1776 meets 1972 meets 2023

As a tail-end baby boomer, a reliable source of entertainment here in 2023 is listening to 30-something (or even 20-something) experts explain to me what life was like in the 60's. Among other things, this comes up in the context of Critical Race Theory (CRT). I don't intend to opine on CRT as such in this post, partly because so far any explanation I hear suffers from such obvious fallacies that I think I must be hearing wrong. (Feel free to try explaining it in the comments, anyone who can refrain from ad-hominem attacks.) 

However, part of the background to the CRT discussion is the assertion that hitherto history education in the U.S. has glossed over slavery and racism. This is just wrong. As someone who grew up in the south in the 60's, who went to lily-white schools with some of the most smugly racist people you could want to meet, I can assure you that we did learn about slavery, we did learn about Jim Crow. And the message was clear that racism was bad, Jim Crow was bad.

That was in history class. We were also required to read and discuss Huckleberry Finn in English class. In this respect I think our education on racism might have run considerably deeper in the 1960's than now in the 2020's---I'm not sure that students today still have this requirement. This may have less to do with glossing over racism than protecting tender young minds from the burden of reading an actual book.

Now this is all according to my recollection. Recently, however, I realized we have proof in plain sight that in the 60's people were quite aware of the role of racism in U.S. history and took it seriously. 

That is the movie 1776, released in 1972. Actually it was based on a stage musical that opened in 1969, which is why we can consider it as a data point from the 60's. The movie is rather like an earlier version of Hamilton, although 1776 aims for historical accuracy rather than race-swapping and employing hip-hop idiom. Most of the story takes place within the meeting room of the Continental Congress (which you can visit, looking more or less exactly as in the film, if you visit Philadelphia). It describes the surprisingly difficult process of coming to a consensus among the American colonies on declaring independence from England.

I like the movie. It's both fun and educational. 

When I was in college, I found in the library a copy of the libretto for this show--a small book which listed all the dialogue. At the end was an appendix--an excellent idea--which noted the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the story: this really happened, this we made up, this we surmised etc. One particular point I still recall; I'll come back to this later.

So, interesting fact which you can learn from this movie: the original draft of the Declaration of Independence included a paragraph on the evils of slavery. You don't see it now because the southern states, enthusiastic slave-holders that they were, insisted it be removed as the price of their support for independence. This is a huge plot point, the major crisis of the story. There's even a dark dramatic musical number, pointing up the hypocrisy of northerners who were also profiting from the slave trade.

This was in 1969.

Now what I learned from the appendix to the libretto: The main characters of the film are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson; and John Adams is the first among these. The writers took the license of merging the character of John Adams with his brother Samuel Adams.

During the forementioned crisis our three protagonists are arguing over whether to strike the slavery paragraph from the Declaration of Independence. John Adams says: "If we give in on this issue posterity will never forgive us." This is an actual quote, from a letter of Sam Adams--almost an exact quote.

Actually what Sam Adams really said was: "If we give in on this issue, there will be trouble a hundred years hence; posterity will never forgive us." (italics mine) And the authors explain that they had to take out this prescient phrase, which was just waaay too on the nose.

Anyway, don't trust anyone who tells you that the role of slavery and racism in U.S. history was somehow covered up until just recently. It wasn't. 

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