1776 and All That
Last night we saw the revival of the musical 1776 (winner of the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical) at the American Repertory Theater, co-directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffery L. Page, who is also the choreographer. The energy and talent of the performers, the tight choreography, the clever songs, and the arresting scenery made for an entertaining and thought-provoking evening. In case you don’t know, while nearly all the characters in this play are male (Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson are the exceptions), all the performers in this production are either female or nonbinary and roughly half are People of Color. It took me only a few minutes to accept John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry) and Ben Franklin (Patrena Murray) as African American women. That’s how good the acting is, and that’s how appropriate this revival seems, especially now, in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning Roe v. Wade, (and apparently setting us up for a whole series of decisions that will violate the rights of women, queer people, and People of Color). What better way to assert the power of women and nonbinary folks than to put them on a stage with the power to speak the words that brought this nation into being. Take that, SCOTUS!
Although we associate the Declaration with Thomas Jefferson, and rightly so, Adams and Franklin were really the engines behind the effort of getting him to write it and of getting the Second Continental Congress to adopt it. It wasn’t easy, and the tragedy of the the new nation’s first compromise with enslavers is vividly portrayed. James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, is portrayed as a pivotal figure whose desire for anonymity led him to endorse independence in order to be lost in the majority of delegates who did so rather than to stand as a minority who blocked the effort, as John Dickinson, the other delegate from Pennsylvania, urged. But that was not the end of Wilson’s influence, at least according to Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp. Gienapp says that Wilson argued at the Constitutional Convention that the Declaration established that the United States “born a nation rather than a series of independent states.” His argument refuted that of those who claimed the states had declared themselves independent separately from one another as a justification for preserving the rights of states over the power of the federal government.
We are still having that argument today.