The Politics of “1776” Chizfilm Movie Reviews
July 10, 2008

The Patriotism of “1776” and Contemporary Liberal Politics

by Jonathan Chisdes

In retrospect, it should have seemed inevitable. In these times when patriotism is noisily lauded and questioned, as evidenced by the recent debate on whether or not Obama is patriotic enough to be President if he doesn’t wear a flag lapel, I should have expected that my last film review touting my favorite movie, “1776,” would have touched a nerve in at least a few people.

And so it has. I recently received an e-mail from a friend who knows me and my politics expressing surprise—and even a bit of righteous indignation—at my choice of favorite film of all time. “On several occasions,” he said, “you’ve spoken and written about your dislike of patriotism.” This is true. I have made it known, through various writings, that I don’t consider myself patriotic. Well, if patriotism is defined, as it is by many contemporary Republicans, pledging blind allegiance to your government, whether you agree with their actions or not, than I am no patriot. Because I refuse to cheer when my country’s military forces its way into another country and kills lots of people—innocent or not—I’ve been accused of being “unpatriotic.” Well, for that, I’m quite happy to plead guilty.

Now, I don’t hate America. In fact, there are many wonderful things about my country that I do love: certain parts of our culture, our literary heritage, the freedom to travel within its borders, many of the rights that we do have that have not yet been taken away, the goodness and generosity of most of its citizens. Give me a good reason to love America and I will, but don’t ask me to love her blindly. But I refuse to love my country for no reason, or for doing bad things in the world, or for suppressing the rights of its own people.

And so because of that, my friend cannot understand why I so much love “1776,” a film he considers a patriotic glorification of our national origin.

The problem is that he—and many others apparently—have greatly misunderstood “1776” because they’ve only given it a casual, cursory viewing. Maybe they only saw it once, long ago, when they were children and not old enough to understand the more complex political and revolutionary ideas in it. Recalling only a few scenes out of context, they have a misperception of the film as merely happy Founding Fathers dancing around in 18th Century costumes and bragging how much they love America.

Perhaps because I’ve seen this film two to three dozen times, I forget that the rest of the world doesn’t have as an astute understanding of it as I do. Therefore I think I need to point out a few things about this movie which harkens back to a time—1776—when patriotism was defined as supporting forceful overthrow of your government.

Yes, that’s right. Behind all the music and jokes (like “Rhode Island passes”), “1776” is a movie that discusses and lays out the political justification for violently ousting your government. It accurately reflects how our country began and reminds its viewers that if your government violates your rights, you have the God-given right, and even responsibility, to violently rebel against it.

Although this is a key American belief deeply rooted in our political consciousness, I suspect that our current administration might find such a theme subversive. If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if neo-cons argued that “1776” is “unpatriotic.” And I suspect that conservatives don’t like being reminded that their ideological ancestors opposed the creation of our country.

So although there is, admittedly, a patriotic element to “1776” which celebrates the founding of the US, it is not at all that empty, mindless, jingoistic patriotism. On the contrary, I know of no other film that so deeply and fairly explores the real substance of a historical issue, debates it as if it were fresh and contemporary, giving fair—more than fair—hearing to the sides which history ultimately proved wrong.

Another very important point is that the movie does NOT view our Founding Fathers through rose-colored glasses, perfect and romanticized. Rather, they are painted as very flawed and imperfect men who had to make some very painful—and arguably morally questionable—compromises. Particularly with the issue of slavery. In fact, more than a quarter of the film is devoted to a very substantive debate of slavery which, in the end, our Founding Fathers agreed to let stand, despite acknowledging its evils.

The dramatic “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” scene, which I wrote about in some detail in my previous article, describes the vulgar economic realities of the slave trade and makes one embarrassed to realize how tainted and hypocritical the democratic ideals were. It’s a fair and honest account of the harsh political-economic realities of the 18th Century, and makes no attempt to whitewash what really happened.

Also, the sensitive and poignant “Mama Look Sharp” scene, which details some of the horrors of war such as kids killed and their mothers looking for their dead bodies, can be seen as anti-war, and even “unpatriotic” as defined by today’s politicians and pundits.

Remember what was going on in the late 1960s and early 70s when the movie and the play it was based on came out. Criticism of war and criticism of power reflected the growing attitude many Americans had at the time as Vietnam escalated and the government ignored the desires of the people it supposedly represented. Some people back then even compared President Nixon to King George III.

In one scene, John Dickinson explains the power-hold he has on the conservative agenda by bragging, “Most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor; that is why they will follow us … to the Right.” This so offended President Nixon, when he got to see a preview copy of the film, that he requested producer Jack L. Warner to cut the offending passage. (Fortunately, that scene has been restored in the special Director’s Cut version, 30 years later.)

And speaking of Presidential censorship, it’s been noted that from a contemporary perspective, many of the charges of which the Declaration of Independence accuses the King can be applied to President Bush’s administration today. And so when Franklin chastises Dickinson by saying, “Those who would give up their liberty in order to maintain temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” our 21st Century “Patriot Act” comes to mind, forcing us to wonder just how much liberty we have now, two centuries after our Founding Fathers risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

So yes, it is true that “1776” is a film for those who love America and for those who are anxious to learn, in an exciting, stirring, dramatic and very entertaining way, the history of how our country began. But even more, “1776” is a film for those who love the revolutionary ideals and principles upon which our country was founded and is a reminder, in the great American tradition, of how you must speak out and eventually rebel against your own government when said government becomes tyrannical.

So does patriotism mean loving your country blindly, regardless of how good or bad its government is, or does it mean rebelling against your government when it becomes oppressive? And how far, at what stage, and in what form should that rebellion take place? And how close does the current administration come to emulating the despotism of King George III?

“1776” won’t directly answer these questions, but at least it can give a basis for answering them by reminding us how our Founding Fathers responded to such issues and the values upon which they built the country that so many of us claim to love.

After all, it does recount the beginning of all American politics.

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