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1776 depicts the persons and events that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is set almost entirely in the chamber of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, from May through July 1776, with a few visits to an anteroom and other nearby locales. It also enters the mind of Adams, for imagined colloquies with his much-missed wife, Abigail. Its substance consists of the volatile debate and numerous obstacles to the beleaguered colonies declaring their independence from Great Britain.

1776 generates a surprising amount of suspense by depicting the "founding fathers" as real people with failings as well as virtues, and by showing the vastness of the obstacles they face.

A fiery confrontation occurs when the Southern states, led by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, threaten to walk out on the vote unless an anti-slavery clause is dropped from the declaration. Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are faced with the moral dilemma of either allowing the abhorrent practice to continue or seeing the nation die at birth. Rutledge sings his bitter aria, Molasses to Rum, indicting the hypocrisy of New England merchants and shipbuilders who have benefited commercially from the slave trade.

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