Guilty Pleasures: 1776

It’s the middle of the summer, so most of us are hard at work on drafting new syllabi, writing and revising articles, dissertations, book manuscripts (or sometimes all three simultaneously), catching up on reading, and all sorts of myriad tasks that aren’t possible during the academic year.

For me, summer also means I get to indulge in one of my favorite guilty pleasures: watching 1776 to celebrate July 4th. I know, I know, I’m a historian, I should be more serious. But the movie is not the worst history you’ll find out there (go ahead, ask me which depiction of revolutionary America I most despise; enough requests and I may write a follow-up post). Much of the dialogue is taken from actual letters of the Founders [sic]. And it’s just plain fun.

I mean, how could you not love watching Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin singing their way through picking a national bird?

To add to my culpability, I occasionally use the film in class, in no small measure as a way to mix things up. Most often I use the clip in which Adams (played by William Daniels, or, as most of my friends know him, Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World) decries that no one will remember him—only Franklin and Washington … and his horse. To be honest, I also poke a little fun at John Adams (go ahead, ask me my least favorite film representation) by pointing out that what he really wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1790 was almost identical, but less funny.

I’m not claiming it’s perfect, of course. The historical interpretation is not exactly cutting-edge, and it has one strange anti-Vietnam number in the middle (“Hey Mama”). But all in all it’s a fun way to spend a July afternoon.

Okay, I’ve revealed (one of) mine. What are your guilty pleasures?

31 responses

  1. OK, what *is* your least favorite film representation of John Adams? Inquiring minds (including Adams scholars) want to know….

    • That would be the HBO miniseries, in large part because it gets so much so badly wrong while taking itself seriously (as opposed to 1776 or even National Treasure). I think Jill Lepore was right when she said that it was a portrayal of Adams that Adams would love.

      I also think it takes John Adams and turns him into some sort of David Brooks/Tom Friedman fantasy of a centrist.

      • I respectfully disagree. I thought that the series did a better job of getting John Adams right than the book on which it was ostensibly based (David McCullough’s idea-free biography). I’m admittedly biased, in that Paul Giamatti is a neighbor who asked me a lot of questions about Adams and read everything I was able to pull together for him — including great piles of Adams’s writings and correspondence and several valuable monographs, such as Zoltan Haraszti’s JOHN ADAMS AND THE PROPHETS OF PROGRESS. But I thought that he did a fine job with Adams, as Laura Linney did with Abigail and Stephen Dillane did with Jefferson.

        • Oh, I think the acting was fine – Giamatti played Adams roughly as grouchy and aggrieved as I imagine him to be, and Linney was fabulous. I’m also heartened to hear that Giamatti inherited his father’s reading habits, even if he was better served not pursuing his academic career (though I’m envious of the baseball commissioner part).

          I was also deeply impressed with some of the settings — I regularly use the tarring-and-feathering scene from episode 1 in class because it captures well the brutality and violence that we often elide in thinking about the Revolution.

          My concern was, as I noted above, with some of the characterizations and director’s decisions. I mentioned my problem with Adams-as-centrist-savior from the first few episodes, but also had concerns with some of the ways in which chronology was handled (if you don’t know much about history, you can easily come away with the impression that the Boston Massacre led directly to the First Continental Congress, and that the two were separated by only a few months. I’m also partial to Franklin, and found his depiction to be rather, well, Adamsian. Last, Dickinson with a Highland Scottish brogue? Seriously?

          In any case, it’s not actually bad, it’s that I felt like it shaped popular perceptions in ways that didn’t reflect my own understanding of the Revolutionary period.

        • R.B.B. – I shared your disappointment with the lack of attention McCullough paid to Adams’s ideas. Is there another bio that does a better one? Ellis? Grant?

          • Of the biographies, James Grant’s JOHN ADAMS, PARTY OF ONE does a very good job with his ideas. Joseph Ellis’s PASSIONATE SAGE, though making a few odd and avoidable mistakes, does a very good job as well. So do a few older books — JOHN ADAMS AND THE PROPHETS OF PROGRESS, by Zoltan Haraszti; John R. Howe’s THE CHANGING POLITICAL THOUGHT OF JOHN ADAMS; and C. Bradley Thompson’s JOHN ADAMS AND THE SPIRIT OF LIBERTY. And then there’s the very old, but still enlightening book by Gilbert Chinard, HONEST JOHN ADAMS.

  2. I am amazed at the number of colleagues of my vintage who confess that this play and movie got them into the biz. I am one of them, actually.

    • Good for you! This movie is my guilty pleasure as well. I watch it every 4th and have the soundtrack on my iPod. The songs are well written, the tunes catchy and at a very high level does a good job putting forward some important themes about the debate (I especially like Ben Franklin’s speech on how Americans are a “new race,” requiring a new country. It nicely encapsulates some very complicated lines of argument).

  3. Historical murder mysteries. For July 4, I took Ellen Horan’s 31 Bond Street to the beach, and I’m working on one of Bruce Alexander’s “Sir John Fielding Mysteries” at night before bed.

    • If they’re well done, they’re pleasures, not guilty pleasures. That goes for the late Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding series. It also goes for THE GODS OF GOTHAM, by my friend Lyndsay Faye (set in NYC in 1845, during the founding of the NYPD — a second volume, SEVEN FOR A SECRET, is coming out this fall). There are others as well, including a strange but convincing Benjamin Franklin mystery by Donald Zochert, titled MURDER IN THE HELLFIRE CLUB

    • Agreed! Largely ones set outside of my period of study. I’m currently working my way through Winspear’s Masie Dobbs series. I also like Will Thomas’ series that starts with ‘Some Danger Involved’.

  4. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch more than 20 minutes of “1776.” In terms of early American history, I admit that I own most (if not all) of the TV documentaries on the Revolution of the last 20 years, from the 1990s A&E series to the History Channel’s Founding Brothers, Founding Fathers, and The Revolution, and PBS’s Liberty. I actually still watch them occasionally when going to bed, especially if I can’t sleep. 😉

    • For me, the great thing about 1776 (as a movie; I’ve never seen it staged) is how extraordinarily dark it gets. This is not your typical celebration; it ends on a note of near-terror.

        • Yes – it’s not entirely trimphalist. Rum to Molasses to Slaves is chilling. Turn off the lights and play it loudly. Or Mama Look Sharp. I feel myself tearing up a little bit when I listen. I also love the moment when Lyman Hall interupts Adams’ solioqy to let him know that he’s voting “yes” for Georgia on independence.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Joe–it’s not a musical I’m familiar with. I can’t help but point out that their three-part harmony (“chirp, chirp, chirp”) musically suggests a deep level of concord and like-mindedness between the men!
    My guilty pleasure isn’t early American, but it is definitely patriotic: George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” sung and danced by James Cagney.

  6. Really? 1776? What about the whole America Rocks series from Schoolhouse Rock? I’m showing my age, but I remember when these came out. They got me interested in American history. I can still sing the Constitution song. I hope that these aren’t your least favorite!

  7. The movie version of “The Devil’s Disciple” is wrong in so many delightful ways. Burt Lancaster performs Shaw! Kirk Douglas performs Burt Lancaster! Laurence Olivier performs Burgoyne as a tragic figure! Small wooden figurines perform the battles!

    • I’m actually also a big fan of National Treasure for similar reasons. Nicolas Cage is terrible, the dialogue is wooden, and its history goes off the rails within 30 seconds (really, a Masonic secret that Congress left to a Catholic for safe-keeping?). Amazing!

  8. I’ve loved this musical since I was a kid (it used to air every July 4th and I remember that being an annual “event”). Never felt bad about it…even as I became a historian. Sure, it’s silly to watch the founding fathers prance around. But, as you say, there is some good history in there. As I got older I was particularly impressed with the fact that they dealt with the issue of slavery head on. That was gutsy at the time.

    • Actually, in retrospect it goofs in that it lionizes Jefferson’s passage against slavery in the draft Declaration, which if you read it carefully is a dreadfully bad bit of arguing. How do you blame George III for slavery given, for example, that Virginia enacted slave codes in 1705, 33 years before George III was born?

      • …not to mention that slaves were brought to Jamestown almost 100 years before that. Lionizing Jefferson and Adams is certainly a problem in musical. But my point being that it had guts to address the slavery issue, even in the context of a “musical comedy,” without shying from the colossal irony at the heart of the Declaration.

    • I think I would weight it slightly in favor of impressive on the count of slavery. Yes, it valorizes Jefferson’s deleted paragraph, but as Alec notes above, “Molasses to Rum” is chilling in its graphic lyrics and its implication not only of the South but of the North as culpable for slavery.


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