Celebrate the 4th of July twice this year. Again at Christmas
While General George Washington is conducting the struggle against the British Empire on the battlefield, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia piddles away its time over trivial matters and cannot begin debating the question of American independence. The leader of the independence faction is the abrasive John Adams of Massachusetts, whose continuous pushing of the issue has brought their cause to a complete standstill. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania leads the opposition that hopes for reconciliation with England. During his quieter moments, Adams calls up the image of his wife Abigail Adams who resides in Massachusetts and gives him insight and encouragement. Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania suggests another colony that supports independence should submit a proposal.
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia is sent off to Williamsburg, Virginia to get authorization from the Virginia Colony to propose independence. Dr. Lyman Hall arrives to represent Georgia, and immediately, he is interrogated by his fellow delegates regarding his views on independence (with Dickinson framing it as "treason"). Weeks later, Lee returns with the resolution, and debate on the question begins. The New Jersey delegation, led by Reverend John Witherspoon arrives just in time to provide a vote supporting independence. However, in the midst of debate, Caesar Rodney falters because of his cancer and is taken back to Delaware by fellow delegate Thomas McKean, leaving the anti-independence George Read to represent Delaware.
After heated discussions, the question is called without a majority of positive votes present. In a move intended to defeat the resolution, Dickinson calls for a vote requiring unanimity for passage, and the vote ends in a tie between the colonies which is ultimately decided in favor of unanimity by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, who argues that any objecting colony would fight for England against independence. Stalling for time to rally support for the resolution, Adams and Franklin call again for a postponement, justifying their call by stating the need for a declaration describing their grievances. Once again tied and ultimately decided by Hancock, the vote is successfully postponed until such a document can be written.
Hancock appoints a committee that includes Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson (after Lee declined due to an appointment to serve as governor of Virginia). Jefferson resists participation because he desires to return home to Virginia to see his wife, Martha, but is left with the task when all other members of the committee present more compelling reasons to avoid the responsibility. Adams sends for Martha so that Jefferson can remain in Philadelphia; the rest of the committee opine that Jefferson's diplomatic nature and superior writing skill are required to draft the declaration. Both Adams and Franklin are quite taken with Martha. While maneuvering to get the required unanimity for the vote on independence, Adams, Franklin and Samuel Chase of Maryland visit the Colonial Army encamped in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at the request of General Washington to help convince Maryland.
When they return to Philadelphia, the declaration is read and then subsequently debated and amended. Jefferson agrees to most alterations to the document, much to Adams' consternation. The debate reaches a head when the Southern delegates, led by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, walk out of Congress when a clause opposing slavery is not removed. Adams remains adamant that the clause remain, but Franklin appeals to him to allow the passage to be removed so that they can first achieve the vote on independence and the formation of the nation and defer the fight on slavery to a later time. Adams defers the final decision on the passage to Jefferson, who agrees to its removal. After removing that clause, 11 colonies are in favor, but New York abstains (as it does for every vote since the delegates were given no orders by the disorganized Ney York legislature).
The question is up to the Colony of Pennsylvania, whose delegation is polled at Franklin's request. Franklin votes for the declaration, but Dickinson votes against. The outcome is now in the hands of their fellow Pennsylvanian, Judge James Wilson. Wilson has always followed Dickinson's lead, but in this case Wilson votes in favor of the declaration, securing its passage, so that he would not be remembered by history as the man who voted to prevent American independence. After receiving word of the destruction of his property from General Washington, Lewis Morris finally withdraws New York's abstention and agrees to sign the document. Finally, with the Declaration of Independence ready to be signed, each colony (including New York) affixes their signature to the Declaration, establishing the United States on July 4, 1776.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times observed, "The music is resolutely unmemorable. The lyrics sound as if they'd been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history — compressed here, stretched there — that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway's not inspiring standards. Yet Peter H. Hunt's screen version of 1776 ... insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it. This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material ... [It] is far from being a landmark of musical cinema, but it is the first film in my memory that comes close to treating seriously a magnificent chapter in the American history."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it two stars and declared, "This is an insult to the real men who were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest ... The performances trapped inside these roles, as you might expect, are fairly dreadful. There are good actors in the movie (especially William Daniels as Adams and Donald Madden as John Dickinson), but they're forced to strut and posture so much that you wonder if they ever scratched or spit or anything ... I can hardly bear to remember the songs, much less discuss them. Perhaps I shouldn't. It is just too damn bad this movie didn't take advantage of its right to the pursuit of happiness."