The musical “1776” is one of my very favorite movies, and it rings as true today as it did in 1972, when it was first released. Michael Winship of Public Affairs Television writes:
In some ways, this sparkly paean to patriotism is a subversive little hand grenade, its liberal politics woven into the plot at a time when Richard Nixon was still in the White House. In an exchange that stings now even more than it did then, John Hancock tells John Dickinson, “Fortunately there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy,” and Dickinson replies, “Perhaps not. But don’t forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich, than face the reality of being poor.”
When the movie version was released its producer, Jack Warner — allegedly at the behest of Nixon — removed a song, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” sung by loyalist, conservative delegates who smugly shout, “We have land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned!” According to “1776” writer Peter Stone, “The opponents of independence were very much involved in commerce and profits, so they were very much allied to modern conservatives. Nixon didn’t want Americans to be reminded of this as he faced re-election in 1972, and the country was preparing to celebrate it’s bicentennial. I think that’s why he hated the song, and why Jack Warner took it out.”
Luckily, the missing footage was found and has been restored to the version we see today on TV and DVD.
“1776” is a reminder that the embrace of the status quo in the face of revolutionary ideas is nothing new. Nor is bloody legislative compromise or our ongoing frustration over a Congress mired in petty squabbling, unable to take action.
At the beginning of the story, John Adams sings, “A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake, I’d accept with some despair. But no, You sent us Congress! Good God, Sir, was that fair?” Later he laments, “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!”
But the Tea Partiers and Glenn Becks of America who scorn government and who have tried turning the Founding Fathers into libertarian deities will find little comfort in “1776.” As Franklin says in the film, “We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.” Rather than fall hopelessly into endless name-calling and mudslinging like today, ultimately these men engaged in forthright debate and overcame ideological differences that threatened to stop their revolution before it began. They managed to produce a nation, an experiment outlined in a Declaration of Independence that is, as the movie version’s John Adams says, “a masterful expression of the American mind.”
And they did so realizing, as a character in the film says — quoting the words of conservative icon Edmund Burke, member of the British Parliament — that a representative owes the people not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.