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Fact-Checked: 1776

The musical is beloved by theater-goers and hung over history teachers alike, but how does 1776 stand up to a little fact checking?

 

Painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence

Actors performing 1776

A.C.T. tackles 1776 this month, the 1969 musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But because staging a musical differs only slightly from founding a country, the show takes a few liberties with the signers’ character traits. Here’s our fact check of the show.

John Adams
In the play: An indefatigable pro-independence voice, widely disliked by the other members of the Continental Congress.
In reality: He wasn’t exactly popular at the time of the declaration, but he lost even more support during his disastrous presidency (1797–1801), when he signed the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts and committed the navy to an undeclared Quasi-War with the French.

Benjamin Franklin
In the play:  A wise, beloved elder statesman—the young America’s Yoda.
In reality: He owned slaves, refused to reconcile with his Loyalist son, and was ever fond of making humorless lists of virtues (“Silence.” “Industry.” “Moderation.”).

Thomas Jefferson
In the play: A young, forceful revolutionary who advocated for the end of slavery
In reality: Let’s just say that his record was mixed. And then there’s the whole matter of his shadow family with his slave Sally Hemings.

Richard Henry Lee
In the play: A popular, though cocky, stalking horse for Adams’ argument for independence.
In reality:  Lee had cred of his own—he filed the motion for the declaration, and he was the coauthor, with George Washington, of the 1766 Westmoreland Resolution, an early emblem of defiance to Mother England.

Lewis Morris
In the play: The delegate from New York who abstains from nearly every vote—courteously.
In reality: When told the consequences of signing the declaration, Morris supposedly said: “Damn the consequences. Give me the pen.”

1776 runs at A.C.T. (405 Geary Street at Mason St.), from September 11th through October 6. Find out more information here.

 

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of San Francisco

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