When I think about the founding of the United States, my thoughts stray to one of my favorite movies, “1776”, so I decided to present a fictionalized scene based on that movie. In other words, I stole it. Why reinvent the wheel? Then I shortened, rearranged, and generally did as much work to fit the story into a column as I would have done if I’d started from scratch, except that I also had to take out the songs.
Did I mention “1776” was a Broadway musical? Yeah, it seemed weird to me, too – the story of the Declaration of Independence as a musical comedy. You’ve never experienced history until you’ve seen Adams, Jefferson and Franklin dancing around Independence Hall. I’m not making this up – and neither did the writers of the musical, who also stole from the past: Much of the dialogue and lyrics came directly from the words of the Founding Fathers.
My original intention was to give you an idea of the work and compromise it took to turn thirteen squabbling colonies into a new nation, but in the end I was mostly having fun:
John Adams jumped to his feet when the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, walked into the room. Of course, Adams was always jumping to his feet, and he’d become even more jumpy since the Congress started debating the report of the Declaration Committee.
The other members Committee members just looked up with a sort of weary discouragement. It had been three days since they presented their “final” report.
“The Congress has asked for more changes in the Declaration,” Hancock told the five
“Of course they did,” Adams grumbled.
Hancock cleared his throat. “The Reverend Witherspoon of New Jersey has asked that we include a mention of the Supreme Being, under the theory that we can’t possibly succeed without Divine intervention.”
Surprised, Adams glanced toward Thomas Jefferson, who merely shrugged. “Of course,” Adams said, mentally kicking himself for not having thought of that.
“Colonel McKean is asking that you remove the reference to Scottish forces that stood against us, to avoid offending a good people.”
“But they did stand against us,” Adams protested, “at the battle of –“
From his seat on the other side of the table, Ben Franklin interrupted with, “Colonel McKean is Scottish, John.”
“Oh – very well.”
Hancock nodded. “Also, there’s been a request that you take out mention of the British Parliament, since it’s our contention that it’s the King we’re actually rebelling against. They don’t want to offend --”
“It’s a revolution!” Adams yelled, waving his arms. “We have to offend somebody!”
Hancock gave Jefferson a pointed look, and despite his annoyance Adams also turned that way. After all, it was Jefferson who’d been cornered into doing the writing, after the other Committee members begged off for one reason or another. Adams well knew he was generally disliked, so his writing it would have caused automatic opposition; Franklin had declared that he only wrote light, extemporaneous fluff; Robert Livingston had rushed away to New York to spend time with his newborn son; and Roger Sherman of Connecticut was a cobbler by trade who simply wasn’t an experienced writer.
Well, it didn’t matter: Once the war was over no one would remember the Declaration, anyway.
After a long moment Jefferson gave a nod, causing Adams to explode again. “When are you going to start speaking for your work?”
“I had hoped it would speak for itself.”
After a moment Hancock hesitantly ventured, “Some New England delegates are concerned that there’s no mention in your document of deep sea fishing rights –“
Jefferson’s head slowly lowered, until it banged against the table. Sherman and Livingston scooted away from Adams, who shook and clenched his fists. “Fishing rights? Fishing rights?!”
“Now, John –“ Franklin began, but this time Adams wouldn’t be quieted.
“We have endured more than 85 separate changes to the Declaration, and the removal of close to four hundred words -- will we whip it and beat it until we break its spirit? They won’t be satisfied until they remove one of the F’s from Jefferson’s name.”
Franklin shrugged. “Perhaps they’ll think it’s a waste of an F.”
“Bah!” Red faced, Adams turned to Hancock. “What else could they possibly have to complain about?”
The room fell silent.
“The southern delegation won’t vote for Independence unless we remove the paragraph condemning slavery, and if we’re not unanimous on this, we’ll be setting colony against colony – civil war.”
The committee members exchanged glances. “What else is there to do?” Jefferson finally murmured.
Adams, fists clenched, glared around the room. “If we allow slavery, we’ll be guilty of the very thing we’re rebelling against. If we give in on the issue, there’ll be trouble, a hundred years from now – posterity will never forgive us.”
“What would posterity think we were?” Franklin asked. “Demi-gods? We’re men, nothing more, nothing less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would allow.”
Adams stared at his fellow Congressman. Benjamin Franklin founded the first anti-slavery organization in the colonies.
“We’ve spawned a new race here,” Franklin continued. “Rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined. We’re a new nationality – we require a new nation. First things first, John: Independence; America. Without that, what difference will the rest make?”
With that, and with great hesitation despite being a slave owner himself, Jefferson reached out to scratch the anti-slavery clause from his copy of the Declaration.
Seeing the discouragement on Adams face, Franklin reached out to pat him on the back. “Don’t worry, John – history will clean it up.”
“History?” If there was one thing Adams knew, it was that history lied. “I’ll never appear in the history books anyway, nor Jefferson, or even Hancock. Only you. The essence will be that Dr. Franklin smote the earth and out sprang General Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Then Franklin electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Washington, Franklin and the horse – conducted the entire revolution all by themselves.”
Franklin pondered that for a moment, then nodded. “I like it.”
“That’s all the requested changes,” Hancock told them. “I’ll make sure my signature is nice and big, so fat King George can read it without his glasses.”
The others laughed, their mood lightening, and even the ever-gloomy Adams took a moment to think past the current crisis. “Our nation’s birth will be celebrated in the future with parades, cannons, speeches – and of course, sober devotions to God. People will always remember the date America officially declared its independence:
“The Second of July.”