Back in middle-school, during the Cold War, my fifth grade “social studies” teacher, a liberal but a still patriotic liberal, was always fond of telling us that the United States, whatever its faults, was still better than the Soviet Union. That Spring we went to see the film version of 1776, which a local theater ran every May. On the walk back to school, the teacher explained to us how 1776 demonstrated why democracy would triumph over communism. Communism was top down, stultified. Democracy was messy, improvisational. Communism needed censorship. Democracy needed free speech.
Little did I know that the version of 1776 my patriotic 7th grade teacher had taken us on that pleasant Spring walk to go see had been censored and abridged by none other than Richard Nixon himself. The politics of 1776, which had been written by a staff writer at the Brill Building named Sherman Edwards and a Hollywood screenwriter named Peter Stone, can best be described at Gordon Wood meets Thomas Carlyle. John Adams, the liberal great man, towers over the rest of the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin are reduced to sidekicks. But it wasn’t Adams that Nixon objected to. It was his antagonist, John Dickinson, a sneering, reactionary who threatened to strangle the United States in its cradle. An Independent United States, Edwards and Stone are telling us, threatened to overthrow the “men of property” that John Dickinson represented. In one song, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” he makes it explicit.
“Don’t forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich,” he says, “than face the reality of being poor.”
While Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone were liberals, Jack Warner, the film’s distributor, was not. A conservative Republican who took out a full page ad in the New York Times in 1960 to support Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, he showed a preview of 1776 to Nixon, now occupying the White House, before it’s release. Nixon objected to “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” and Jack Warner not only had it removed, but ordered the entire segment burned. Not surprisingly, the butchered film, not really very good in the first place, tanked at the box office. For years, the segment was considered lost, but, in the late 1990s, someone found a copy filed away in the studio archive under a different name, and it was restored for a new “Directors Cut” DVD in 2002. To be honest, the lack of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” is not the reason 1776 tanked at the box office.
Viewing all three hours of 1776 again after all these years, I understand now just what an odd film it really was. I saw 1776 it in the late 1970s, after Nixon’s resignation and the massive Bicentennial celebration in 1976 had restored the idea that patriotism was a good thing. But it’s important to remember that the original Broadway musical had come out in 1968. In the late 1960s, the Cold War liberal jingoism my social studies teacher believed in so passionately had fallen out of fashion almost as much as conservatism. Remember, it was the liberal John F. Kennedy who committed troops to Vietnam and the very liberal Lyndon Johnson who kept them there. Black nationalism, Maoism, the Yippies and the new left had allowed the generation before mine to question not only the Vietnam War but the idea of American nationalism itself. The United States flag was no longer a progressive symbol of democracy. It was napalm and Rolling Thunder, Cointelpro and the Ku Klux Klan. So if you were on the right, you hated 1776 for its liberalism. If you were on the left, you hated it for its patriotism. Nixon’s heavy handed censorship turned out to be unnecessary, just another example of his paranoia.
10 years later, however, it was a highly effective piece of propaganda. At least it worked on me. Whatever its faults, 1776 did manage to distil the entire American Revolution into a three hour musical. The sneering reactionary John Dickinson in the film, nothing like the principled conservative he was in real life — Dickinson was the only member of the Continental Congress who freed all of his slaves outright — becomes the stand in for King George and the loyalists. The sniveling James Wilson, firmly under Dickinson’s thumb until the very end — when Ben Franklin sets him free — represents those Americans who sat on the fence, unsure of whether to support the revolution or the King. John Adams, a straight edged middle-aged liberal from Massachusetts becomes not only the father of his country, but also evokes those progressive Democrats who questioned Johnson and Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy, Benjamin Spock, Frank Church, and George McGovern. Jefferson, a lazy slacker who has to grow a five o’clock shadow and get laid before Adams can goad him into writing the Declaration of Independence, is the New Left, the younger generation of intellectuals that finally comes around to realizing their country isn’t so bad after all. There is also a colorful collection of dirty hippies, surly proletarians, and and a feminist Abigail Adams.
1776 is still not a very good film. It hits its nadir during a long, tedious, and appallingly sexist interlude between Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Martha Jefferson, played by a young Blythe Danner. Adams brings her from Virginia only so that she can fuck her husband and free him from his writer’s block. Even as a 12-year-old it made me groan. But 1776 still addresses an issue the American left hasn’t fully dealt with. What about American nationalism?
Indeed, as reactionary as it turned out to be in the late 1970s, in the corporatist United States of Barack Obama, 1776 once again feels progressive. This is not the American Revolution of the Tea Party. Thomas McKean of Delaware, a gun-toting Scotsman played by Ray Middleton, is played for laughs, as is a segment where Adams takes Samuel Chase of Maryland to observe the sharpshooting skills of the Continental Army in New Jersey. The Reverend John Witherspoon, in reality a giant of the Scots Diaspora, is a minor character. The Continental Congress of 1776 is a decidedly secular place. Religion is absent, except as the opportunity for an occasional witty remark. The south, slavery, and states rights are seen as an obstacle to the birth of the United States of America. Adams, the hero and moral center is not only a passive abolitionist, as he was in real life, but a fire breathing anti-slavery crusader who would make Thaddeus Stevens proud.
What’s more, there is an implicit critique of the reactionary side of the United States Constitution that, whether intended or not, runs through the whole film. John Dickinson, the villain, insists that any vote for the resolution of independence has to be unanimous, recalling not only the constant Tea Party filibusters in Congress under Barack Obama, but also the idea that government should exist to protect a minority of property owners against the people. Edward Rutledge, the grandee from South Carolina who has a memorable exchange with John Adams over state’s rights, threatens to tank the whole country to protect slavery. Anybody who saw this film in 1972 realized that it would take another 600,000 dead Americans, a total that dwarfed the casuality rate of the War of Independence, to finally do away with slavery for good. John Adams the abolitionist, even though he gave in in the face of an inevitable rejection of the proposal for independence, was right after all.
In other words, 1776, for all its man faults, brings back the idea that the Declaration of Independence represented an idea of American nationalism far more progressive than the United States Constitution. Would I recommend seeing it? Probably not. Read the Lincoln-Douglas Debates instead. But it remains a historical curiosity, an odd little example of how during a time of revolutionary upsurge like the late 1960s, even people who wrote creaky Broadway musicals had to adapt.