1776 And The Imperfection Of America

How to celebrate the birthday of America when the nation has become its worst self in the past three years, when the southern border is a nightmare that looks to educated eyes like the precursor to the worst European atrocities of the 1930s and 40s, when there is a kleptocrat wannabe martinet in office rolling out tanks in front of the Lincoln Memorial, when the ongoing reality of a sexist white supremacist system has become impossible to ignore? How do we look at the Fourth of July and feel good about any of this?

Perhaps the most Fourth of July way to celebrate is to not feel good about it at all. The Fourth, after all, represents the day when representatives of the Thirteen Colonies decided enough was enough and, risking imminent death, signed their names to a document telling the King of England to fuck right off. They didn’t know what was next – what form of government they would have, whether the colonies would be united in any meaningful way, whether the war that had been raging would be won by their side – but they knew that they had had enough. 

Looking back at 1776 from the perspective of 2019 we see men who are hopelessly retrograde – some of them absolute criminals, all of them morally indefensible in some way or another. They’re all men, and they’re all white, and they’re all monied. Some of them own human beings. None of them believe that women have the same basic rights as men. Most of them have little concern for the poor, many of them hold religious beliefs we would find ridiculous, all of them are out of step with some of our most basic current ideals.

It is this imperfection that has always fascinated me about the Founding Fathers; I have never held them in heroic esteem but rather have always loved them because they’re so fucked up and how even the best of them were often venal, foolish and dumb. The idea that we should elevate these men to marble-statued gods has always seemed pointless, and counterproductive. To see them as the messed up idiots and squabbling fools they were – and then to look at what they achieved anyway – is the real inspiration.

There are few works of art that get this across as wonderfully as 1776, originally a Broadway show and then a major motion picture that depicts the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. The show is fictionalized – characters are combined, scenes are invented, events that happened at different times are condensed into one dramatic moment – but the spirit is correct, and I think it’s not just a delightful piece of musical theater, it’s incredibly instructive as to what America IS.

The show opens with the Revolutionary War already happening, and not always going so well. Meanwhile the Continental Congress has been fucking about in Philadelphia for weeks and months, never quite getting to the question of independence. At this stage there was a lot of debate – were the colonies loyal to the crown but engaging in some pushback intended to bring reform, or were they a new nation pulling away from King and country? The question divides the Congress, and the decision is made that there must be unanimity before calling for Independence. 

With that in mind, Ben Franklin and John Adams recruit Thomas Jefferson to write a document outlining their grievances (this would be the 18th century version of a hot take or a rant, I guess), hoping that the correct document would provide the foundation for all thirteen colonies to agree to declare independence. When the Declaration is delivered a new round of debate begins, and elements are slowly whittled away – including a section critical of the slave trade. In the end the delegates from the thirteen colonies – engaging in high treason – sign their names to the Declaration, and the first seed of the United States of America is planted.

That’s the whole show – it’s all guys at the State House in Philadelphia arguing and singing songs at one another. There are a couple of women – Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson show up – but it’s mostly these guys. And there are honestly not as many songs as you might expect; as the show/movie goes on it gets talkier and talkier, and Act II has just four songs with lyrics, and an instrumental finale. But it’s so great, and what’s great about it is how this musical digs into the meaning of compromise, the dreams upon which this nation was founded but has never achieved, and the ways the flaws of the individual men led to both the greatness and the sins of this country.  

John Adams in the show/movie is an amalgamation of the real John and his cousin Sam Adams; a true revolutionary, Adams bemoans the do-nothing Congress but cannot rally any support because he’s a truly obnoxious asshole. The first song is Sit Down, John, in which the assembled Congress begs him to shut up. 

But this song does more than tell us what a dick John Adams is; it explores the ways the Congress is deadlocked. They can’t even agree on whether or not to open the windows in the State House. It’s 90 degrees, but there are also flies everywhere, and so there’s an endless back-and-forth about how to handle this simplest of situations. 

Adams sings about how useless the Congress is in Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve, but it’s the next number, Til Then, that gets at one of the show’s main themes. Taken from letters sent between John and Abigail Adams (she was still in Boston), the song shows us how compromise happens. Yes, it’s partially a love song, illustrating the deep bond between the two, but the meat of the number is John trying to get the ladies back home to create more saltpeter and Abigail trying to get more pins for the ladies back home. The two are at odds about what’s more important, but they come to understand that the other has to get what they want in order for they themselves to get what they want. 

That’s it! That’s the whole thing, and 1776 examines the art of the compromise from all angles. This is the heart of politics – the give and the take, and sometimes it works for everybody (see The Lees of Old Virginia, wherein our heroes procure a resolution for independency by simply buttering up a conceited Virginian) and sometimes it is a total disaster.

This is the dark heart of 1776, and of our nation. It comes in the song Molasses to Rum, which sounds lighthearted but is perhaps one of the most bombastically devastating songs in musical theater history. It’s the story of the slave trade.

In the movie the clause about slavery is causing consternation among the Southern delegates. The show/movie doesn’t really touch on the ironic hypocrisy of Jefferson, a slave owner, including this section, and I wish it did. After all, the whole thing is about the feet of clay of these men, showing them as regular people in irregular times, and I think that Thomas Jefferson cruel dichotomy is one of the most fascinating aspects of American history. The man was the architect of the separation of church and state, he was a true believer in the cause of liberty across the globe, he helped create an American system designed to have consistent but bloodless revolutions… and yet he owned slaves. And yet he raped Sally Hemmings. His ideals and his words were soaring, his deeds sordid. Thomas Jefferson is America. 

Anyway, the Southern delegation stages a walkout, and in the course of the action Edward Rutledge of South Carolina describes the Triangle Trade – molasses from Caribbean plantations, gathered by slaves, was sold to New England, where it was sold to distilleries to make rum. The traders bought rum, fur and lumber to ship to Europe, where it was sold and manufactured goods were bought. Those goods were taken to Africa and bartered for slaves, who were taken to the Caribbean to harvest sugar and molasses, and so it would go.

The point Rutledge is making in this song, which is so powerful it often brings me to tears, is that slavery is not a Southern institution – it is an American institution. It’s the seamen of New England who facilitate the trade, who bring human chattel across the waves, who stand in the crowds at slave auctions. The Northern delegates trying to wash their hands of slavery are hypocrites, Rutledge says, and Molasses to Rum is a shattering indictment of America itself.

That this is THE BIG SHOWSTOPPER tells you everything you need to know about 1776. There’s no big number where all the delegates get together and sing about how they’ve come together, no huge We Signed It number. Molasses to Rum is, in many ways, the emotional climax of the story. This is the other side of compromise – the Northerners, chastised, will set aside the question of slavery to be answered another day. And we all know how that turned out. 

And yet there is hope. The final lyrical number, Is Anybody There?, has John Adams standing in the empty room, and he sings:

Is anybody there? Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?
I see fireworks! I see the pageant and
Pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans – all Americans
Free forever more

This defines the strange mystery of the United States of America – a dream that is eternally over the next hill. It’s always visible, and yet incredibly distant. It’s the best parts of complicated, sometimes bad people, and it’s the worst parts of complicated, sometimes good people. America is a process, a constant attempt to get to something that has been imperfectly glimpsed. It’s right there in the Preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A more perfect Union – the eternal striving is baked right in from the start.

To say that the men who planted this seed (or hatched this egg, in 1776 terms) were imperfect would be an understatement, but to pretend that we’re perfected would be foolish. We will be seen just as primitive, backwards, cruel and stupid by the people of 200 years hence as these men seem to us. That’s because there’s a momentum this nation, a constant moving forward. That we can look back at these men and be horrified and disappointed in them is proof that their dream is actually alive – they wanted a nation that would grow and change and become more perfect.

We should acknowledge their imperfections and understand that we have our own, and that we are doing our best with them. We should remember the dream that they were seeking, and remind ourselves that the people in camps at the southern border are there because they believe in that dream. We owe it to those people, in whose suffering we are complicit, to keep up the fight for that dream. We owe it our brothers and sisters of color, our gay and trans neighbors and friends, our addicted and incarcerated family members, our survivors and our left behind to keep pushing forward towards that dream. We can’t throw away the dream just because it hasn’t come true, or because the men who had it are distasteful to us now.

One of the ways we will get there is through compromise, a word that has become the dirtiest in 2019 (maybe civility is more hated at this moment in time). But 1776 not only tells us that compromise can work, it warns us that it can cost us our very souls. The trick is to figure out when to compromise and how – nobody ever said this stuff would be easy. What fights can be left for tomorrow, and which must be battled out today? There’s no way to really know, and even the people who were most harmoniously ideologically aligned in 1776 found themselves arguing and disagreeing about just what was needed, just what was right.

The best thing that can happen to you is that your children will look at you as backwards and wrong, because that means you raised a generation that has pushed forward, has gotten closer to that more perfect Union. We need to make the world less comfortable for ourselves; it’s amazing that the Founding Fathers built that into the very fabric of the nation, the idea that each generation would shrug off the yoke of tyranny from the generation before it. This is part of the point of this nation, that it can grow and change, always with one ideal: freedom for all. And every year the definition of all gets wider, and that’s a wonderful thing.