“All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
— Declaration of Independence
“Through all the gloom, I can see the rays of light and glory; I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”
— John Adams, July 3, 1776
Letter to Abigail Adams
There’s been a lot of singing in the halls of justice in Delaware County lately. That’s because tonight and tomorrow the Delaware County Bar Association and Arena Fair Theater will stage a production of Sherman Edwards’ Broadway musical “1776” on the stage at Hayes High School. The production is a fundraiser for the newly minted Delaware County Bar Foundation and the cast includes no fewer than 15 lawyers.
One of the musical numbers, “But, Mr. Adams,” is a song in which the “Committee of Five” — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston — debate who will serve as the chief author of the document whose anniversary we celebrated back in July. In the musical number, Franklin complains that his writings are only light and extemporaneous, Sherman that he is only a farmer, Livingston that he is going back to New York to celebrate the birth of a child, and Adams that he is too disliked by his fellow members of the Continental Congress.
Edwards drew many of the lyrics to that song from a letter that Adams wrote to his wife and friends. In them, Adams wrote that he was immediately impressed with Jefferson when the young Virginian arrived in Congress. He came, Adams noted, with a reputation for “literature, science and a happy talent of composition.” The elder statesman was so taken with Jefferson that he campaigned to have him selected for the declaration committee and, when the vote was taken in March 1776, Jefferson got the most votes, one more than Adams.
As Edwards chronicled in his musical version, Jefferson initially suggested that Adams write the Declaration. Adams pushed back and when Jefferson asked for his reasons, Adams told him: “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write 10 times better than I can.”
Adams reported that he was thrilled with Jefferson’s work. “I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded.” He was especially appreciative of the passages condemning slavery even though he “knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass them in Congress.”
Indeed, Congress made many, many changes to Jefferson’s original document. Writing later, Jefferson recounted a story that Ben Franklin told him during the process to encourage him to defend his work. Franklin told Jefferson that he had known a young hatter who proposed to his friends that he would hang a sign outside his store that said, “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money” and then had a picture of a hat. One friend complained that “Hatter” was unnecessary because of the picture. Another, that “makes” was unnecessary since the quality of the product would speak for itself. A third, that “for ready money” was no good since the store didn’t sell on credit anyway. A fourth, that “sells hats” was a waste since no one expected him to give them away. In the end, all he was left with was a sign that said “John Thompson” and had a picture of a hat.
The document survived, but not before many substitutions, deletions and amendments. You can see the story of those debates and compromises, told through a Tony Award-winning musical, today at 7:30 p.m. or Saturday at 2 or 7:30 p.m. on the stage at Hayes High. Learning history has never been so much fun.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court and president of the Delaware County Bar Foundation..