1776 (1972)
Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

Psst: The Fourth of July isn’t really about crazy fireworks displays, or eating a record-breaking 69 hot dogs in just 10 minutes, or those layered American flag cakes that look so gorgeous on Pinterest but are physically impossible to reproduce IRL.

No, my friends—it’s about our glorious nation’s glorious genesis, spearheaded in the City of Brotherly Love 238 years ago when our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. You could honor them by comparing bifocals with a Benjamin Franklin impersonator, or perhaps wearing a powdered wig to the beach. By my money, though, there’s no better way to celebrate than by watching 1776, a goofy/poignant/boring/riveting musical that frames the process of ratifying the Declaration as the original reality show (a bunch of dudes are trapped in a room together for weeks, with nothing to do but form alliances and bitch at each other). But 1776 isn’t just entertaining—it doubles as the perfect distillation of what it truly means to be an American.

A bold statement, to be sure—but one I’m prepared to defend for the entire length of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” (a.k.a. forever). Why? Simple:

1. It’s historically inaccurate

Christopher Columbus didn’t sail across the world to prove the Earth is round, George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree—and the Declaration wasn’t actually signed by every member of Congress on July 4. Also, Martha Jefferson didn’t travel to Philadelphia to, uh, “inspire” her husband (she was gravely ill in Virginia at the time), Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney wasn’t on his deathbed when he returned to Pennsylvania to vote in favor of independence, and Pennsylvania’s deciding vote was cast by delegate John Morton (who doesn’t appear in the musical), not James Wilson (who does). Some might say these and other inaccuracies hurt the musical’s legacy; I’d argue that rewriting history to make things tidier and more exciting is as American as pumpkin pie (which only became associated with Thanksgiving in the early 19th century, by the way).

2. It stars John Adams, the original Ugly American

1776 casts our future second president as a Great Man (blisteringly intelligent, morally uncompromising, relentlessly devoted to American independence) who’s also grouchy, arrogant, obstinate, and tactless—”obnoxious and disliked,” as one of the show’s most memorable refrains keeps reminding us. Adams believes that anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot—and isn’t afraid to say (or sing) that to their faces. In other words, he’s the exemplar of several American stereotypes, both positive and negative—which may be why he’s so damn lovable. (Also: He’s played brilliantly by William Daniels, a.k.a. Mr. Feeny, and that’s why the characters on Boy Meets World go to John Adams High. The more you know!)

3. It’s hopelessly idealistic about the idea of government, but filled with disgust at the actual government

A proud American tradition that extends all the way to our nation’s inception: Adams sums things up perfectly when he groans, “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a congress.” Then everyone spends seven minutes scream-singing at him to shut up already. USA! USA! USA!

4. It’s surprisingly dirty

Ahh, America, forever torn between our puritanical Pilgrim heritage and our desire for boobs, boobs, boobs. 1776 is no different—the costumes are stuffy, but the men in them can’t stop making sly double (or single) entendres. Richard Henry Lee promises to stop off in Stratford “long enough to refresh the missus.” When Franklin says that calling an American an Englishman is like calling an ox a bull, John Dickinson replies, “When did you first notice they were missing, sir?” Franklin later quips that at his age, “there’s little doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword.” Adams assures his colleagues that he can “romp through Cupid’s grove with great agility.” There’s also a whole song about how good Jefferson is at doing sex “playing the violin.”

5. It’s profoundly and unapologetically schlocky

See: “The Lees of Old Virginia,” a proudly corny exercise in punnery that’s the musical equivalent of one long dad joke. And that’s hardly the end of it; goofy wordplay and broad setup-punchline jokes pervade 1776, garnishing the movie with plenty of good, old-fashioned American cheese.

6. It’s cheekily self-referential

1776 is certainly not as meta as, say, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (and thank God for that), but it does have its moments of quintessentially American irreverence. Take, for example, when Adams is scandalized at the thought of the Jeffersons coupling in the middle of the day, and Franklin responds that he shouldn’t worry: “The history books will clean it up.” Though they’re not yet Founding Fathers, these men know they’re doing something that has the potential to change the world forever—and perhaps paradoxically, this throughline ends up humanizing them even more. After all, mythical figures don’t bother worrying about their legacies.

7. It rhymes “hot as hell” with “PhilaDELLLL—phia!”

Only in America!

8. It keeps making fun of New Jersey

Even in an age when people still remembered Old Jersey, the future Garden State was the butt of everyone’s jokes. The delegation from that colony is hopelessly late to the Congress (“Where is New Jersey?!” “Somewhere between New York and Pennsylvania,” yuk yuk yuk); later, it’s established that “every able-bodied whore in the colonies” has made camp in New Brunswick. What’s the 18th-century equivalent of “GTL”?

9. At heart, it’s kinda about the power of love

As a nation, we place great stock in this well-worn trope—and so does 1776. Jefferson can only write the Declaration after being reunited with his wife; Adams only finds the resolve to make a final push for independence when his own beloved Abigail appears in his mind and urges him to see things through. (Her corporeal self sends him some much-needed saltpeter as well.) Yes, it’s pretty far from passing the Bechdel Test… but at least the musical doesn’t totally ignore our Founding Mothers, right?

10. But it’s also about compromise—even the morally repugnant kind

1776 is frequently and delightfully silly and melodramatic. It’s also unflinching about the issue of slavery. Jefferson and Adams want the Declaration to include a clause accusing King George of “wag[ing] cruel war against human nature itself” by engaging in the slave trade. The southern delegates, led by Edward Rutledge, flatly refuse to support independence if this section makes it to the final draft. Their objection isn’t just tied to the South’s dependence on slaves—as Rutledge explains (in song, natch), slavery benefits the North as well, thanks to profits generated by the Triangle Trade. (Hypocrisy: Also an American institution.)

In the end, Adams and Jefferson must give up on independence or give in to Rutledge—and they reluctantly opt for the latter, paving the way for the musical’s ultimate message (as delivered by Franklin): “Revolutions come into this world like bastard children, half improvised and half compromised.” It’s a sobering moment after nearly three hours of lighthearted tomfoolery—one that neatly sums up our nation’s most problematic legacy. And, in the end, the Declaration’s signing itself isn’t as celebratory as you might expect—there’s some triumph, sure, but it’s mixed with regret about both the missing clause and the bloodshed still to come. Pride, tinged with heartache and bitterness—what’s more American than that?

  • Movie
  • Peter H. Hunt