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1776

1776(1972)

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In Philadelphia, on 8 May 1776, Massachusetts delegate John Adams urges the Continental Congress to debate whether officially to secede from England. Although many congressmen support the "independency" issue, all are offended by Adams' frequent tirades and implore him to sit down. Instead, the frustrated Adams leaves the building, but regains his composure by thinking about his wife Abigail, who remains in Massachusetts to manage their farm. In a letter, Adams writes Abby that the king is sending twelve thousand mercenaries to subdue the colonists and asks her to coordinate the neighboring women to make saltpeter to use in the manufacture of gun powder. In her reply, Abby refuses unless Adams agrees to send her sewing pins, which are scarce in wartime. On another day, Adams complains about Congress' indecisiveness to Ben Franklin, who is one of three delegates from Pennsylvania. Franklin suggests that Adams let someone more popular lead the cause and convinces Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian delegate from an old, influential family, to solicit the support of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Meanwhile, Congress, headed by its president, John Hancock, receives by courier from Gen. George Washington of the Continental Army, frequent, depressing missives, reporting shortages, ill-trained soldiers and the intention of British troops to split the colonies in half at New York. When Lee returns, he presents Virginia's resolution for independence, but John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, leading the opposition, makes a counter proposal to postpone the issue indefinitely. As Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, calls the roll, six colonies vote in favor of postponement and six against, with one abstention. When Stephen Hopkins, one of three delegates from Rhode Island, returns from a brief trip to the privy down the street, he casts the deciding vote to continue the debate. A discussion then commences, in which Dickinson defends England, but other delegates complain about repressions, high taxes and abolished rights and Franklin suggests that America has spawned a new race requiring a new nation. Highly charged emotions temporarily erupt into a brawl, but Hancock restores order. Edward "Ned" Rutledge of South Carolina claims that the South wishes to be ruled neither by England nor the North. Judge James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a toady to Dickinson, timidly suggests that more time is needed. Even Samuel Chase of Maryland, who supports independence, believes the decision must wait until Washington's military success is assured, to prevent them being hanged as traitors. Adams argues that an army needs inspiration, such as a flag and a purpose, and claims that Americans have "spirit." To this, Dickinson jeers and calls Adams a "madman," and the two come to blows, creating havoc. A gunshot fired into the air by a delegate quiets the room and cancer-ridden Caesar Rodney, one third of the Delaware delegation, decries that England is cutting off their air. Rodney then faints and, when revived, realizes he is too ill to remain. Apologizing for leaving Delaware split on this important issue, Rodney departs, aided by Scotsman Thomas McKean, another Delaware delegate. Taking advantage of their absence, Rutledge proposes to end the debate and take the vote. Realizing the cause is lost without Delaware, Franklin stalls for time and is rewarded by the arrival of New Jersey delegates, who support independence. Dickinson proposes that the decision to secede must be unanimous, so that no colony is forced to fight England against its will. On the issue of unanimity, the colonists are again split, but the tie is broken by Hancock who explains that, without agreement, Americans will fight each other in military battles. Knowing that a unanimous vote is impossible, Adams and Franklin ask for postponement until they prepare a written document and, to everyone's surprise, the usually taciturn Virginian, young Thomas Jefferson, eloquently argues that a document is needed to explain to the world the reason for their action. During the vote, the colonies are again undecided, but Hancock breaks the tie in favor of postponement. A committee is formed by Adams, Franklin, New Yorker Robert Livingston, Connecticut's Roger Sherman and, against his will, Jefferson, who has been away from home for six months. When deciding who will write the document, all make excuses, leaving Jefferson with the responsibility, although he protests that he "burns" to see his wife. Jefferson then spends the next week unsuccessfully trying to write. Realizing that Jefferson's "problem" must be solved before the bigger task is achieved, Adams sends for Jefferson's wife Martha and, when she arrives, the couple retreats from the world to sate their passions. While waiting, Adams conjures Abigail in his mind and imagines talking with her at their farm. The next morning, Franklin and Adams introduce themselves to Martha, who coyly praises the way her husband plays the violin. Meanwhile, Congress carries out mundane duties and McKean returns, predicting that Rodney will never leave home again. To no avail, Adams, Franklin and McKean try to win others to their side. When another dispatch from Washington reports disorder, confusion and an assembly of prostitutes at the New Brunswick army training ground, Adams convinces Chase and Franklin to accompany him to check out the situation. After Congress adjourns that day, custodian Andrew McNair and his assistant visit with the courier, who tells them about his horrific battle experiences. Near the end of June, Thomson reads Jefferson's draft, as Jefferson paces outside the room. Upon returning, Franklin and Adams report that the soldiers are excellent marksmen who work well together if motivated, and that Chase is persuading the Maryland assembly to approve independence. As they wait for the reading to finish, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams discuss whether a dove, a turkey or an eagle should symbolize the new nation. For several days, delegates make amendments to the document, with Jefferson's approval and to Adams' annoyance. When Sherman questions the need to criticize the English Parliament, Adams cries out that they are having a revolution and must offend somebody. On 30 June, Dickinson tries to remove a reference to King George being a tyrant, but this change Jefferson refuses to make. By 1 July, after everyone seems satisfied, Rutledge contests a passage referring to the abolition of slavery. Angrily, Rutledge accuses Northerners of hypocrisy, pointing out that New England ships carried slaves from Africa to the South and, with the other Southerners, abandons the meeting. Just then, Chase returns, announcing that Maryland approves independence. Although his pro-independence colleagues remain demoralized, Adams asks McKean to fetch Rodney from Delaware. After other delegates leave for the evening, Franklin, though against slavery, tells Adams that the offending passage must be forfeited. After an exchange of heated words, Adams climbs to the building's bell tower and imagines Abby's words of support. Unexpectedly, a shipment arrives containing several barrels of saltpeter made by Massachusetts women. With new confidence, Adams asks Jefferson to talk to Rutledge and sends Franklin to persuade Wilson. Then, Thomson shows him a message from a discouraged Washington, who asks, "Does anybody care?" Depressed, Adams remains in the assembly room late into the night, wondering whether he is alone in envisioning America's great future. At Adams' moment of despair, Dr. Lymon Hall of North Carolina reveals that he, too, is in the room. Able to see what Adams sees, Hall has decided to change his vote. On 2 July, after McKean returns with Rodney, Congress commences the vote, knowing that a single "nay" will defeat the issue. Eight colonies vote in favor of the resolution, but Rutledge demands that the slavery passage be removed. Adams wants to object, but Franklin says that nothing else will matter unless independence is secured. Without commenting, Jefferson strikes out the passage, and the Southerners vote favorably. Last is Pennsylvania. Because Franklin is in favor and Dickinson, against, Wilson now realizes that his vote will determine the course of history. After telling Dickinson that he does not want that responsibility, Wilson votes in alignment with the others, and thus the resolution is adopted. Hancock signs the document, but Dickinson, apologizing, abstains. Instead, Dickinson announces he will fight in the Continental Army, but hope for reconciliation with England. On 3 July, Washington is in New York, preparing for battle. On 4 July, Hancock orders McNair to ring the bell, as each delegate signs the Declaration of Independence.