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A Historical Novelist’s Look at 1776 

Like so many of us, I spent The Fourth of July watching the film of 1776 – the first laserdisc version, of course, which restores much material that had been cut.

True, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” looks a little weird with the conservatives looking as if they don’t quite know how to dance. But Sherman Edwards’ song itself still scores.

Bookwriter Peter Stone created the best-ever libretto in the history of musicals. He wrote in the published edition an afterword that began “The first question we are asked by those who have seen – or read – 1776 is invariably ‘Is it true? Did it really happen that way?’ The answer is: Yes.”

Well, yes and no, according to William Martin, the esteemed historical novelist who hasn’t just been piddling and twiddling. For in addition to creating page-turners about The Civil War, The Gold Rush and World War II, Martin has written HARVARD YARD (which explored the beginnings of rebellion on the campus and depicted that fateful April morning in April 1775 when the British relief column marched through Harvard Square), THE LOST CONSTITUTION (which investigated the Shays’ Rebellion, a direct result of the weak central government that derived from the Articles of Confederation and thereby led to the Constitutional Convention) and CITY OF DREAMS (the story of New York City’s role in the American Revolution). 

“I am still drawn to the eighteenth century and the people who founded our country in that twenty-five-year period between 1775 and 1800,” he says. “It was a time of uncertainty, of great hope and great repression, of entrenched powers struggling to maintain hegemony in the face of new and mighty ideas. And it is a time that continues to fire the imagination of creative artists across a wide spectrum of media.”

In CITIZEN WASHINGTON, Martin cites our first president-to-be’s dispatch that includes the words “What brave men I shall lose before this business ends.” Fans of 1776 will recall that Secretary Charles Thomson reads that chilling prediction to the congressmen of the brand-new United States of America only moments after they’d ratified the Declaration.

But Martin informs us that the dispatch was actually written in late August 1776, at The Battle of Long Island.

He also claims that Richard Henry Lee was not the garrulous, happy-go-lucky egomaniacal punster that he’s shown to be in 1776 – and he’s not the only one that thinks so. “Thomas Fleming, one of our best historical novelists,” said Martin, “wrote that Lee was tall, austere, tight-lipped, no-nonsense Southern puritan – and the most powerful orator in congress next to Adams.”

Did Adams dislike Lee, as he does in the show? “While I don’t know that for sure,” Martin conceded, “John was a man of strong opinions, and didn’t like many people – even Franklin.”

That the two of them conspired to get Martha Jefferson to Philadelphia is also spurious. “Martha was very ill,” Martin said, “and couldn’t have traveled there, and certainly wouldn’t have had the energy to sing about his playing the violin. At that time, she was too sick and depressed to even write a letter.”

Martin takes issue with Rutledge’s claim that “The deep south speaks with one voice.” He insists that “There was no one voice. There were thirteen voices at the minimum, because within those thirteen, there were state congresses, too. That was the main problem that Washington faced. Congress gave him more trouble than the British ever did.

“No, ‘spoke with one voice’ is inaccurate. A third of the people were on the right, a third on the left, and the other third in the middle, trying to decide, trying to hold center, or waiting to see what would happen. Just like today,” he said, semi-joking.

He doesn’t buy Ben Franklin’s statement in the show that he couldn’t formulate a declaration because “the things I write are only light extemporanea.”  Says Martin, “Franklin was a learned guy, but wasn’t completely beloved, so he knew that if he wrote it, the declaration would be tarred with his brush. He brought baggage to the table that Jefferson didn’t.”

Sherman and Livingston, who also bowed out of the writing, also could have done it, says Martin. “Though would they have come up with something as perfectly worded? When John tells Jefferson, ‘You write ten times better than any man in congress,’ he was right.”

Martin is impressed at how 1776 handled slavery. “Race remains the fundamental problem in American life, so think how difficult it was to confront it back then. And if the sugar-coating and the caricaturing in the early part of 1776 serve any purpose, it is to get us to the point where our emotions get completely twisted and our attitudes turned 180 degrees when we encounter the deadly serious and well-made ‘Molasses to Rum.’ Rutledge was right: They were all guilty, New Englanders and Southerners both.”

1776 only shows twenty of the dozens who belonged to the Continental Congress. “I would have liked to have seen Patrick Henry in the show,” says Martin, “and Samuel Adams, too. But I know that it’s impossible to tell a story the way the historians want you to tell it. Those writers knew their job – to be as true as possible to the letter of the times, but always true to the spirit of the times. They knew that they were writing an entertainment. If they wanted to give us history, they’d have sent us to a great historian. Instead, they gave us something that we can sit back and really enjoy.”

However, when the musical was first announced, Martin, along with virtually everyone who paid attention Broadway during the sixties, couldn’t imagine such a show becoming a hit. Even today, Martin enjoys imaging what the pitch sessions must have been like: “What? A musical comedy in which the Founding Fathers crack wise and sing songs as they struggle over the clauses and phrases and final impact of the Declaration of Independence?”

“But,” Martin says, “there was something reassuring about 1776 when it came out in those tumultuous, often terrible times. And there still is something reassuring about the material today, too. The idea behind those jokes and songs is that those men were not marble and stone. They were just like us, right down to the wisecracking and the dancing. If they could survive what they got through, and achieve what they did, we could survive assassinations, street violence, and an unpopular War in Vietnam.”

Martin’s conclusions on 1776 aren’t ones he recently reached, for he saw the original Broadway production. In fact, he’s been a musical theater enthusiast since he caught the 1965 tryout of BAKER STREET in Boston when he was a teen.

“It’s one of my regrets that while I was at Harvard,” he says “although I had directed productions of HAPPY DAYS and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, I never did realize my plans to direct 1776 there.”

Well, Bill, there’s still time for you to stage it somewhere.

And if he does, he’ll probably take his cue from the influence that HAMILTON has had on the show, and allow people of color and/or women to be cast.

“The story, for all its musical comedy elements, is universal and worth re-telling again and again and again. So I’ll continue to enjoy 1776 – while,” he adds, “I look for a new novel to set in the era of the American Revolution.”

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.