At the end of the school year in about 1974 or 1975, I can remember an assembly in junior high school that was meant as an end-of-the-year treat for us kids to get us out of the hot, stuffy classrooms that were not air-conditioned and move us into the gym/auditorium that was also not air-conditioned. A movie projector was wheeled in on one of those old typical public school audiovisual carts and a screen was pulled down over the stage. We were treated to a movie that day. It was 1776 (1972).
We have mentioned on this blog before the 1970s being a decade almost peculiarly devoted to nostalgia. It was the era where we saw a revival of sorts in culture and entertainment, a nod to Hollywood's heyday. Many of Hollywood's stars at that time were still with us, indeed, were still working, and were able to share with us and enjoy the images of their youth which at the time they may have thought doomed to obscurity. But thanks to television and the new videocassettes on the horizon and much memorabilia sold in the meantime, the 1970s became an era where we rediscovered the past and reveled in it. It was the era of That's Entertainment (1974), and young people such as myself were able to not only to learn about the 1920s and 30s and 40s but actually to identify with those eras even in the face of the impending disco craze.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, JT Lynch photo.
But 1974 or 1975 was still too early for disco. What it was, however, was an interesting watershed where, bit by bit, we began to be aware that the bicentennial of our nation was close at hand. I think we warmed to it slowly but once we saw the party on the horizon we became immersed in the Bicentennial. Perhaps it was the horrific experience of all the upheaval and violence and disappointment and, indeed, revolution of the 1960s that put us in a different frame of mind where we might welcome a more noble, and perhaps scrubbed-up, past.
Suddenly there were novels written about the colonial period, and towns across the United States began to discover their own history and prepare for a historical presentation, even if the celebration was nothing more than fireworks on July 4, 1976. This is not to say that we looked backward with the effect of Disney-fying our past. Rather, there was a lot of re-examination of many unpleasant aspects of our history, which we faced, I think, nobly, humbly, and learned a great deal from it.
Somewhere in there, a musical called 1776 embodied pretty much all of that era – the interest in nostalgia, the sincere desire to investigate our national roots good and bad, as an opportunity to revel in the joyous knowledge that our democracy was once the greatest experiment of mankind and the most successful and in many ways an uplifting boon to mankind from many nations. It demonstrated how slim the margin was between success and failure of that experiment.
The play was first performed on Broadway in 1969, when the upheaval of the 1960s was barely out of the rearview mirror. It opened on March 16th of that year at the 46th Street Theater in New York, now called the Richard Rogers Theatre. It depicts, of course, the story of the delegates fighting over the Declaration of Independence preparatory to its writing and signing and adoption in July 1776. There are various historical inaccuracies in the show, but, of course, this is a musical; indeed, it is even a musical comedy though its more somber moments are revelatory, so it should not be looked upon as a documentary. It was never intended to be.
The movie was made in 1972 and, happily, some of the Broadway originals made it to the screen such as William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, and John Callum as Edward Rutledge. In the film a very young Blythe Danner plays Martha Jefferson (the role had been originated by Betty Buckley on stage in her Broadway debut).
As an old movie fan, I take particular delight in seeing Howard Da Silva as Franklin. Da Silva certainly had his troubles up against the Blacklist and the worst days of the 1950s, so it is especially fun to connect the sneering gangster from The Blue Dahlia (1946) to singing as the jovial, avuncular if naughty Ben Franklin. It is also a very special delight to see Ray Middleton in the smaller role of Thomas McKean, the Scotts delegate from Delaware. We discussed his work in this post on I Dream of Jeanie (1952) where he played the minstrel showman Edwin P. Christy in his booming baritone voice.
Though I love all the sly playfulness in the script and the delightful songs, my favorite among the musical numbers are “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” sung by John Callum as he points out that the evil of slavery is not just something borne of the South but that was aided and abetted by the northern colonies who engaged in the infamous Triangle Trade. It is a very honest and majestic song, even if it is uncomfortable for many of us to hear. It is an excellent way to teach history, I think because it is simple and it is vivid and it gives one a slice, just a taste of all the complications and human emotions that went behind the history.
I'm also very fond of the song called “Cool Considerate Men” which describes the conservatives in Congress not wanting to rock the boat, indeed, many of whom did not really want independence because they were afraid they would lose everything they owned. This song, although it illustrates the beginnings of a split that existed from the very beginning in terms of North and South and propertied men and unpropertied men, the aristocrats versus the rabble—it is not really accurate to say there was a Left and Right in the United States at the time of Revolution. That came much later.
The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, JT Lynch photo.
The interesting thing about this song in the musical is that it reflects the era of the 1970s when this musical crawled out of the mosaic of our modern times and remains with us today. According to producer Jack Warner (speaking of Hollywood’s heyday, this would be one of the last films in which Warner was involved), President Richard Nixon requested to have that particular song that was in the stage play removed from the film because he thought it an insult to modern-day Conservatives. Warner, who was Nixon's pal, agreed to do it even though the director Peter Hunt, who also directed the stage play, refused. Warner took the song out in postproduction behind Hunt’s back, and he apparently also wanted to have the song cut out from the original negative of the film but the film editor saved the day and kept it safe. According to the Los Angeles Times of September 7, 2001, it was only decades later that this particular song was restored to the film.
When the Broadway musical was slated to be presented at the White House in 1970 for the pleasure of President Richard Nixon, it was likewise requested that the producers cut that song from the show. They denied the request.
This is the power of history, the power to make it, shape it, the power to deny it and forget it. History never dies because its consequences are always with us. We may say that the left versus right fight represented in the song Cool Considerate Men was not accurate to July 1776 but it most certainly was accurate during the Bicentennial and the play was really about the Bicentennial after all, wasn't it?
And so there in the stuffy junior high auditorium we watched 1776 and our teachers explained to us who the characters were, and I can remember one teacher telling us to spot the redheaded man singing because that was Thomas Jefferson and he had red hair. Caesar Rodney’s facial skin cancer was explained to us. I can remember the clatter of the film projector. I can even remember a sense of discomfort from the teachers and a sense of wonder from the students that we were allowed to see some of the more risqué aspects of the film. To be sure what was risqué in 1975 is not anymore.
We did not need too much explanation about the Revolutionary War because, after all, we were in Massachusetts where we are spoon-fed on the Revolution, the colonial period, where fife and drum corps abound, and in those days, there was a certain smugness in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that The Commonwealth was the only state in the union that did not vote for Nixon. We wore T-shirts and had bumper stickers on our cars that said, “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”
Independence Hall interior, photo by JT Lynch.
We began celebrating the Bicentennial well before 1976 with many events, such as the recreation of dragging Colonel Henry Knox’s canon from Fort Ticonderoga in New York across the length of the Bay State to Bunker Hill—a miserable job in the winter back in 1775, and even in 1975 on the now-paved Route 20 (which we still call The King’s Highway as often as The Boston Post Road for some perverse reason.)
It was a good time to be young, in the warm lushness of summer when Freedom, to us, meant freedom from school.
Where has that enthusiasm for sentimental American history gone?
For that matter, where has all that old colonial furniture gone? I don’t think you can even find it in flea markets these days, but everything was colonial reproductions. Everything was colonial. Everything had red, white and blue bunting, including a package of cupcakes. The Bicentennial was on our money, coins and paper bills (including the short-lived new $2 bill). It was stamped on our toys, license plates, clothing. I can remember carved eagle plaques on the wall and flags with the thirteen stars hanging from houses.
In 2026, just eight years away, we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We are due for another party. Our enthusiasm for the bicentennial may have been borne from the despair and disillusionment from the late 60s and the early 70s culminating with the Nixon scandal of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, the vice president being indicted for tax fraud—you name it, there was plenty of corruption to choose from. The Bicentennial gave us a chance to reboot, although the term was not used then.
Will we get another opportunity to rejuvenate and restore ourselves, to look back and to look forward with hope at our 250th celebration? Will there be a celebration?
Will anybody revive that colonial furniture?
I remember the Bicentennial, the celebrations, the fireworks and the feeling on July 5th as the sulfur from the fireworks still hung in the air, of a sense of needing to move on and clean up after the party and continue on our journey as a nation. Will, just as in the aftermath of Nixon, will a new celebration of our founding as a nation remove the stain, the shame, and bad taste of the Trump years? To be sure, this nation has suffered crises in many generations, and the threat to our democracy is as serious now because democracy is really a fragile thing that depends on us. The cool considerate men (and women) in Congress are just as self-righteous and just as good as feathering their own nests now as they were in 1976 or 1776.
Eight years away. We have work to do. Pride in our country is not something we deserve as a birthright. It is something we must continually earn.
Massachusetts where John Adams had to "sit down", photo by JT Lynch.
Many decades after the Bicentennial, I went to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, to pick out where John Adams and my Massachusetts contingent sat. Having grown up with the musical, it was a running gag on that trip that my brother, John, and I sang under our breath, “Sit DOWN, John!” In another nod to the Hollywood’s heyday, by which I mean the dependence on the studio setting—that movie was filmed entirely on the back lot, probably one of the last to be filmed so. No location shooting.
One of the most stirring scenes in 1776, in the film and in the stage musical, was at the very end when they are signing the Declaration and then freeze in the positions not unlike the old John Trumbull painting of the event. It’s a stunning effect. The characters immediately become history. They become the image of the ideal we hold. We must also take our places in the image of the ideal we hold. If our citizenship requires no effort from us, has no place in our collective memory, then it will have no meaning for our children and grandchildren. Let’s save our country from being sold out to the highest bidder—foreign or domestic. We can start this November. Celebrations take a lot of planning. By 2026, we might be able to restore our democratic principles.
In eight years, we can maybe revive some colonial furniture, too.
As William Daniel sang when he portrayed John Adams, "Is anybody there?"
The blogger waits for the post rider with news from the front. JT Lynch photo.