1776 by
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Prompted By Independence

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Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams (Ken Howard, Howard da Silva, and William Daniels) from the musical “1776.” Photo credit: flix66.com.

One of our Fourth of July traditions is to re-watch the old musical “1776.” Alternately funny and serious, it depicts, in song and even dance, that difficult time when our nation’s founders were debating the unprecedented act of declaring their independence from Mother Britain—a treasonous crime for which (in the likely event it failed) they would almost certainly all be hanged. Consider it the “Hamilton” of its day.

Don't miss the show-stopper, "Molasses to Rum to Slaves," about Northern complicity in the slave trade. Seriously.

The scene that always gets to me comes late in the movie, the night before the crucial vote. John Adams, the “obnoxious and disliked” relentless ringleader of the pro-independence partisans, climbs the bell tower (of what would later be called Independence Hall) in despair. His impossible quest, to achieve unanimous agreement among the thirteen colonies to declare independence, seems lost.

“Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” laments Adams, echoing General Washington’s most recent dispatch from the front, decrying Congress’s inaction (sound familiar?) in the face of the assemblage of the British army to put down the nascent rebellion.

Then he adds, “Does anybody see what I see?” And he portrays his vision for what America has—or at least might—become:

I see fireworks!
I see the pageant and pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans—all Americans—
Free forevermore!

This is where I break down. Because I realize that, with all their courage, the founders left their vision incomplete. It’s become our task to complete it—to expand freedom, suffrage, and equality to those for whom the founders could not (or would not) imagine it: women, African-Americans, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and LGBT people.

Over our lives, we boomers have witnessed and participated in a broad expansion of that freedom, from the civil rights battles of the 1960s to marriage equality last year. Despite our many failings, equality has been our success. But Adams’ quest is not over—it is never over—and these days it seems particularly fragile. Will we have a tenth the courage that the founders had? Does anybody see what I see?

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: 1776, Independence Day


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You are so right, John. Our nation continues to evolve and struggle to emancipate various groups of its citizens, even as other groups seek to hinder the progress. The progress is never easy, but the work must (and does) continue, even as the rights are granted, and the backlash continues. Thoughtful and well-conceived.

  2. Very thoughtful and moving review with a POV. YOu’ve done a beautiful job of building on the artifact of “1776” to discuss the larger issues surrounding the high-stakes declaration that lies at the core of a liberty that is demanding our constant attention and action. “You have a republic, madame… if you can keep it.” — Benjamin Franklin

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Inspired by both your story and the exhortation of the neighbor who read the Declaration of Independence at our town green yesterday morning, we (finally) watched “1776” last night. (It is available on Amazon Prime.) Saddled with (to me) unmemorable and infrequent songs and dance, 1776 may fall short as a traditional musical. But, as you note, what a story it tells! And by so well humanizing the Founding Fathers (including the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams and the amorous Thomas Jefferson, who would rather make love to his wife all night than get to his assigned task of writing the Declaration), 1776 actually makes their eventual bravery all the more impressive than if they had been portrayed simply as platitudinous super heroes.
    So thank you, John, both for this recommendation and for your moving story. And for your final, vital question: will we have the bravery to keep this fragile quest alive?

    • John Zussman says:

      John, I’m sorry you didn’t care for the songs, which I find charming and even moving (“Mama, Look Sharp”). (Like you, I can take or leave the dance). But I’m delighted that you liked the movie and found the story humanizing and inspiring.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    To be fair, John, perhaps I need to hear the songs a few more times. Ever since “Company,” I hope to leave musicals humming at least five tunes and being wowed by the lyrics.

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