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On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in (what we now call) Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The session began with Richard Henry Lee of the Virginia delegation reading his resolution in favor of independence from England. What transpired after the reading of Lee’s resolution became the single most significant event in American history. The unanimous vote for independence (New York abstained, but voted in favor one week later) is often something that we take for granted in our 21st century way of thinking. We tend to forget the difficult decisions that were agonized over and the compromises that were made in order to achieve such a bold act of courage by men who were just as human as we are. We tend to look back on these men—the “founding fathers” of our country—with romantic notions of valor and bravery. We tend to think that when they made their declaration of independence that they were ready with a battle plan, that the declaration was merely a formality of a foregone conclusion. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
The tense situation and heated debates that led up to the historic vote of July 2 are retold well in the second part of the recent HBO mini-series, John Adams. Entitled Independence, this second part documents the meetings of the Second Continental Congress after Lexington and Concord. Despite some rather annoying camera angles and tilted medium shots, the film is nearly perfect in its execution. Although some may find certain historical points to quibble over, this is a drama, not a documentary. Based on the careful writings of David McCullough, this film (so far I’ve only seen parts 1 and 2) should be well-received and watched by every American who has some inkling of concern over America’s past, present, and future.
Independence shines the brightest during its scenes of the Congressional meetings. The give and take of the congressmen, the eloquent argumentation, the top-notch acting, and the set and costume design all combine for a compelling presentation of history. Every detail of Independence Hall seems to have been accounted for, even down to the closed windows in early July. Although these scenes easily could have consumed the entire film and made for a very tedious rehashing of history, director Tom Hooper ably intersperses parallel story elements of the buildup of munitions and men in Massachusetts against the British, the calling of George Washington as the military leader, and the home economics and maintenance of Abigail Adams while John was away in Philadelphia. This last point is well-made as Abigail was a most cherished and needed counsel to her husband, not only in these earlier years as a congressman, but also in his days as the first Vice-President and second President of the United States. The juxtaposition of these different aspects of colonial American life and the progression toward war with England serve the film well and keep the story from getting too consumed with minutiae.
It would be a great shame if this film does not receive the attention that it deserves. While I can’t speak for the other parts of this series, I would suspect that the same care and accuracy is being applied to the last five parts as have to the first two. I think it’s rather unfortunate that the series bears the name of an individual, because it is far bigger than being only about John Adams. It is about the birth of our country and the individuals who were there to witness and be a part of the history that was unfolding before them. The names of the men gathered in the state room of Independence Hall are well-known to anyone who has ever walked past an American History book: John Adams, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, just to name a few. To witness this most providential era of world history re-created in such loving and rich detail is an experience that is far too rare. In our modern world of gansta rap and crime dramas, sitcoms and pre-marital sex, a film like Independence seems largely out of place… and it well should. The values of 1776 are mostly viewed as antiquated in our postmodern, know-better American society of 2008. The political divides are more sharply drawn between the red state/blue state mentality of current political rhetoric and our enemy is more likely to be across the street than across the ocean, but the fact remains. If we can’t see beyond our own personal wants and desires—as the delegates of the Second Continental Congress were able to—then we are surely going watch the country that they put their lives on the line for, go up in smoke.
After the vote is taken and John Hancock declares Lee’s resolution as unanimous, the whole room becomes silent. The men look around solemnly at each other, knowing, in part at least, that they have just made a major decision for the history books. They also know that this is only the beginning, the real work lies before them. And so it is with us. The Christians in this country have a decision before them: make a difference in this culture of death and despair, or leave it to the heathen. The decision is easy, but the work is hard. The Church in America needs to have a solemn moment of contemplation. There’s much work to be done…