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Based on an idea by Sherman Edwards
The action takes place in Philadelphia in May, June and July of 1776. American troops have already been fighting the British for a year, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia has not yet found the fortitude to declare independence. John Adams of Massachusetts is fed up, but then most of his fellow delegates are fed up with him ("Sit Down, John"). Exasperated, he takes his case to the Almighty ("Piddle, Twiddle And Resolve"). On the human side, Adams has been long separated from his wife, Abigail. Their letters and his imagination bring them briefly together ("Till Then"), he demanding that the women of Massachusetts send saltpeter for gunpowder, while she demands that Adams convince Congress to send sewing pins to the ladies.
Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin sees that Congress's dislike for Adams is holding back the cause of independence. Franklin persuades Adams that Richard Henry Lee of Virginia should be the one to propose independence. Lee rides off to secure the support of his legislature, but not before indulging in some bragging about his venerable family ("The Lees Of Old Virginia").
In the congressional chamber, May has turned to June. Couriers bring dispatches full of bad news from General Washington. Lee returns and proposes separation from Great Britain. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania opposes. Debate is joined, and it becomes extremely contentious, leading even to a (brief) physical fight between Adams and Dickinson.
With the colonies evenly divided on the issue — six to six, with New York abstaining, as it does on all votes — Dickinson proposes that any resolution on independence must be unanimous. This resolution passes after John Hancock, president of the Congress, is called upon to break the tie. Even though he is a supporter of independence, he votes in favor of unanimity on the principle that any colony that votes against independence will be forced to side with Britain and fight with them, thus setting Americans against Americans in combat.
As a delaying tactic, Adams proposes that a vote be postponed until a declaration of independence is written. Dickinson mocks the proposal as a desperation tactic, but it passes. A committee is formed to write the declaration, but no one wants to do the writing. After some bickering ("But, Mr. Adams") among Thomas Jefferson, Franklin, Robert Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, a reluctant Jefferson, who had been about to take a leave from Congress to visit his wife at home in Virginia, is enlisted.
Jefferson, however, has writer's block, owing to his long separation from his wife, Martha. Adams can empathize as this reminds him of his own loneliness. After a meeting with Jefferson to gauge his progress, which is nonexistent, Adams again conjures up Abigail. They express their mutual desire to be reunited ("Yours, Yours, Yours").
Adams, meanwhile, has sent for Martha, believing that once Jefferson's problem is solved, he will be able to write the declaration. Martha arrives, and the Jeffersons immediately take to his bedroom. Eventually, she emerges from the connubial apartment, and she explains to Franklin and Adams how he won her heart ("He Plays The Violin").
Congress is stalemated. A delegation is sent to inspect the army at New Brunswick, expecting the worst after a dispatch from Washington to Congress describes a disastrous scene there, including prostitutes and an outbreak of the French disease. Adams enlists Samuel Chase of Maryland, a skeptic on independence, to join him and Franklin on their trip to New Brunswick. Adams believes that, despite Washington's report, Chase will be convinced that it is the very unruliness of the troops that will win the fight against England.
Now we get a closer look at Dickinson and his fellow Conservatives, freed briefly from the torments of Adams and Franklin: These delegates don't want independence from Britain, or indeed change of any kind ("Cool, Cool, Considerate Men:). After they depart, Washington's courier tells Congressional custodian Andrew McNair and a "leather apron" in the employ of Congress about his own experience on the battlefied seeing two of his friends shot down and how their mothers then searched to find the bodies of their dead sons ("Momma Look Sharp").
Adams and Franklin return from New Brunswick just as Jefferson's completed Declaration of Independence is being read, while Chase is on his way to Maryland to convince the legislature there that the army can win against England, having been convinced himself. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson sit in the Congressional antechamber, waiting for the reading of the Declaration by Congressional secretary Charles Thomson to conclude. They debate among themselves which bird should be the symbol of the new country, with Jefferson favoring the dove, Adams the eagle, and Franklin the turkey ("The Egg").
Just when it seems all objections to the Declaration have been resolved, and it can finally be voted on, South Carolina's Edward Rutledge stands. The Declaration calls for the freeing of all slaves. The South will not have it. And lest the proto-abolitionists from the North point fingers, Rutledge reminds them ("Molasses To Rum") that the "triangle" trade enriches Boston as much as Charleston. He and the Southern delegates walk out.
Adams fights against removing the abolition clauses from the document, but finally relents. In despair, he again conjures up Abigail, who reassures him that he deserves the great respect with which she regards him. Suddenly, the saltpeter from the ladies of Massachusetts arrives, and Adams sends McNair out to buy sewing pins to send to the ladies in return.
Left alone, Adams wonders if he anyone shares his vision of an independent America could be ("Is Anybody There?").
July arrives; and the delayed vote must be taken. With the clause that would free the slaves deleted from the Declaration, Rutledge votes in favor, bringing North Carolina, which always defers to South Carolina, with him. With only Pannsylvania still voting no, since the third delegate, James Wilson, has hitherto sided with Dickinson, Adams and Franklin deftly persuadesWilson that if he provides the deciding vote against independence, he will go down in history as the man who prevented American independence. Disappointing Dickinson, Wilson changes his vote, and Pennsylvania votes in favor. The delegates are called up on to sign the Declaration (Finale), each stepping forward in turn as the Liberty Bell peals and the orchestra chimes in with dissonant chords that grow louder and louder until they reach an almost deafening climax.
(Adapted from the synopsis on the Masterworks Broadway site.)
When the original production opened on Broadway, there was no intermission. For the national tour and the London production, an intermission was added, placed after "Momma Look Sharp." The creative team found that they liked the show with an intermission. An intermission in the same place was soon added to the Broadway production.See more
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