Scenes from a movie that I only saw a few minutes of:
Various founding father-types are sprawled around a big room. Ben Franklin is leaning against a window frame, staring outside. It’s a meeting of the Continental Congress.
James Adams is arguing that the Constitution should ban slavery. Someone points out that Adams owns slaves himself. “But I’m going to free them,” he explains.
Another founding father stands up and counters in a twisted voice, “Slavery is a matter of commerce, not liberty.”
Adams has plenty to say about this. His opponent, whose name we learn is Rutledge, ups the ante by breaking into song. It turns out that this movie is a musical.
Rutledge sings about the slave trade and its importance to the economy of the South. He dances around the room, the other founding fathers listen. When Rutledge is finished, Adams makes it clear that he’s not impressed. The slavery provision stays, he says.
Rutledge storms out of the room. Half of the rest of the founding fathers stand up and file out after only a moment’s hesitation.
Adams is devastated. He leaves the room and goes upstairs to the bell tower. He sits next to the Liberty Bell, and begins a despondent monologue about the evils of slavery. The monologue segues smoothly into a song. His wife materializes across from him and lifts his morale enough that he is willing to go back downstairs.
He returns to the meeting room. The remaining founding fathers are milling around and blinking their eyes. Ben Franklin suggests that they will need to compromise on the matter of slavery. Adams will hear nothing of this.
The other founding fathers start getting riled up. “The vote is tomorrow. We need the South,” one of them says. He has a nasal voice like a movie gangster – one could imagine him saying, “You’re gonna pay, see?” He turns to an older man who’s wearing a tartan vest, “You’ll need to ride down to Delaware and convince them to come back.”
The older man is shaken to alertness. He delivers his line, “Delaware is more than sixty miles away.” He switches to a Scottish accent halfway through his first sentence, “But you’re right. I’ll go.” And he does.
Most of the others follow the Scotsman in short order. Only Adams and one other man are left. The two of them have a brief conversation, from which we learn only that the second man is John Hancock.
As soon as Hancock has left, Adams breaks into song. Adams, it seems, sings only when he’s alone. At the end of the first chorus we see an out of focus vision of Adams’ wife sitting beside a lake. She waves at the camera and, we are meant to understand, at Adams. It’s not clear if Adams misses her because she’s in heaven or because she’s in Virginia. Adams finishes his number, singing, “Does anyone hear me?”
After a moment of silence a voice answers, “I hear you.”
Adams spins toward the doorway, embarrassed that someone has heard him singing. Another founding father is standing there. He walks over to a row of shelves that we hadn’t noticed before. There are two groups of tiles hanging from the shelves. Each tile has a two-letter abbreviation representing one of the states of the union. With apparent significance, the second man moves the tile, labeled “GA”, from the right side of the shelf to the left side. He explains to Adams that he’d just read something and it had occurred to him that he needed to come back. He recites a quote and tells Adams, “That was by Thomas More – a member of the British parliament.” He exits.