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1776: Justice for John Adams

By August B. C. March
From Midsummer Magazine, 2003

 

At last—justice for John Adams!

He was our country’s first vice president and its second president who was resoundingly defeated for re-election because he was the most hated man of his time. But now he is the hero of 1776, the long-running New York musical hit being presented this summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. After all, it was Adams who prodded the wavering Continental Congress to the decision to declare the American colonies independent of England.

It was grudgingly acknowledged in those days of 1776 that Adams was the chief force in getting the divided colonies to agree on independence and the primary force is getting Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. But even among those Founding Fathers he was regarded as a bothersome man, a nag, and a bore. He could not be ignored, however, and so he became vice president under Washington and then president for one term until he was defeated for a second by his old comrade of 1776, Jefferson. Infuriated, Adams left Washington without attending the inauguration of Jefferson--and he never returned.

Peter Stone, author of the libretto for 1776 has not tried to cover up Adams’s personal thorniness while making him the hero of his tale. In fact he has rather a bit of fun with it. The first song in the show is a rousing chorus by assembled members of the Congress, adjuring Adams to “Sit Down, John,” when he wants to make another speech insisting on an end to dawdling over the question of independence.

Some months after the stirring events in Philadelphia, Adams wrote with understandable jealousy, “The whole history of this Revolution will be a lie, from beginning to end.” He knew that Benjamin Franklin and George Washington would become figures of legend, and that the histories would say “Franklin did this, Franklin did that, Franklin did some other damned thing. . . . Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, full grown and on his horse. . . . Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them--Franklin, Washington, and the horse--conducted the entire Revolution by themselves.” Stone found those lines among Adams’s personal papers and let his character speak them verbatim and with some irritation in 1776. The Franklin of the play listens to him contentedly for a moment, contemplates this portrait of himself for posterity, and smilingly responds “I like it.”

Adams felt particularly annoyed over the way all the huzzahs were going because it had been he who originally proposed Washington as commander of the Colonial Army--as a political gesture to bring lagging Virginia (Washington’s home colony) into a more aggressive policy toward England.

In 1776 Adams is pictured as the fiery patriot who more than anyone else stirred the colonies to independence. He is shown to have Franklin as an ally in this cause, an ally more patient and more politically astute who must cool Adams off. At one point he says “John, why don’t you give it up--you’re obnoxious and disliked,” and he persuades Adams to let someone else less irritating to the Congress make the motion for independence. For the sake of his cause and his emerging country, Adams agrees.

It is also interesting that in the musical it is Adams who, in admiration of Jefferson’s “happy talent for composition and remarkable felicity of expression,” insists that Jefferson should write the Declaration--against Jefferson’s wishes, since he is eager to go home to see his wife. Franklin fixes up that problem by arranging for Mrs. Jefferson to come to Philadelphia to keep her husband loving company.

Yet Adams and Jefferson, so aligned in 1776—in the musical and in history—became the most violent adversaries when Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800.

Vilified and defeated, Adams retreated to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. But his unpopularity did not extend to his son, John Quincy Adams, who became the sixth president of the United States in 1824, the only instance, until just recently, of a son following the footsteps of a father to the Presidency.

Adamses have continued to be prominent in public life down to this day. John’s grandson, Charles Francis Adams, was the American ambassador to England during the difficult years of our Civil War, his great-grandson Henry Adams was the brilliant mediaevalist and author of The Education of Henry Adams, his great-great-grandson Charles Francis Adams II was the secretary of the navy in President Hoover’s cabinet, and others of this family have been called to responsible public service over the years.

The forebear of them all, John Adams, at last receives justice in 1776: he’s the hero of the show!

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