Based on the musical play by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, in June and July 1776 John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson lead the effort in the Continental Congress to declare the independence of the United States, and they face opposition by John Dickinson, Edward Rutledge, and others.
John Adams (William Daniels) is contemplating by the liberty bell, and the custodian Andrew McNair (William Duell) comes up to get him to go back to Congress to vote. He learns they are voting on George Washington’s request that all those in the Rhode Island militia have to wear matching uniforms. He goes downstairs.
Adams comes into the Congress and lectures them for failing to act despite the violations they have suffered from the British. He says the Congress refuses even to debate his proposal for independence. Adams and the other Congressmen sing “Sit Down, John.” They say he is a bore and tell him to sit down.
Adams goes outside and complains that they have been there for a year and have done nothing. He complains to God as he sings “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve.” He imagines conversing with his wife Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff) who is in Massachusetts, and they sing “Till Then.” He asks her to organize the ladies to make saltpeter, but she sings they have to send them pins first.
Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) is in a garden sitting for a portrait painter. Adams finds him and says the picture stinks. Adams complains about the Congressmen refusing to be independent. Franklin tells him it has never happened before. Adams says they are at war, and Franklin says they are just defending themselves. Adams says the people want independence. Franklin says they have read Tom Paine’s Common Sense, but he doubts that Congress has. He tells Adams he is obnoxious and disliked. Franklin says even his cousin Sam Adams does not get along with him. Franklin asks him to let someone else propose independence. Adams says never. Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) arrives on a horse and dismounts. Lee suggests that he could go to Virginia to persuade the House of Burgesses. He says he will leave right away. Adams asks why he is so sure that he can do it. Lee sings “The Lees of Old Virginia.” He promises he can deliver a resolution on independency. Lee mounts and rides off on his horse.
On June 7, 1776 Dr. Lyman Hall comes in and says he is from Georgia. The custodian McNair tells him where the Georgia delegation sits. Stephen Hopkins (Roy Poole) comes in and talks with him. He asks where Georgia stands on independence, and Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) comes in and says they stand with South Carolina. Hall declines to tell his personal opinion. Rutledge introduces Hall to Caesar Rodney (William Hansen), George Reed (Leo Leyden), and Col. Thomas McKean (Ray Middleton) of Delaware.
Outside Rodney asks Hall if he is a doctor of medicine or philosophy, and Hall says he is both. John Dickinson (Donald Madden) arrives in a carriage and meets Hall. Rodney introduces Judge James Wilson to Hall.
A sedan chair is carried into the Congress, and Franklin gets out and sits down and puts his foot up that is suffering from gout. Adams comes in and asks if Lee is back yet. Franklin tells him not to talk so loud. Adams tells Franklin he will wait one more day before he starts proposing. The 383rd meeting of the Continental Congress begins. They welcome Lyman Hall. The Secretary Charles Thomson (Ralston Hill) reads the list of those who are absent, including the entire delegation of New Jersey. Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) gives them a weather report and says he is leaving for home tonight on family business.
A courier comes in with a message and goes out. Thomson reads a dispatch from the commander of the united colonies to John Hancock. General William Howe is leading his forces toward New York, and he sees no way of stopping them because the army lacks supplies, arms, and men. His troops are near mutiny, and it is signed G. Washington. McKean complains about the gloomy dispatches, and John Hancock (David Ford) tells him it is too hot. Dr. Josiah Bartlett (Daniel Keyes) reads his resolution that Congress should forgo any form of dissipation such as gambling and other sinful occupations. McNair announces a fire wagon, and every runs into the street to see what is burning. Lee arrives on his horse and goes into the Congress and tells Jefferson his wife wants to know when he is coming home. Lee announces the resolution of independence, and John Adams seconds it. Dickinson moves that the resolution be postponed indefinitely, and Delaware seconds it. They vote on whether to debate the resolution for independence, and Rhode Island casts the deciding vote in favor.
Dickinson begins the discussion and says he is relieved. He asks John Adams why they should become independent. Adams says their relationship with Great Britain has become intolerable. Dickinson says he likes being in the greatest empire in the world and enjoying its benefits. Adams says they are suffering crippling taxes. Dickinson refers to great events in English history. He calls Washington a patriot, Tom Paine an anarchist, and Franklin an internationalist. He tells Adams he agrees that his own taxes are too high also; but he does not agree to violence, insurrection, and treason. Franklin tells Dickinson to stop banging on a table so that he can sleep. Dickinson trades barbs with him. Franklin says the British have recklessly treated this entire continent. He says they spawned a new race here, and they are a new nationality and require a new nation. Dickinson says the people feel differently. Adams says Dickinson represents only himself and his property. Dickinson asks what is wrong with property. He tells Adams to leave his private grievances in New England. He says he would lead them down the path to total destruction. Adams says they are at war. The three delegates from Delaware argue over who represents their colony.
Rutledge asks Adams who will govern after independence, and Adams says the people. Rutledge says they believe in independence for South Carolina, but Adams wants independence for all the colonies together. Wilson suggests caution until they understand the beast that they are, and Adams tells him to take a chance. Samuel Chase (Patrick Hines) suggests they should wait and see if Washington’s army is going to win because if they lose, they may be hanged; if they win, they can do what they please. Adams says they need something to fight for, and he says there is a spirit among the people that is lacking in the Congress. Dickinson mocks spirit, and he asks Franklin why he has joined the Boston radical. Adams complains about the names Dickinson calls him, and they start fighting with their sticks. Rodney tells them stop because the enemy out there is England closing in on them and cutting off their air. He is near collapse, and they call Dr. Hall over. Rodney has cancer and asks Adams to forgive him for leaving him a divided Delaware as he goes home. McKean says he will be back within a week and goes out with Rodney.
Rutledge says that South Carolina calls the question. Franklin asks the secretary to read the resolution again. Thomson is reading it when Rev. John Witherspoon (James Noble) comes in with two other delegates from New Jersey. He tells Franklin that his son the governor of New Jersey has been taken prisoner and is in Connecticut. Adams asks where he stands on independence, and Witherspoon says they are in favor. Adams says he welcomes the vote. As they start to take the vote, Dickinson moves that any vote favoring independence must be unanimous. Adams asks on what grounds, and Dickinson says it is so that no colony can be torn from its mother country without its consent. Adams says it will never be unanimous. Thomson calls for the yeas and nays. They vote six for and six against with New York abstaining. Hancock breaks the tie by voting for unanimity. Adams asks why, and Hancock says they would end up fighting against the colonies that did not join them. Adams asks for a postponement so that they can write a declaration defining independence listing the reasons for the separation. Adams admits we know them, but they need to tell the rest of the world so that they can get allies to support them. Jefferson says the purpose would be “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” Dickinson mocks the idea of stating to the whole world that an illegal rebellion is a legal one. Franklin says that rebellion in the first person is always legal while in the third person it is always illegal. Franklin seconds the motion to postpone for the writing of a declaration. They vote six and six again, and Hancock asks why New York always abstains. Hancock as chairman votes in favor of postponement to write a document to be presented at the beginning of July. To the committee he appoints Dr. Franklin, John Adams, Mr. Sherman, Mr. Livingston, and Mr. Lee, but Lee says he has to return to Virginia where he has been asked to serve as governor. Adams asks for a Virginian and proposes Jefferson who says he is going home too. He objects, but Hancock ignores him.
Jefferson says he is going home tonight, but Franklin tells him not to worry. In the song “But, Mr. Adams” John asks Franklin to write it, but he declines. Next Adams tells Roger Sherman to write it, but he declines he can write well. Adams says Robert Livingston could write it, but he says he is going home to see his new child in New York. They all look at Jefferson who tells Adams to leave him alone. Jefferson says he has not seen his wife for six months. Adams quotes Jefferson and says he writes better than any man in Congress. He asks if he will be a patriot or a lover. Jefferson says he will be a lover. Adams tells the taller Jefferson that he will make him write it. Adams says the decision is Jefferson’s.
At night Jefferson is working alone at his desk with a quill. He writes and throws paper away. He plays his violin.
John Adams and Franklin are walking through a marketplace and go upstairs to Jefferson’s room. They hear the violin and go in. Adams asks if he is finished. He says he had a whole week and asks if he can see it. Jefferson points to crumpled paper on the floor, and Adams says it is terrible. Jefferson says it is not yet begun. Adams calls him Virginia’s most famous lover, and Jefferson says he abstains. Adams wakes up Franklin and sees Martha Jefferson (Blythe Danner) who comes in and hugs Jefferson. Adams tells Franklin that he sent for Jefferson’s wife. They kiss while Adams and Franklin talk. Franklin tells Adams to leave with him. Outside John asks if they are going to do it in the middle of the afternoon, and Franklin says that not everyone is from Boston. Franklin says he is meeting a woman who is made nervous by talking.
Outside John Adams tells Abigail that he is very lonely. She complains about how he criticizes her in his letters. He asks her to come to Philadelphia, but she says their children have the measles. She says the farm is failing. As they walk on their farm they ask how each other is, and they sing “Yours, Yours, Yours.”
Franklin finds Adams at the foot of the stairs, and Adams says the shutters are still closed. They see Martha open the window, and they say good morning to her. They say they met last evening. Franklin says he is the inventor of the stove. She says her husband is not yet up. Franklin invites her to join them. Adams says he will not be in the history books like Franklin and Washington who will get credit for the entire revolution. Martha comes down the stairs and says she is honored in meeting the two greatest men in America. John says that Jefferson is the most quiet man in Congress. She sings “He Plays the Violin,” and she dances with Franklin and then with Adams. She goes up the stairs, and Jefferson drops a letter down to them saying he is taking his wife back to bed and asks them to go away. Adams and Franklin finish the song as they walk away.
In Congress the Secretary reports what the various committees are. Franklin comes in and talks about democracy as charming disorder. John Adams comes in and says they have to get to it. He asks McKean about Rodney. McKean doubts that Rodney will be able to come back, and he says the entire South is against them. He says Dickinson will never give in. Adams tells Franklin to work on his state of Pennsylvania, and Adams tries to talk to Chase about Maryland. Franklin talks to Judge Wilson who says there is no illegality or precedents there. Franklin says that is because it is a new idea. Adams tells Chase that America is waiting for him. Chase says winning the war is impossible. He says Washington has written them how bad the army is. Adams says he is exaggerating in order to get the Congress to help them. A courier comes in with the latest dispatch. Thomson reads it aloud about the disorder and confusion in the Continental Army. The officers are stupid, and whores have assembled causing an epidemic of the French disease. Washington asks for help from the war committee. Hancock says Adams is chairman of the War Committee and asks him if he wants to go whoring. Dickinson suggests they withdraw Washington and disband the Continental Army. He asks Adams when he is hanged to put in a good word for the rest of them. Chase tells Adams to face facts. He asks how they could ever beat the most powerful military in the world. Adams asks him if they could beat the redcoats, would Maryland vote for independence. Adams asks Chase to come with him to New Brunswick to see for himself. He agrees, and Adams says that the War Committee will fulfill the request. They wake up Franklin, and he goes with them. Dickinson asks McNair to open the windows, and without Adams and Franklin there Dickinson, Rutledge, and Hancock sing “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” They always go to the right and never to the left. Secretary Thomson reads another dispatch from Washington about the British taking over New York and warns that they may be heading toward Philadelphia. They go out in the street with their canes and get in carriages that depart.
McNair offers rum to the courier, and they sit in the empty Congress. McNair tells another youth not to join up because he is in Congress. He says they send others off to fight but not themselves. The courier (Stephen Nathan) sits at the president’s table and tells how he saw two friends killed at Lexington, and he sings “Momma Look Sharp.”
Secretary Thomson reads the report of the Declaration Committee that begins with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson listens at the door and then comes out and tells Adams and Franklin that they are reading the Declaration. Adams says it is a masterpiece and takes credit for making Jefferson write it. Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson sing “The Egg.” Franklin explains that this is the birth of a new nation. They discuss what bird to select as their national symbol. Adams proposes an eagle, Franklin the turkey, and Jefferson the dove.
At the end of the reading they go back into the hall. Hancock asks for any amendments McKean complains about the Scottish mercenaries sent against them and asks that it be removed. Witherspoon asks Jefferson why he never mentioned the Supreme Being, and he proposes adding “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” Jefferson does not object. Read says that in Delaware they have always had trial by jury. Adams says they no longer have it in Massachusetts, and Read suggests they add the words “in many cases.” McKean and Read quarrel over the importance of their contributions, and Hancock tells them to stop.
On June 29 Bartlett objects to derogatory terms about the English, and he asks that the paragraph be stricken. Jefferson agrees, and Adams asks when he is going to speak up for his work. Jefferson says he hoped the work would speak for itself. Sherman asks Jefferson not to mention Parliament, and the word is removed. Franklin tells Adams that this won’t last much longer.
On June 30 Dickinson asks why he refers to King George as a tyrant, and he reminds Jefferson that he is still his King. Jefferson says when a tyrant takes away their rights, he is no longer their king. Dickinson says he gave them their rights in the first place. Jefferson says that the right to be free comes from nature. Dickinson asks if they are not free. Jefferson says their homes have been invaded, citizens arrested without charges, and assemblies banned. Dickinson says no one approves of these things and that these are dangerous times. Franklin warns him to be careful saying, “Those who give up some of their liberty in order to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Dickinson gets Wilson to concur that King George is not a tyrant in Pennsylvania, and he demands that the word “tyrant” be removed. Jefferson says he does not consent because he is a tyrant whether they say so or not; so they might as well say so. Thomson says he already scratched it out, and Jefferson tells him to scratch it back in.
On July 1 Joseph Hewes (Charles Rule) asks about fishing rights, and John Adams explodes in disgust over this. Rutledge asks for the passage be read that begins, “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold.” Rutledge asks what he is talking about, and Jefferson says slavery. Rutledge asks if he is referring to them who have become slaves of the King, but Jefferson says he is referring to their black slaves. Rutledge asks why he did not say so and says he does not like it. He says in South Carolina black slavery is their peculiar institution and a cherished way of life. Jefferson replies that they must abolish it. He says nothing is more certainly written in the book of faith than that this people should be free. Rutledge says he is concerned about what is written in that paper. Adams says that paper is concerned with freedom for Americans. Rutledge asks him if their black slaves are Americans. Adams says yes because they are people, and they are here. Rutledge says they are not people but property. Jefferson says they are people who are being treated as if they are property. He says that human rights are deeply wounded by this infamous practice. Rutledge tells him to see to his own wounds, for he is a practitioner too. Jefferson says that he has resolved to release his slaves. Rutledge is sorry because he will ruin his personal economy. Adams says it is always economy; there is more to it than that; it is an offense against man and God. Hopkins says it is a stinking business. Rutledge says he smells hypocrisy floating down from their northern brethren who are carriers of slaves for money. Rutledge sings “Molasses to Rum” and how they also trade for slaves. He says New England faces can be seen in Africa buying slaves and stuffing them in their ships. Rutledge walks out, followed by other delegates from the southern colonies. Chase comes in and says he told the Maryland people about a great victory. Dickinson says they have gained Maryland but lost the South, and he goes out. Adams tells McKean to go and bring Rodney back, and he reluctantly agrees. Hopkins says he is going to the tavern. Chase says they have less than a full day left, and Sherman tells him it is finished. Witherspoon says he is sorry. They leave. Franklin says they have no choice; the slavery clause is a luxury they cannot afford. Adams objects to that and says Franklin should have walked out too. Franklin says he started an emancipation society. He tells him not to jeopardize their cause after they have come so far. He says these people will be part of their new nation. They have to learn to live with them or pack up and go home.
Adams stalks out and walks up the stairs to the bell. He talks to Abigail and asks for her help. He tells her his troubles and why people don’t like him. She laughs and agrees that he is “pig-headed.” He asks if she has had a good life. She says she never asked for more and is glad to be married to the man who is first in line to be hanged. He asks her why he is so dissatisfied. He no longer feels the dream but is stuck in discontent. She tells him what he used to say to her about commitment. McNair calls to him and says there is a delivery for him. Adams goes down. Abigail sings it is from her ladies’ groups for John. He sees kegs, and she says it is saltpeter. Adams tells McNair to buy all the pins in Philadelphia. He tells Jefferson to find Rutledge and make him listen to him. Adams sends Franklin to talk to Wilson and get him away from Dickinson. They go out, and Hancock says he will do whatever Adams says. John says he is president of Congress and a fair man; he should stay that way. Adams asks how Thomson stands, and he says he stands with the general. He sings about the dispatches from Washington who asks if anybody is there and if anybody cares. Adams is left alone in Congress and sings about commitment. He sees Americans free forevermore. Dr. Lyman Hall appears in the doorway and says he cares. He says that he remembered that a representative owes people his judgment. He shows that Georgia will vote yes and says goodnight. Adams remembers what others have said in the Congress.
On July 2 Hancock says the Congress will now vote on Virginia’s resolution for independence. Caesar Rodney comes in and sits down. Hancock reminds them that one vote against will defeat the resolution. Each colony is voting yes except that New York abstains. Franklin asks them to come back to Pennsylvania later. Rutledge asks Adams to remove the passage on slavery, or South Carolina will bury his dream of independence. Franklin warns Adams what he is doing. Adams says if they give in on this, posterity will never forgive him. Franklin says they are not demi-gods. First they must secure independence. Adams asks Jefferson, and he asks what else they can do. Jefferson gets up and scratches out the slavery clause. Adams takes it to Rutledge and tells him to vote. The Carolinas vote yes. Dickinson is about to vote, and Franklin asks that the delegation be poled. Franklin tells Wilson that American independence depends entirely on him. Dickinson and Adams try to persuade him. Wilson tells Dickinson not to push him, and he says he will be the one who will be remembered for it. He says he does not want the responsibility of being remembered. If he votes yes, he will be just one among dozens. He will not be the man who prevented American independence. Franklin says revolutions come into this world like bastard children half compromised. Wilson says he votes yes. Thomson announces that the resolution on independence is adopted. Hancock asks if the declaration is ready to be signed. He suggests that no one sit in the Congress without signing it. Dickinson says he cannot sign it, but he will join the army and fight in its defense even though he considers that fight hopeless. Adams recognizes him as he goes out, and they applaud.
On July 3 John Adams says the word is “unalienable,” but Jefferson says “inalienable” is correct. Jefferson refuses to consent, and Adams withdraws his correction. Hancock signs the document so that the King can read it without his glasses. Franklin says they have to hang together, or they may hang separately. The courier comes in with a message. Thomson reads the dispatch and changes the “United Colonies” to the “United States.” Washington reports that he has 5,000 troops against 25,000 of the enemy and that many of them are lads under fifteen or old men. They listen to the desperate situation of the war, and Washington says he will lose many brave men before this business ends.
On July 4 Hancock tells McNair to ring the bell. Lewis Morris (Howard Caine) says to hell with New York because he will sign. Thomson calls the roll, and they each go up and sign the Declaration. McNair rings the bell as they continue to sign.
This musical celebrates the revolutionary meeting in Philadelphia that led to the forming of a new nation from colonies in the British empire. The revolution had been going on for several years, but fighting had broken out in 1775. More than a year later the Congress finally decided that they must unite as a new nation so that they could win their struggle for independence from British tyranny that had become a war.