On the evening of May 8, 1776, in Philadelphia, as the Second Continental Congress proceeds with its business. John Adams, the widely disliked delegate from Massachusetts, is frustrated, because none of his proposals on independence have been debated on by congress. The other delegates, implore him to ('Sit Down, John')
Adams' response is that Congress has done nothing for the last year. He goes outside and in song ('Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve'), he reads the latest missive from his loving wife Abigail, who, their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, appears in his imagination. He asks if she and the other women are making saltpeter for the war effort but she ignores that and states the women have a more urgent problem: no straight pins. They pledge their love to each other in song ('Till Then').
The next day, Adams finds delegate Benjamin Franklin outside. Adams bemoans the failure of his arguments for independence. Franklin suggests that, a resolution for independence would have more success if proposed by someone else. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia enters on horseback, having been summoned by Franklin. The cocky Lee crows that he is the best man to propose the resolution. Adams has reservations, but Lee is convinced he cannot fail, as a member of the oldest and most glorious family in America ('The Lees of Old Virginia') He is prepared to ask the Virginia House of Burgesses to authorize him to offer a pro-independence resolution.
On June 7, 1776, Franklin and Adams enter, and the delegates, along with the President of Congress, John Hancock, and the Secretary, Charles Thomson, take their places. Hancock gavels the 380th meeting of the Congress to order.
The entire New Jersey delegation is absent. Thomas Jefferson, a young delegate from Virginia, announces that he is leaving for Virginia that night to visit his wife. Soon after Hancock opens the floor to new resolutions, Richard Henry Lee canters into the chamber, having finally returned from Virginia. Lee reads his resolution, but John Dickinson of Pennsylvania moves to indefinitely postpone the question of independence. A vote is taken. Six colonies vote in favor of debate. Five vote to postpone indefinitely and thus kill the proposal.
The New Jersey delegate arrives, and the vote now stands at six for independence and six against (with New York abstaining "courteously"), and Adams reminds Hancock (who supports independence) of his privilege as president to break all ties. Dickinson then moves that any vote for independence must pass unanimously on the grounds that "no colony may be torn from its mother country without its own consent." The vote produces the same tie, which Hancock breaks by unexpectedly voting for unanimity (prompting an angry outburst from Adams). He reasons that without unanimity, any colony voting against independence would be forced to fight on England's side, setting brother against brother.
Adams, thinking fast, calls for a postponement of the vote on independence, expressing the need for a declaration defining the reasons for independence. Franklin seconds Adams, but when asked why such a declaration should be written, both are lost for words until Thomas Jefferson provides them himself: "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent." The vote on postponement is called, producing yet another tie, with New York abstaining "courteously" yet again. Hancock breaks the tie by voting in favor of postponement. He appoints a committee of Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Jefferson to draft the declaration. Hancock adjourns the session over Jefferson's complaints that he must go home to his wife.
The Committee of Five argues about who should write the declaration ('But, Mr. Adams'). Adams declines Franklin's suggestion that he do so. Adams asks each of the others, in turn, to be the drafter, but each demurs: Franklin argues that he is not a political writer, only a satirist; Sherman claims that he is not a writer at all, but "a simple cobbler from Connecticut"; and Livingston must return to New York to celebrate the birth of his son.
All eyes then turn to Jefferson. Jefferson tries to wriggle out of the responsibility, pleading that he has not seen his wife in six months. Adams, unmoved by Jefferson's arguments (as he, too, misses his own wife), quotes a passage of Jefferson's Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, bluntly telling Jefferson that he is the best writer in Congress. Jefferson accepts the duty of drafting the document.
A week later, Adams and Franklin visit Jefferson to see how the work is coming along. Jefferson has spent the week moping, prompting a sharp rebuke by Adams, which is flatly rebuffed by Jefferson. Finally, Jefferson is brightened when his beloved wife Martha enters (Adams has sent for her). The two older gentlemen leave the young lovers in peace. Adams, alone, again exchanges letters with his wife Abigail. They pledge each other to be eternally ('Yours, Yours, Yours'). Martha finally appears when Franklin and Adams return the next morning, and the two gentlemen ask her how a man as silent as Jefferson won a woman as lovely as she. She tells them that she loves him ('He Plays the Violin').
On June 22, 1776, Congress has reconvened. By now, Adams is worrying and begins trying to win over some of the states, sending Thomas McKean to try to convince his Delaware colleague George Read and Franklin to convince James Wilson of Pennsylvania, while himself trying to convince Samuel Chase of Maryland.
The remaining delegates in favor of independence also leave the chamber. Alone with his fellow conservatives for the first time, Dickinson leads them in a minuet, singing of their desire to hold onto their wealth and remain ('Cool, Cool Considerate Men'). During their dance/song, another dispatch comes from George Washington warning them of British advances on Philadelphia; however these warnings fall on deaf ears.
After the dance number, the remaining delegates depart, leaving Andrew McNair (the custodian), the courier, and a workman in the chamber. The workman asks the courier if he has seen any fighting and the courier replies that his two closest friends were killed on the same day at Lexington. He describes the final thoughts of a dying young man as his mother searches for his body ('Momma, Look Sharp').
Jefferson is outside the chamber as Mr. Thomson, the secretary, reads the declaration to Congress. Adams and Franklin meet him delightedly: an exhibition of shooting by the Continental Army has convinced Samuel Chase, and Maryland will vote in favor of independence. They congratulate Jefferson on the excellence of the document, and Franklin compares the creation of this new country to an egg ('The Egg'). This leads the trio to debate which bird is breaking out of its metaphorical shell and would best represent America. Franklin tries to coax them into choosing the turkey, but the three settle on the eagle, as insisted upon by Adams.
On June 28, 1776, Hancock asks if there are any alterations to be offered to the Declaration of Independence, leading many delegates to voice suggestions. Jefferson acquiesces to each recommendation, much to Adams's consternation, until Dickinson demands the removal of a phrase calling the King a tyrant. Jefferson refuses, stating that "the King is a tyrant whether we say so or not. We might as well say so." When Thomson comments that he has already scratched the word out, Jefferson orders him to "scratch it back in." When one delegate wants references to Parliament removed for fear of offending possible friends in that body, an exasperated Adams exclaims "This is a revolution, damn it! We're going to have to offend somebody!"
Edward Rutledge of South Carolina objects to a clause in the Declaration condemning the slave trade, accusing the northern colonies of hypocrisy and telling them that the prosperity of the North depends on the Triangle Trade ('Molasses to Rum') to slaves as well. When this clause is not removed, the delegates of the Carolinas and Georgia walk out of Congress. The resolve of the other delegates is broken, and most of them also leave. Franklin tells Adams that the slavery clause must go; when Adams quarrels with him, Franklin angrily reminds Adams that "the issue here is independence!" and berates Adams for jeopardizing the cause. Adams' faith in himself is shaken, and only encouragement from Abigail (and the delivery of kegs of saltpeter from her and other Massachusetts ladies) bolsters his commitment ('Compliments').
Re-reading the dispatch from Washington, Adams, now alone in the chamber, echoes his words in song ('Is Anybody There?') Discouraged but determined, Adams declares his vision of his new country: "Through all the gloom, through all the doom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory!" Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia, unexpectedly returns to the chamber. He tells Adams "In trying to resolve my dilemma I remembered something I'd once read, 'that a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.' It was written by Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament." Hall then walks over to the tally board and changes Georgia's vote from "nay" to "yea".
It is now July 2, 1776. The delegates slowly return to the chamber, including Caesar Rodney of Delaware, who had earlier left Congress due to poor health. Hancock calls for the vote on the Lee Resolution. Thomson calls on each delegation for its vote. Pennsylvania passes on the first call, but the rest of the northern and middle colonies (save New York, which, with some self-disgust, again abstains "courteously") vote "yea". When the vote reaches South Carolina, Rutledge again demands the removal of the slavery clause as the condition of the "yea" votes from the Carolinas. Franklin pleads with Adams to remove the clause ("First things first, John ... Independence. America. If we don't secure that, what difference will the rest make?") and Adams turns to Jefferson. Jefferson reluctantly crosses the chamber and scratches out the clause himself. Rutledge and the Carolinas vote "yea", as does Georgia.
Pennsylvania's vote, which is the last vote needed to obtain the required unanimous approval, is called again, Dickinson declares that "Pennsylvania votes...", only to be stopped by Franklin who asks Hancock to poll the members of the delegation individually. Franklin votes "yea" and Dickinson "nay", leaving the swing vote to Wilson, who normally adheres to Dickinson. Seeing his hesitancy, Dickinson tries to entice him: "Come now, James ... the issue is clear." Franklin remarks that "most issues are clear when someone else has to decide them", and Adams mercilessly adds that "it would be a pity for a man (Wilson) who has handed down hundreds of wise decisions from the bench to be remembered for the one unwise decision he made in Congress." Wilson doesn't want to be remembered as "the man who prevented American independence" and votes "yea". The motion is passed.
The next day on July 3, Hancock suggests that no man be allowed to sit in Congress without affixing his signature to the Declaration. Dickinson announces that he cannot in good conscience sign such a document and still hopes for reconciliation with England. However, he resolves to join the army to fight for and defend the new nation. Adams leads the Congress in a salute to Dickinson as he leaves the chamber.
The next day, Hancock leads the delegates in signing the Declaration, but is interrupted by the courier with another dispatch from Washington, "Commander of the Army of the United Colonies ... of the United States of America." He reports that preparations for the Battle of New York are under way, but expresses concern about America's badly outnumbered and under-trained troops. Washington's note to Lewis Morris that his estates have been destroyed but that his family has been taken to safety emboldens Morris to state that he will sign the Declaration, despite the lack of instructions from the New York legislature, saying, "To Hell with New York. I'll sign it anyway." New York's vote is moved into the "yea" column.
On the evening of July 4, 1776, McNair rings the Liberty Bell in the background as Thomson calls each of the delegates to sign their names on the Declaration of Independence. The delegates freeze in position as the Liberty Bell rings to a fevered pitch.