1969 Broadway
1776 the Musical - SYNOPSIS

Act I

Scene One

On May 8, 1776, in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress proceeds with its business. John Adams, the widely disliked delegate from Massachusetts, is frustrated because Congress will not even debate his proposals on independence. The other delegates, preoccupied by the rising heat, implore him to “Sit Down, John".

Adams replies that Congress has done nothing for the last year but dawdle ("Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve"). He reads the latest missive to his loving wife Abigail, who appears in his imagination. He asks if she and the other women are making saltpeter for the war effort, but she says they have a more urgent problem: no straight pins. They bicker about it, Adams gives in, and they pledge their love to each other ("Till Then").

Scene Two

Later that day, Adams meets delegate Benjamin Franklin, who suggests that a resolution for independence would have more success if proposed by someone else. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia enters, summoned by Franklin. The cocky Lee crows that he cannot fail, as a member of the oldest and most glorious family in America: ("The Lees of Old Virginia"). He will ask the Virginia House of Burgesses to authorize him to offer a pro-independence resolution.

Scene Three

June 7, 1776. Franklin and Adams enter, and the delegates, along with the President of Congress, John Hancock, and the Secretary, Charles Thomson, take their places. Hancock gavels the 380th meeting of the Congress to order.

The entire New Jersey delegation is absent. Thomas Jefferson, a young delegate from Virginia, announces that he is leaving that night to visit his wife. Soon after Hancock opens the floor to new resolutions, Richard Henry Lee enters on horseback and reads his resolution, but John Dickinson of Pennsylvania moves to indefinitely postpone the question of independence. Five colonies vote for debate and five for indefinite postponement. New York abstains "courteously" ( a running gag). Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, after a momentary absence, votes for debate.

As the debate proceeds, Caesar Rodney of Delaware is forced to return home due to poor health; Edward Rutledge of South Carolina moves to proceed with the vote. The New Jersey delegation arrives with orders to support independence, resulting in a 6–6 split; New York again abstains "courteously", and Adams reminds Hancock, who supports independence, of his privilege as president to break ties. Dickinson then moves that any vote for independence must pass unanimously, on the grounds that "no colony [may] be torn from its mother country without its own consent." This proposal produces the same tie, which Hancock breaks by unexpectedly voting for unanimity, prompting an angry outburst from Adams. Hancock reasons that without unanimity, any colony voting against independence would be forced to fight on England's side, setting brother against brother.

Adams, thinking fast, calls for a postponement of the vote on independence: There should be a declaration defining the reasons for independence. Franklin seconds Adams, but when asked why such a declaration should be written, both are lost for words until Thomas Jefferson provides them. The vote on postponement produces yet another tie, with New York abstaining "courteously", again. Hancock breaks this tie by voting in favor of postponement. He appoints a committee of Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Jefferson to draft the declaration. Hancock adjourns the session over Jefferson's complaints that he must go home to his wife.

The five argue about who should write the declaration ("But, Mr. Adams"); one by one, each member gives a reason why he cannot do it, until all eyes turn to Jefferson. He tries to wriggle out, pleading that he has not seen his wife in six months. Adams is unmoved (he misses his own wife) and quotes a passage of Jefferson's Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, bluntly telling Jefferson that he is the best writer in Congress. Jefferson agrees to draft the document.

Scene Four

A week later, Adams and Franklin visit Jefferson, who has spent the week moping, earning a sharp rebuke by Adams, he rebuffs. But Adams has sent for Jefferson's beloved wife Martha, she enters, and Adams and Franklin leave the young lovers in peace. Adams, alone, again exchanges letters with his wife Abigail. They pledge eternal love ("Yours, Yours, Yours"). The next morning, Franklin and Adams return and Martha appears. They ask her how a man as silent as Jefferson won a woman as lovely as she. She tells them that she loves him because of the way “He Plays the Violin".

Scene Five

On June 22, Congress has reconvened. Adams is trying to win over some of the states, sending Thomas McKean to try to convince his Delaware colleague George Read, and Franklin to convince Judge James Wilson of Pennsylvania, while himself tackles Samuel Chase of Maryland.

Adams receives a request for help from George Washington, who is in the field. Adams, Chase, and Franklin leave to inspect a Continental Army training ground in New Jersey. The other delegates who favor independence also leave the chamber. Alone with his fellow conservatives for the first time, Dickinson leads them in a minuet, singing of their desire to hold onto their wealth ("Cool, Cool Considerate Men"). During their dance, another dispatch comes from George Washington, warning them of British advances on Philadelphia. The warning falls on deaf ears.

After the dance, the remaining delegates depart, leaving Andrew McNair (the custodian), the courier, and a workman in the chamber. The workman asks the courier if he has seen any fighting, and the courier replies that his two closest friends were killed on the same day at Lexington. He describes the final thoughts of a dying young man as his mother searches for his body ("Momma Look Sharp").

Act II

Scene Six

Jefferson is outside the chamber while Mr. Thomson reads the declaration to Congress. Adams and Franklin arrive, delighted: An exhibition of shooting by the Continental Army has convinced Chase, and Maryland will vote in favor of independence. They congratulate Jefferson on his work, and Franklin compares the creation of this new country to the hatching of a bird ("The Egg"). They debate which bird would best represent America; Franklin argues for the turkey, and Jefferson suggests the dove, but Adams insists on the eagle. The others resign themselves to that choice.

Scene Seven

On June 28, Hancock asks if there are any alterations to be offered to the Declaration of Independence. Many delegates voice suggestions. Jefferson acquiesces to each recommendation, much to Adams's consternation, until Dickinson demands the removal of a phrase calling King George a tyrant. Jefferson refuses, stating that "the King is a tyrant whether we say so or not. We might as well say so." When one delegate wants references to Parliament removed for fear of offending possible friends in that body, an exasperated Adams exclaims "This is a revolution, damn it! We're going to have to offend somebody!"

Edward Rutledge of South Carolina objects to a clause condemning the slave trade. He accuses the northern colonies of hypocrisy. They also prosper from slavery, through the Triangle Trade ("Molasses to Rum"). Rutledge leads a walk-out with the delegates from both Carolinas and Georgia. The resolve of the other delegates is broken, and most of them also leave. Franklin tells Adams that the slavery clause has to go, angrily reminding him that independence is the primary issue. Adams is jeopardizing the cause. Adams' faith in himself is shaken, and only encouragement from Abigail, and the delivery of kegs of saltpeter from her and other Massachusetts ladies, bolsters his commitment.

Re-reading a dispatch from Washington, Adams, now alone in the chamber, echoes his words ("Is Anybody There?"). Discouraged but determined, Adams declares his vision of his new country. Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia unexpectedly returns to the chamber, telling Adams he is changing Georgia's vote from "nay" to "yea".

It is now July 2. The delegates slowly return to the chamber. Caesar Rodney arrives at the last minute. Hancock calls for the vote on the Lee Resolution. Thomson calls on each delegation. Pennsylvania passes on the first call, but the rest of the northern and middle colonies (save New York, which, with some shame, again abstains "courteously") vote "yea". When the vote reaches South Carolina, Rutledge again demands the removal of the slavery clause. Franklin pleads with Adams. Adams turns to Jefferson, who reluctantly crosses the chamber and scratches out the clause himself. Rutledge and the Carolinas vote "yea", as does Georgia.

Pennsylvania's vote is called again. Dickinson intends to announce a “nay” vote, but Franklin stops him and asks Hancock to poll the members individually. Franklin votes "yea" and Dickinson "nay", leaving the swing vote to Wilson. Dickinson and Adams vie for his vote, until Wilson says he doesn't want to be remembered as "the man who prevented American independence" and votes "yea". The motion is passed.

Hancock suggests that no man be allowed to sit in Congress without signing the Declaration. Dickinson announces that he cannot in good conscience sign it, and still hopes for reconciliation with England; however, he resolves to join the army to fight for and defend the new nation. Adams leads Congress in a salute to Dickinson as he leaves the chamber.

Hancock leads the delegates in signing the Declaration, but is interrupted by the courier with another dispatch from Washington, "Commander of the Army of the United Colonies ... of the United States of America." He reports that preparations for the Battle of New York are under way, but expresses concern about America's badly outnumbered and under-trained troops. Washington notifies Lewis Morris, who still has no instructions from the New York legislature, that his estates have been destroyed, but his family is safe. Emboldened, Morris says, "To hell with New York. I'll sign it anyway." New York's vote is moved into the "yea" column.

On the evening of July 4, McNair rings the Liberty Bell in the background as Thomson calls each delegate to sign the Declaration. The delegates freeze in position as the Liberty Bell rings to a fevered pitch.

Songs from the musical: 1776 the Musical Songs Lyrics
Synopsis to 1776 the Musical Plot

1969 Broadway
1776 the Musical Lyrics

Sit Down, John
Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve
Till Then
The Lees of Old Virginia
But, Mr. Adams
Yours, Yours, Yours
He Plays the Violin
Cool, Cool, Considerate Men
Momma Look Sharp
The Egg
Molasses to Rum
Is Anybody There?