SUBJECTS — U.S./1750 – 1812 & Pennsylvania; Drama/Musicals;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Citizenship.

AGE: 11+; MPAA Rating — G;

Musical; 1972; 141 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction;

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes; and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.


This improbable but charming musical is based on the debates in the Second Continental Congress over whether to declare independence from Britain. The dialogue includes statements made in the delegates’ speeches or in their writings. The script closely follows the Tony award-winning play.


Selected Awards: 1972 National Board of Review Awards: Ten Best Films of the Year; 1972 Academy Award Nominations: Best Cinematography; 1973 Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture – Musical Comedy.

Featured Actors: William Daniels, Howard da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, Blythe Danner, Ronald Holgate, Virginia Vestoff, Stephen Nathan, Ralston Hill.

Director: Peter H. Hunt.


With a few corrections, “1776” provides a sense of what occurred as the Continental Congress struggled with the momentous question of separation from Britain. It also introduces John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.


MINOR. One major historical inaccuracy in this movie should be explained. The rebels’ military position and the morale of General Washington and the troops are portrayed as being very poor at the time independence was declared. This is incorrect. Before the Declaration of Independence, General Washington and the Continental Congress were optimistic about their military situation. The British Army had been driven from Boston. The rebels were busily fortifying New York against an expected British invasion. Washington had 23,000 troops and thought they could stand against the British. Of course, there were long periods when the rebels were despondent about the military situation, but this did not begin until the British routed Washington’s Army at the Battle of Long Island, some seven weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed. It doesn’t make sense that the Congress would issue a Declaration of Independence unless it felt that the rebels could win.

There are other distortions of the historical record which the writers obviously felt necessary to keep their audience entertained. After all, this is a musical comedy. While Franklin had his racy side, his anger at the British government and the seriousness with which he backed independence is underplayed. Martha Jefferson did not come to Philadelphia during the convention and her husband was deeply worried about her health. Most of the minor characters shown in the film as buffoons or twits were actually serious men who helped to change the world by risking their lives to create the first modern republic.

Why recommend this film despite all of these inaccuracies? Because there is so much that it gets right: the resoluteness of Adams; the eloquent writing of Jefferson; the commanding presence of Franklin; the political maneuvering; and the bitter debate between North and South over slavery. All of these come through clearly.

There are a few slightly off-color jokes. For example, Benjamin Franklin, referring to Jefferson, who is closeted with his recently-arrived wife and who had courted her with a violin, remarks, “God Bless a man who can fiddle.” There are also a few jokes about the need to administer saltpeter to the troops.


Should your child in either late elementary school or middle school be studying the American Revolution, suggest this film. It is a musical and will hold his or her attention as it presents an interesting way to look at this important period in history. Although you will not want to interject information while the movie is playing, at some other time you should talk about the film’s one major historical error which is described in the Possible Problems” section. While driving or in another moment unrelated to the experience of watching the film, talk to your child about Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, some of the most remarkable men this country has produced.


The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents of Western Civilization. Its statement of natural law, contained in the second paragraph, sets out the fundamentals of democratic political belief:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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. That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

The Declaration of Independence was adopted in the Second Continental Congress that assembled in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. The First Continental Congress had called upon the colonies to adopt a Continental Association boycotting trade with Britain and had sent a petition to King George III called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Committees of Safety were established to enforce the association and the boycott. These committees became centers for revolution.

In the Second Continental Congress, radicals led by John Adams and Ben Franklin were much stronger than they had been in the First Congress. The Battles of Lexington and Concord had already taken place and militiamen had surrounded the British occupying force in Boston. The Congress commissioned General George Washington to form the Continental Army, sent ambassadors abroad, established rules for trading, issued paper money, and assumed many other functions of a government.

Even so, the radicals could not convince their colleagues to vote for independence until the publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense. This created such strong support for independence that the conservative delegates could no longer resist. After independence was declared the Second Continental Congress directed the Revolutionary War, negotiated the peace and later agreed upon the Articles of Confederation. The Second Continental Congress served until it was replaced by the Congress of the Confederation after the Articles had been approved by all of the colonies in 1781. The Articles of Confederation were a failure and were replaced by the United States Constitution in 1789. For a description of the “bargain with the devil” on slavery that was necessary for the Declaration of Independence and later the U.S. Constitution to be adopted, see Learning Guide to “Roots, Volume 1”

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) was a printer, author, statesman, diplomat, scientist, and philosopher. He championed the cause of independence, founded the first public library, authored Poor Richard’s Almanac, proved that lightning was an electrical phenomenon, invented the lightning rod, championed public education, served in the Continental Congress, negotiated (with John Jay and John Adams) the peace treaty with Britain, and served as an ambassador to France.

John Adams (1735 – 1826) was an early advocate of independence, was the driving force behind the selection of George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, served as ambassador to France, helped to negotiate the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, and was the second President of the United States. President Adams, defeated in his bid for reelection by Thomas Jefferson, presided over the first peaceful change of administration from one political party to another.

Franklin and Adams served together as ambassadors to France. They were later joined by Thomas Jefferson. Adams and his remarkable wife Abigail became great friends of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and Abigail Adams kept up a famous correspondence. After independence the Adams/Jefferson friendship was broken by political differences. Jefferson defeated Adams’ attempt at reelection as President in 1800. They reconciled in 1812 after Jefferson had left office. Adams died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson still lives.” He was wrong. Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. Adams lapsed into a coma and died before he could explain what he meant.

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, ambassador to France, and third President of the United States (1801 to 1809). During his presidency the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory, some 800,000 square miles, comprising the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and portions of Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Louisiana, and the City of New Orleans, for $15,000,000.

Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men in history. He excelled as a statesman, diplomat, architect, philosopher, educator, inventor, pioneer in scientific farming, musician and writer. He championed the cause of the common man and his right to govern himself.

The one major blot on Jefferson’s career and character was his inability to break with the institution of slavery. In that way he was similar to his section, the South. Jefferson knew slavery to be a great evil and believed that it would eventually cause cataclysmic trouble for the United States. However, he lived in a slave state, in an economy in which the aristocratic and genteel way of life he loved so much was dependent upon owning slaves. When he died the only slaves he freed were five members of the Hemings family.

John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was the spokesman for the opponents of independence. He was outmaneuvered by Franklin at the Second Continental Congress. He made good on his pledge to join the army if independence was declared. After the war, having proved his patriotism, he was elected President (governor) of Pennsylvania. He was also a delegate from Delaware to the 1787 Constitutional Convention.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. Would it have been better to insist on the antislavery language that Jefferson originally proposed to insert into the Declaration of Independence or did the Continental Congress do the right thing in compromising by excluding it?


3. Isn’t it remarkable that Jefferson and Adams, perhaps the two men most responsible for our independence, died the same day, July 4, 1826? What does this fact mean to you?



1. When is rebelling against your government the right thing to do?


2. When Hancock, the presiding officer of the Continental Congress, suggested that he might start favoring the pro-independence side, why did John Adams decline his offer and tell him to continue being fair and neutral? What is a statesman?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)



(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

1. The delegates to the Continental Congress did not comply with the ethical obligation to stand by their country (England) or to obey the law and rules of their country. They felt that other ethical values, such as loyalty to family, friends and their colony and doing the right thing were more important. These too are ethical principles. When one is faced with a conflict between ethical principles, how does one resolve it? [See the chapter on the Josephson Institute Ethical Decision-Making Model in Making Ethical Decisions. (Copies may be made from the web and distributed without payment of royalty.)]


Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction. You can read the Declaration of Independence with your class. Consider having a contest to see who can memorize the first two paragraphs of the Declaration or simply memorize it together.


Books suitable for middle school and junior high readers relating to the Revolutionary War include: Songs & Stories From the American Revolution by Jerry Silverman. Novels of adventure in the Revolutionary War suitable for middle school and junior high readers include: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes; April Morning by Howard Fast; and My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln. Books recommended for 4th & 5th grade readers include: Mr. Revere & I by Robert Lawson. This book tells the story of the beginning of the Revolution from the view of Scheherazade – a horse with a sardonic view of life. Scheherazade was brought to America by the British Army but lost in a card game to a citizen of Boston. He was then then requisitioned for Paul Revere by the Committee of Correspondence. Scheherazade carried Revere on his famous ride to Lexington and Concord. He has many choice words about the British and the colonists.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995; and
  • John Adams by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.

This Learning Guide was last updated on July 15, 2011.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email