It’s almost the Fourth of July, and for those of us here in the United States, we’ll soon be celebrating our nation’s founding. For me, that often meant watching 1776 with my parents, and I have to say that I adored this musical. The film version of the musical 1776 came out in 1972, and the musical itself came out in 1969. It follows John Adams as he tries to get a difficult, cantankerous, and often divided Congress to agree on American independence.
However, if you are a Hamilton fan, this musical might be a disappointment for you. This movie is very white and almost entirely male, with the exception of two female cast members, only one of whom plays a significant role. Regretfully, while there are some great moments in this musical, as far as representation goes, it definitely falls short.
The main character of this movie is John Adams, who is portrayed as the main mover and shaker of American independence. He’s joined by his somewhat reluctant allies Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Adams’s major problem is that, as he is often reminded by his colleagues, he is obnoxious and disliked. He’s viewed as an agitator and often not taken seriously. Obviously, if you know anything about American history, then you know this story ends with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Along the way, the musical shows how many hoops the Founders had to jump through, how many deals they had to make, and all the trials they had to overcome to achieve their goals. Like with Hamilton, you really feel the passion these men had for their country.
Abigail Adams is probably the best that the musical does as far as female representation, though even here, there are some issues. John Adams, like many of the other Founding Fathers, is definitely a problematic dude, but the one thing that I can say for him is that he respected his wife and treated her as an equal, at least for the time. Historians have called the relationship between John and Abigail an American love story. The two were incredibly loyal and loving to each other and there are a ton of letters between them that show this.
Much of the dialogue between Abigail and John is set up as if they are reading each other’s letters, though the movie simply shows them singing together. John often explains his problems to Abigail, and Abigail, for her part, has no problem standing up to her husband and asking for what she needs from him. But sadly, the movie leaves out some of the more political and feminist comments Abigail made to John. 1776’s Abigail doesn’t know as much about the political climate as John does, and seems more concerned with domestic matters than anything else. So while the movie shows that John Adams respects and listens to his wife, her more progressive and intelligent thoughts and ideas are forgotten in the movie. For example, as one article from feminist.com quotes, Abigail asked that John remember the ladies when writing laws for this new country.
In 1776, Abigail Adams penned a letter to her husband, congressman John Adams, asking him to please “remember the ladies” in the “new code of laws.” She wrote, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”
Compare this to Hamilton, where, though feminism is hardly the focal point, we are very much made aware of the women’s desire for more rights and their own contributions to the founding of the country. In Hamilton we have Angelica Schuyler’s “include women in the sequel” line and we also see how brilliant Angelica is and even occasionally see her advise Hamilton in his political career. And the entire end of the musical basically lists all the amazing contributions Eliza Schuyler made to this country. But we don’t see anything similar to this in 1776.
The only other female character is Martha Jefferson, who is brought to Philadelphia from Virginia because Thomas Jefferson is too distracted by wanting to be with his wife to write the Declaration of Independence. She sings one song about how much she loves Jefferson that heavily implies his sexual prowess and that’s it. Not only is Martha Jefferson given a negligible amount of screen time, but Jefferson himself is portrayed strangely. Far from the nuanced portrayal of Jefferson that we see in Hamilton, in 1776 Jefferson is viewed with rose-colored glasses. He’s portrayed as a lover and daydreamer—not a fighter—who just wants to go home and be with his wife. He is not even hinted at being a womanizer or the devious political player that we know he was historically. Even with the issue of slavery, when the congressman of South Carolina accuses Jefferson of hypocrisy in suggesting the United States abolish slavery, it is quickly brushed aside by Jefferson, who says he has resolved to release his slaves. Whether he did historically or not doesn’t matter, because, spoiler alert—he never does in the musical. All of the other figures in the musical are portrayed as the complex people they actually were, so it’s strange that Jefferson of all people, who is not even the main character of this musical, receives this rose-tinted rewrite.
As stated earlier, there are regretfully no people of color in this movie. There are, however, discussions of slavery in this movie, which in some ways is almost worse; we see a sea of white men debating whether or not Black people should still be enslaved, but no input or perspective from Black people themselves about the issue. By the end of the movie the freedom of Black Americans are sacrificed to appease the southern colonies so that they will vote favorably on independence. This sacrifice is seen as a necessary evil—a hard choice that the Founding Fathers had to make to get the country off the ground. It’s a elegant lie, but a lie nonetheless. The movie portrays those Founding Fathers who opposed slavery as good people who weren’t racist, but that was not the case historically. In the musical, the South Carolina congressman accuses those in the North of willing to be complicit with the slave trade and hypocrites attacking him for supporting it. But the movie doesn’t touch on how even those against slavery still didn’t want to grant equal rights to Black people. So the sacrifice of the human dignity of Black people enslaved in the United States is seen as worth it, as necessary, as something that can be traded away. That side of things is sadly not discussed in this musical.
You might think 1776 is one of those “products of its time” musicals, but this debuted during the time when women’s rights, racial equality, and other progressive ideals were very hot topics. However, I don’t think this omission was reactive and intentional; if anything the musical throws shade at those who are traditional and don’t want progress. Anyone who is more traditional or reactionary is against American independence and painted as at the very least misguided and at worse as cowards afraid of change. I think the sadly less progressive tone the musical takes is a misguided attempt to be “historically accurate”, so it focuses on the white men that history has been telling us are the main movers and shakers, and ignores the contributions of women and people of color as either less important or unimportant. Of course, just because the intent wasn’t malicious doesn’t mean that the problems are excused; the musical still doesn’t age well in light of the non-white-men side of history and musicals like Hamilton.
I loved this musical as a kid. Every year I watched it with my family and it moved me every time. The passion each actor shows in their performance of their characters really sells this musical for me, and my opinion on this musical probably wouldn’t have changed much if wasn’t for Hamilton. I knew this musical wasn’t great representation, but I don’t think I realized what I was missing until I saw Hamilton, which managed to still be historically accurate, passionately done, and had good representation as well. 1776 has some great music with, for the most part, some complex and intriguing portrayals of historical figures. But overall it is probably more of a problematic fave at this point than anything else.