks Abigail if she has organized the women to to make saltpeter for gunpowder. Abigail says she has not because John forgot to leave her the instructions for making saltpeter. He says all that is needed is to treat sodium nitrate with potassium chloride. Abigail sarcastically says: "Oh, yes, of course." She says there's a more important need. They need pins. He agrees to get some pins to the ladies.
Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania is sitting for his portrait by an artist. Adams comes to him and asks Franklin where was he last night when he had to listen to vicious criticism of his request to take up the question of a declaration of independence. Franklin says he heard Adams shouting, as did all of Philadelphia. Adams reiterates that even after Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and the King of England declaring the colonies to be in rebellion, Congress will still not declare for independence. Franklin says that many in Congress want to reconcile with Britain. Adams reacts negatively: "Reconciliation, my ass." Franklin tells him he should give it up: "Nobody listens to you. You're obnoxious and disliked." Even his cousin, Sam Adams, can put up with John. Franklin suggests that Adams let someone else propose the idea of independence to Congress, but Adams just says: "Never!"
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia arrives to talk with Franklin, who tells Richard that he and Adams need some advice. At present only Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Delaware have declared for independence. The Virginia legislature in Williamsburg has never formally authorized a call for independence. Franklin wants Richard to go back down to Williamsburg and persuade the House of Burgesses to vote for independence. Richard sings a song about getting the job done. He leaves for Virginia.
It is June 7, 1776. The new delegate from Georgia, Dr. Lyman Hall, arrives. McNair introduces Hall to Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina comes in and is introduced to Hall. Rutledge takes Hall to meet his colleagues from the South. Joseph Hewes of North Carolina asks where he stands on the question of independence. Hall says he is here without instructions and able to vote his own personal convictions. He, however, won't say as of yet where he stands on the question. Rutledge takes him aside and tells him that the deep South traditionally speaks with one voice.
The Delaware delegation comes in. It consists of three men: Col. McKean, Caesar Rodney and George Read. Rodney is a very tiny old man and suffers from cancer. The Pennsylvania delegation arrives with delegates John Dickinson and Judge James Wilson. Next to arrive is Franklin. Adams gets more ribbing by the delegates.
Mr. Thomson calls the session together. This is the 380th meeting of the Congress. John Hancock of Massachusetts is the President in Congress Assembled. At this session there are quite a few delegates missing, including the whole New Jersey delegation. Dispatch 1,137 from Gen. Washington is delivered. He says that British troops and mercenaries are sailing from Halifax, Nov Scotia, under the command of Gen. Sir William Howe. Washington believes they are headed for New York and the Hudson River Valley in order to separate New England from the rest of the colonies. In addition, his army is falling apart and his supplies are virtually none. Col. McKean gets up to say that Washington is one of the gloomiest officers of high rank ever.
McNair opens a window and looks out. He shouts: "Fire wagon!" and all the delegates run out the door to see what's all the excitement about. Just then Richard Henry Lee arrives. He brings news that Virginia now supports independence. Lee gets the resolution in and Adams seconds it. So there will be a debate about independence. Rutledge moves that the idea of independence be postponed indefinitely. A vote is taken on the debate on independence. The North and Virginia (with New York abstaining and New Jersey absent) vote for independence. The rest of the South says no. The debate is approved.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania gets up to oppose independence. He uses the term Englishmen for the colonists whereas Adams and Franklin use the term Americans. Franklin gets up to speak for independence. Adams and Dickinson criticize each other personally. Adams says we are at war right now! Rutledge of South Carolina takes a stand that still to this day somewhat characterizes the South. He says South Carolina wants its independence, but for South Carolina, their country. They don't want to be dominated by the North. Adams speaks for one nation. Some of the delegates are worried about being hanged. The debates between Adams and Dickinson become a little too personal and they start fighting each other using their canes. McKean shoots his rifle upwards and Rodney tells the two men to stop the fighting. He gets so excited that he grows weak and suddenly falters. Other delegates help hold him up. McKean says he will take Rodney home and then return.
Rutledge now uses the absence of two of the three Delaware delegates to try to ram though a no vote with Delaware on their side. Franklin stalls for time by having the resolution read again. Just then the New Jersey delegation arrives and New Jersey is for independence. They have three delegates: Rev. John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson and Richard Stockton. Witherspoon tells Franklin that his son, the royal governor of New Jersey, has been arrested and taken to Connecticut for safekeeping. He then tells the Congress that they have been instructed to vote for independence. The vote proceeds. Dickinson now gets up and says that any vote for independence must be unanimous. Adams is furious. He doesn't believe the vote for independence will ever be unanimous. The vote on this issue results in a 6-6 vote with New York abstaining. Hancock votes with the South and Pennsylvania. Adams is again made furious. He asks for a postponement to write a declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia explains why such a declaration is needed. A vote is taken and it's 6-6 with one abstaining (NY). Hancock votes for postponement. Now Adams is happy.
Hancock now appoints a committee on the declaration of independence: Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson are on the committee. Jefferson objects because he was planning to go home to see his wife, but that will have to wait. Now the four men discuss in song who will write the declaration. They decide it will be Jefferson, despite the man's objections and protests.
A week later Adams and Franklin pay a visit to Jefferson. Adams asks if he has finished the declaration. No, he has not. Most of what he has written has been balled up and thrown on the floor. In fact, Jefferson confesses that the declaration has not yet begun. Adams is furious and reminds Jefferson that the universe was created in six days. Just then Mrs. Jefferson shows up and the loving couple hug and kiss each other. In fact, Jefferson is so occupied that he can't even introduce Adams and Franklin to her. While the two are kissing, Adams introduces himself and Franklin. They decide to leave as the situation seems hopeless.
Outside, alone, John starts speaking to Abigail again. Soon they are singing together about their relationship. He wanted her to come to Philadelphia, but she cannot because of the children and illness.
In the morning, pretty Mrs. Jefferson opens the shutters and Franklin and Adams say hello, but since she doesn't recognize them, she thinks they are a bit rude. They remind her that they presented themselves to her yesterday. She comes down and talks to the men. Her name is Martha and she sings about her husband Tom. She evens dances with the two older men.
Adams, Franklin and McKean (back from Delaware now) divide up the work of convincing the Southern and Pennsylvanian delegates to switch over in support of independence. Franklin talks with Wilson, who is under the thumb of Dickinson, while McKean talks with his fellow delegate Read. Adams speaks with Chase of Maryland.
A dispatch from Washington. He criticizes his soldiers in multiple ways. Furthermore, he asks the War Committee to come out and see the situation themselves in New Brunswick, New Jersey. McKean says that man would depress a laughing hyena. Adams asks Chase would Maryland say yes to independence, if the American army could defeat the British army? Yes. So, as chairman of the War Committee, Adams says he will take the committee along with Chase to New Brunswick to check out the American army. Franklin is also going.
With Adams gone, Dickinson sings a happy song of contentment and peace. Another dispatch comes in from Washington. Gen. Howe has landed 25,000 British and Hessian troops on Staten Island, New York City. And Admiral Lord Howe, his brother, controls the Hudson and East Rivers and also New York Harbor. Still singing, the delegates go to their quarters.
McNair sits and talks with two young men, one the dispatcher, a corporal in the army. McNair and the other young fellow ask the corporal if he has seen any fighting? The corporal says he sure did. In fact, he saw his two best friends get shot dead on the same day at the village green in Lexington. The mothers of the two young lads come looking for them only to find them dead. The corporal sings a song about this.
When Congress reconvenes, secretary Thomson reads Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In the middle of the reading, Adams and Franklin return. Adams tells Jefferson waiting outside the room that they have got Maryland's vote for independence. Their attentions now turn to the declaration. They sing a song about it. The three delegates go into the room as Thomson finishes reading the document. Hancock now calls for those who want any alterations, deletions or amendments. There are many delegates who respond. Some of the changes are small like take out the word "Scottish" used in reference to mercenary troops sent against the colonies. Accepted. Rev. Witherspoon wants a mention of the Supreme Being in the document. Accepted. Read says the declaration says the British have denied us the right to a trial by jury, but in his state of Delaware, they still have this right. He wants an adjustment for this fact. Accepted. Adams get irritated because Jefferson seems to be accepting all the changes. The word "parliament" is to be removed wherever it occurs. Accepted.
The discussion goes on for several days. Jefferson finally defends his use of the word "tyrant" in regard to King George III against the wishes of Dickinson to remove the word. It is July 1. Adams gets angry again. He says they have made 85 separates changes and removed close to 400 words. Hancock is just about to close the debate, when Rutledge of South Carolina brings up the most important of all matters: the slavery clause. He puts his finger right on the fundamental social division in the colonies, that between free and slave, white and black. He wants the clause removed. Mr. Thomson reads the clause: "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold." Jefferson admits that the clause is about slavery.
Rutledge defends the institution of slavery and the way of life of the people of the South. Adams and Jefferson see the slave sas people, but Rutledge only sees them as property. He calls Jefferson out on his holding slaves himself. Tom says he has already resolved to release his slaves. Rutledge speaks about Northern hypocrisy for they are involved in the triangular trade dealing with the slave-molasses-rum trade. Rutledge sings a song about this. When he finishes the song, he and all the southern delegates walk out (except for Maryland).
The Northern delegates are down-hearted about the walk-out, but Adams starts putting them to work. He tells McKean to go back to Delaware and bring back delegate Rodney. McKean objects that it's useless -- the South has done them in. Adams won't hear of it. McKean goes. Most of the other Northern delegates think the matter is over. Franklin tells Adams that they will have to take the slavery clause out of the declaration. This upsets Adams, but Franklin says he is risking the whole cause of independence for the slavery clause. An angry Adams walks out and goes up to the bell tower again. Up there he talks with Abigail. He wants her advice on this slavery issue, but he also wonders why he is filled with discontentment. Abby gives him his own advice: commitment to the cause. McNair shouts out for Adams to come down. There is a package for him. Actually, it's more than a package. Abby has sent small barrels of saltpeter. Adams tells McNair to go out and buy every pin he can find in Philadelphia.
Adams is back in action. He sends Jefferson to try and reason with Rutledge. He sends Franklin to talk to his fellow delegate Wilson to get away form Dickinson and say yea for independence. Another dispatch from Washington arrives. Thomson sings the dispatch to Adams which mostly asks about congress: "Is anybody there? Does anybody care?" Thomson leaves. Adams sings about commitment. Dr. Hall of Georgia comes in and tells Adams that he is voting yea on independence.
July 2, 1776. McKean arrives with Rodney with him. The voting begins on the question of independence. New York abstains. Pennsylvania passes. Delaware votes yea. Maryland says yea. When it comes to South Carolina's turn, Rutledge asks Adams if he will remove the slavery clause? Adams at first defends the clause. Franklin tells him to think about it. Adams debates with Franklin now. Adams turns to Jefferson and Jefferson goes up to the declaration and scratches out the offending phrase. Adams grabs the document and walks over to Rutledge saying: "There it is, Rutledge. You have your slavery. Little good may it do you. Now vote, damn you!" South Carolina says yea, North Carolina says yea and Georgia says yea. Dickinson is going to vote no for Pennsylvania now, but Franklin asks that the delegates be polled. Franklin says yea, Dickinson says no. They are waiting for Judge Wilson now.
Wilson does not want to go down in history as the man who voted against independence. He stands up to Dickinson and votes yea. The resolution on independence is adopted. Adams says: "It's done. It's done." Dickinson says he will fight in the army for America, but he cannot stay in Congress. He leaves. Hancock signs the document with a signature large enough so King George III can read it without his glasses. Now Hancock tells the congressmen to step up and sign: "Don't miss your chance to commit treason." Franklin says the document is their passport to the gallows. He goes on: "But there's no backing out now, for if we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately."
Another dispatch from Washington. He has ordered the evacuation of Manhattan and is building a stronger position on Brooklyn Heights. He has 5,000 troops against 25,000. He has a personal message to Mr. Morris of New York. His estates have been totally destroyed, but Mrs. Morris and the children are now safe in Connecticut. He regrets he will lose many brave men in the battles to come.
July 4, 1776. Hancock tells McNair to go ring the bell. Mr. Morris says he will sign the document anyway. Adams signs the declaration. The first ring of the bell. It rings every time someone signs.
Good movie. I was skeptical about this movie, because I couldn't see how a musical would fit in with the mechanics of the legislative process. And some of the songs were a bit strange because of the difficult topics dealt with. When it's more of a love song, then the song sounds better and flows more easily, but I must say I kind of enjoyed some of the jerky lyrics and melody, as I marveled at how the lyricist did it. But sometimes I just fast-forwarded through the songs.
The story was interesting. And, as I have written elsewhere, the racial division was very apparent even before the nature of American government was set. The fundamental division of North and South over slavery was there at the beginning and would in 1861 lead to the American Civil War. Then the racial division would lead to a big fight for Civil rights in the late 1950s and 1960s. And, finally, it would lead to our current division over President Barack Obama where the country is extremely polarized. This racial division is nicely portrayed in the film.
I hadn't realized that there were so many changes made to the Declaration of Independence -- 85 separate changes and almost 400 words eliminated.
I liked William Daniels as John Adams and especially enjoyed the acting of Henry da Silva as Benjamin Franklin.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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