During this past weekend while attending the usual round of holiday cookouts, I continued my custom of wishing family and friends a happy Independence Day and continued receiving the oddest looks in return. While it’s true that many people have a vague notion of the holiday’s meaning — after all, there most be some reason for all the red, white and blue — its true origin seems to escape most folks.
You’d think that a holiday that takes its popular name from a date would inspire more tribute to what actually occurred on that day in American history; yet sadly that seems less and less the case as that day grows more distant. Oh, there are crude representations of George Washington advising us to declare our independence from high automobile prices and other such rubbish, but the events that led up to it remain blurry to a great portion of this country.
Of course, we assume that school children probably have a clearer idea about the origins of Independence Day, but I’m not so sure. A niece of mine who just graduated high school told me that she took a course on the U.S. Constitution, but that the reading of the actual document was not done in class, but as a “take-home” assignment. So how then could adults be expected to gain a more genuine knowledge and love for our nation’s founding?
One way is to rent or watch the movie 1776, as I did Friday night on TCM. This film version of the wonderful Broadway musical provides viewers the rare opportunity to be entertained and enlightened at the same time. Although the 1972 movie pales in comparison to the stage version and suffers from the artificial artiness so prevalent then, it is nonetheless a treasure for lovers of American history. Forget about HBO’s dreary miniseries, John Adams; if you want to see a living, breathing Atlas of Independence, William Daniels in 1776 is it.
Long before John Adams was restored to his rightful place in the American pantheon by authors like David McCullough, he was cast as the lyrical leading man in the mind’s eye of a former high school history teacher turned songwriter, Sherman Edwards. Together with Peter Stone and a bit of literary license, Edwards produced a work that, if watched just once, imparts a pretty good working knowledge of the events leading up to the vote on American independence.
The more diligent viewer would be able to name the original 13 colonies and at least one of their principal representatives; achieve at least a basic understanding of the arguments for and against independence as well as the slave trade; name those on the Declaration committee; and have insight on the state of General George Washington’s Continental Army and even the weather that summer in “foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia.” Not a bad haul for a few hours that might otherwise be devoted to the viewing of “I Survived a Japanese Game Show.”
Of course there is some monkeying around with facts, most of which is in order to advance the story line and can be easily overlooked, as can the idea that our forefathers sang and danced their way through that brutal summer; although legend has it that Washington could cut a mean rug. But the movie’s real merit is that it manages to preserve the tension of a story whose ending is already known. Today, our independence is such an established fact that it’s sometimes easy to forget that it was never a certainty and certainly not won easily.
As any lover of John Adams knows, he famously predicted that “monuments would never be erected” to him. Yet Edwards and Stone wrote their musical after many years of scouring historical documents for direct quotes, most notably the monument left by Adams and wife Abigail: the letters written by him and his “Dearest Friend” over a period of 30 years. They are not only a chronicle of the birth of a nation, but a love song to their country and to each other. No dry historical account can match their passion; only 1776 comes close. What’s truly amazing is that a dramatization of the Adams letters themselves has never reached the stage.
It is interesting that 1776 won the Tony Award for best musical in 1969, besting the horrific, hippie-fest that was Hair, proving that even in troubled times, true love of country perseveres. So watch it every year with your children, your grandchildren and anyone else you can get to sit still for a few priceless hours, and maybe you can dream along with John Adams as he sings,
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