1776 --

I'm hoping that all our authors and guests have enjoyed, or are about to enjoy, this delightful musical. (I am amazed that anyone could make a good play or movie, let alone a good musical, about a piece of legislation - but so it is.)

There's a lot to say after giving it a good look, or re-look. By coincidence, a few of us just had a longish talk on natural rights, as applied in the Declaration - I'll skip that, then, and mention just a few thoughts of my own:

Historical neatness - It seems to me that any war or regime that looks simple and decisive from a distance, looked much less so at the time. Adams' frustration at the Congress that "with one hand...can raise an Army, dispatch one of their own to lead it, and cheer the news from Bunker's hill, and with the other...wave the olive branch, begging the King for a happy and permanent reconciliation," rings true. I used to think of the Six-Day War -- from the Israeli standpoint -- as a simple affair, self-defense that everyone could agree upon; and there are many who seem to think that the U.S. government was giving unqualified support to Israel. If you read Michael Oren's excellent account, a very different picture emerges - of ceaseless Israeli political wrangling, right up to the eve of war (as per the Publisher's Weekly review quoted at Amazon, "not arrogance, but self-doubt, self-analysis and self-criticism, all carried to near-suicidal degrees in 1967..."); and the American role (something like the Soviet role on the other side) shifts often, and very often the Superpower is demanding, "hold back! - don't attack, or you'll lose our support!" Dare I say, to the not-precisely-young, decidedly-right-of-center types who are known to frequent this Hall, that even the Reagan Presidency didn't look so consistent or decisive at the time, even on foreign policy? (I remember an angry article, shortly after the 1987 INF Treaty, titled "Peace in Our Time" - which opened, "It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Ronald Carter and Jimmy Reagan..." - I don't say we were all that angry, but you see where I'm going). Even with the Revolution, it was the same - disagreement and contention on the basic aim, even in a Congress already at war - giving us the interesting fact, celebrated on many of our insignia, that the U.S. Army is a year older than the U.S. itself. They managed to get through, but up close, it can't have looked pretty. This segues neatly into

Compromise - What strikes me about the characters in the movie, and the real personages on whom they are based, is the way they can reach political compromises with blocs of opponents whose views they not only oppose, but think ungodly. "Compromise" does not always mean, "believe that the other person is right, and has a point"; and "don't compromise on principle" (in a voting body like this) often means, "don't get what you're after" - so that you can always be painted as either unprincipled or too narrowly partisan. Maybe that's why Congress, as a body, doesn't get much love (admit it, you were expecting something else from that link). That is probably unfair - but it does give us some juicy quotes for angry moments, like one of the best opening lines from the movie: "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!"

A great deal of compromise - hard, angry, principled, frustrated compromise - was necessary for the Declaration and the Constitution as well - it will certainly be needed if, as Grim has sometimes proposed, we ever call a convention to revitalize our national institutions. And one can sympathize with some of our friends overseas, who have a great deal of trouble managing it - it can be done, but it isn't easy or satisfying.

Artistic point - The Directors' Cut, which I own, contains a song called Cool, Considerate Men. There is a persistent rumor - I have never seen it substantiated - that this song was cut from the movie on the personal request of Richard Nixon. I find that a little hard to believe, especially in the face of a much more natural explanation: that the song was cut for excellent artistic reasons. It's too crude. In other scenes, the opponents of Independency are portrayed as sincere men, concerned with loyalty to the mother country and the horrific dangers of the armed conflict; in that song, they portray themselves as narrow-minded, cowardly, and selfish - and having one of General Washington's messages come in at the end of the song, while the opponents sing and rejoice, is extremely crude (the refrain, "to the right, ever to the right," is also an anachronism - as, I believe, the modern use of the terms "left" and "right" derives from Revolutionary France, over a decade later; and while many Americans enjoy identifying themselves as more like the Founders than their political opponents, that kind of swipe doesn't belong in this movie). The movie is much better without that song.

UPDATE: My Director's Cut includes a feature that lets me turn on a running commentary with the director and screenwriter. They both claim the story is true: that Nixon, after a private screening, asked the producer to cut the number, and he agreed, so that is confirmed after all. Both of them think the scene strengthens the drama; I couldn't agree less (the old version I was used to also cut some of Dickinson's other lines - making him less of a smart-aleck, and easier to believe). One of the two comments that the song shows the connection between the opponents of the Declaration and "modern conservatives" - thus showing little understanding of either.

Trivia - John Adams' first duet with Abigail contains some chemical anachronisms. He refers to "treating sodium nitrate with potassium chloride." But that particular way of naming chemical compounds didn't come into use until after Lavoisier published it in 1787 (I believe he also named nitrogen)...and the elements sodium, potassium, and chlorine received their names from Humphry Davy well after 1800.

All - thoughts?

Joel - What deadline shall we set for A Man for All Seasons?

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