It is the Fourth of July, and so all good Americans should sit down and watch 1776. There are two reasons for this. First, it is about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Second, it is a musical, and there really is no more American art form than the Broadway musical. Today is also a good day to watch The Music Man — but it is optional. The main thing about 1776 is that it is both accurate and completely deceptive. Well, I will grant that Benjamin Franklin was a charming fellow. But John Adams wanted to break with England so that he could set up an aristocracy here. Most all of them did.
But there is one story about 1776 that really explains America. The producer of the film, Jack Warner, was a friend of Richard Nixon’s. So after it was finished, Warner screened it for the president. And Nixon loved it. There was just one problem with it: “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” It presents the men who were not so keen on independence as, well, conservative. The refrain is even, “To the right, ever to the right; never to the left, forever to the right.” So Warner had the number cut from the film, against the wishes of the director. He also told the studio to destroy the negative. But Warner was no longer president of Warner Bros, so his instructions were thankfully ignored.
What was cut was not just one of the more interesting songs in the film, it was a great number. It included an exchange between John Dickinson and John Hancock. Dickinson warns Hancock that history will brand people like him traitors. Hancock replies, “Traitors, Mr. Dickinson? To what? The British crown, or the British half-crown? Fortunately there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy.” To which Dickinson responds with something that is as true today as ever, “Perhaps not. But don’t forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich, than face the reality of being poor. And that is why they will follow us…” And the chorus starts singing, “To the right, forever to the right…” It’s wonderful.
Another aspect of it is as the song is ending, all the cool, considerate men make their ways out of the chamber to their carriages — going off to enjoy their rich propertied lives. There is something wonderfully arrogant about it. And McNair, the custodian of the Continental Congress, who was watching them go, reflects, “How’d you like to try and borrow a dollar from one of them?” Indeed.
I knew the musical originally from the film, but later, I listened to the original Broadway cast album, so I knew the song very well. But I never put it together and noticed that the number had been removed — much less the reason for it. And this was true of people who saw the film in the theaters and on VHS for decades. It was only in 2002, when the Restored Director’s Cut was released, that we got to see the scene — and much else — restored to the film. Now the original release seems hollow.
But think about the irony of the whole thing. The President of the United States, acting just like King George III would have, said, “Butcher this work of art, because it offends me.” And it was done. And it was done in the name of patriotism. That’s the way with things. Dickinson was right: those men would be remembered as traitors — by some people. The problem is not that today’s conservatives would have been against American independence. The problem is that conservatives delude themselves in thinking that they would have been backers of the revolution when they most clearly would not have been. It is the liberals who are always there pushing in new directions. Not the conservatives.
And that’s fine. We need conservatives to hold liberals back and keep us from moving ahead too quickly. But they should stop thinking that they ever would have been for long settled liberal policies of the past. It’s like Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, which shows no trace of the author ever having read Paine. They need to stop embarrassing themselves. William F Buckley Jr was right, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” That’s what it means to be a conservative. They were the John Dickinsons and Edward Rutledges. When it comes to Independence Day, they are a bad guys. Conservatives need to embrace that.