The action takes place in Philadelphia in May, June and July of 1776, in the Chamber and Anteroom of the Continental Congress, a Mall, High Street, and Thomas Jefferson's room, and in certain reaches of John Adams's mind.
The show starts with a fife-and-drum Overture. American troops have already been fighting the British for a year, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia has not yet found the fortitude to declare independence. The acerbic John Adams (William Daniels) is fed up, but then, most of his fellow delegates are fed up with him - Sit Down, John. Exasperated, he takes his case to the Almighty - Piddle, Twiddle And Resolve. On the human side, Adams has been long separated from his wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff). Their letters and his imagination bring them briefly together (Till Then), he demanding that the women of Massachusetts send saltpeter for gunpowder; she, that Congress send pins for sewing.
Adams may be the driving force behind Congress, but the political savvy comes from Benjamin Franklin (Everhart), who sees that the dislike for Adams is holding them all back. Franklin persuades Adams that Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) of Virginia, the wealthiest colony and leader of the South, should be the one to propose independence. Lee rides off to secure the support of his legislature, but not before indulging in some bragging about his venerable family - The Lees Of Old Virginia.
In the congressional chamber, May has turned to June. Couriers bring dispatches full of bad news from General Washington, who seems to be in perpetual retreat. Lee returns and proposes separation from Great Britain. Dickinson (Hecht) of Pennsylvania opposes. Debate is joined. A committee is formed to write a declaration of independence, but no one wants to do the writing. The job finally goes to a reluctant Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), but only after some amusing bickering (But, Mr. Adams) among Jefferson, Franklin, Robert Livingston (Henry Le Clair) of New York and Roger Sherman (David Vosburgh) of Connecticut.
Jefferson, however, has writer's block, owing to his long separation from his wife. Adams can sympathize - in fact, he secretly sends for Martha Jefferson - but this reminds him of his own loneliness, and he again conjures up Abigail - Yours, Yours, Yours.
Martha (Betty Buckley) arrives, and the Jeffersons immediately retire. Eventually, she emerges from the connubial apartment, and, as Jefferson writes his Declaration, she explains to Franklin and Adams how he won her heart - He Plays The Violin.
The Congress is stalemated. A delegation is sent to inspect the army at New Brunswick, expecting the worst.
Now we get a closer look at Dickinson and his fellow Conservatives, freed briefly from the torments of Adams and Franklin: These delegates don't want independence from Britain, or indeed change of any kind - Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.
At night, in the nearly empty chamber, with only servants to listen, one of Washington's couriers (Scott Jarvis) tells of seeing two of his friends shot down on the battlefield - Momma Look Sharp.
Congress debates Jefferson's Declaration. Changes are argued and made - by the hundreds. Jefferson, Adams and Franklin have compromised to the point of collapse and must remind themselves what it is they are proposing to hatch - The Egg.
Just when it seems all objections have been met, and Jefferson's Declaration can finally be voted on - and it must pass unanimously, or fail - South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (David) stands. The Declaration calls for the freeing of all slaves. The South will not have it. And lest the proto-abolitionists from the North point fingers, Rutledge reminds them (Molasses To Rum) that the "triangle" trade enriches Boston as much as Charleston. He and the southern delegates walk out.
Adams agrees to remove the abolition clauses from the document and in agonizing frustration cries out, Is Anybody There? July arrives; the final roll call approaches. The final sequence begins with the vote - Rutledge brings in the South, and the nondescript James Wilson of Pennsylvania finally sides with Franklin against Dickinson, making it unanimous - and ends with the signing of the Declaration (Finale), each delegate stepping forward in turn as the Liberty Bell peals and the orchestra chimes in, louder and louder.
Members of the Continental Congress
John Hancock, President: David Ford
Dr. Josiah Bartlett (New Hampshire): Paul-David Richards
John Adams (Massachusetts): William Daniels
Stephen Hopkins (Rhode Island): Roy Poole
Roger Sherman (Connecticut): David Vosburgh
Lewis Morris (New York): Ronald Kross
Robert Livingston (New York): Henry Le Clair
Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon (New Jersey): Edmund Lyndeck
Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania): Rex Everhart*
John Dickinson (Pennsylvania): Paul Hecht
James Wilson (Pennsylvania): Emory Bass
Caesar Rodney (Delaware): Robert Gaus
Col. Thomas McKean (Delaware): Bruce Mackay
George Read (Delaware): Duane Bodin
Samuel Chase (Maryland): Philip Polito
Richard Henry Lee (Virginia): Ronald Holgate
Thomas Jefferson (Virginia): Ken Howard
Joseph Hewes (North Carolina): Charles Rule
Edward Rutledge (South Carolina): Clifford David
Dr. Lyman Hall (Georgia): Jonathan Moore
Charles Thomson, Congressional Secretary: Ralston Hill
Andrew McNair, Congressional Custodian: William Duell
A Leather Apron: B.J. Slater
Courier: Scott Jarvis
Abigail Adams: Virginia Vestoff
Martha Jefferson: Betty Buckley
*Replacing Howard Da Silva during his illness