In real life, Wilson was a highly respected Pennsylvania judge who in 1774 published an important pamphlet on the limits of Parliament’s authority over the colonies. In the Congress he advocated independence early on, withholding his vote only until he felt sure the people of Pennsylvania were behind it.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Wilson was one of the leading theorists of government and a member of the committee of detail, which produced the first draft. After the federal government was in place, President George Washington nominated him to be one of the first Associate Justices of the Supreme Court.
None of those contributions to the country are in 1776. The movie Wilson is simply a pawn in the dramatic conflict between the hard-driving John Adams and the more reluctant revolutionary John Dickinson. I knew that the real Wilson wasn’t part of a singing chorus, of course, and that the conversations in the Congress didn’t proceed precisely as shown. But I didn’t expect the creators of 1776 would distort a historical figure so much.
How did Wilson become vulnerable to such distortion? He had stopped being a household name, even in Pennsylvania. That allowed the playwright Peter Stone to sacrifice Wilson’s real career for the cause of drama.
Charles Lee. Versions of Lee are supporting characters in both the first two seasons of the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies and the Broadway musical Hamilton. But both stories bend the facts of Lee’s life.
Turn depicts Lee’s capture at the end of 1776, portraying him (played by Brian T. Finney) as caught during a sex game. That’s not so far off as there have been rumors that Lee was visiting a mistress at the New Jersey tavern where British dragoons found him.
In the second season Lee becomes a British secret agent, trying to throw the Battle of Monmouth. Again, there’s a historical inspiration for that plot twist—the captive general did offer Gen. Sir William Howe ideas on how to defeat the colonists—but Lee never tried to undermine the Americans as Turn shows. Instead, as the book discussed yesterday argues, he performed well on the battlefield, causing trouble off of it, mostly for himself.
Even so, that depiction of Lee as a treacherous villain is nothing compared to how he appears as an incompetent buffoon in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. That show features the duel between Lee and Col. John Laurens, with Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as their seconds. (Burr gets inserted into a number of events to increase dramatic unity.) That scene serves to set up the duel everyone knows is coming at the end.
In the play Hamilton refers to Lee as a Virginian, classifying him with his adversaries Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. While Lee did buy land on the Virginian frontier in 1775, he was English by birth and upbringing.
In the musical number “Stay Alive,” Hamilton complains of Washington, “Instead of me, he promotes Charles Lee, makes him second-in-command.” To which Lee, most often played by Jon Rua, memorably responds, “I’m a general. Whee!”
Lee could have responded that the Continental Congress had made him its third-ranking general in June 1775, when Hamilton was still a private in his college militia company. The next spring, with Artemas Ward staying in Massachusetts, Lee became second-in-command. He and Hamilton were never up for the same job.
Later, Hamilton asks, “How many died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous?"
As with Judge Wilson, not many people know about Gen. Lee these days. That’s left dramatists free to reshape the details of his career to serve their stories. Given Hamilton’s popularity, a generation of young people is being introduced to Charles Lee as an inexperienced rival to Hamilton from Virginia.
The irony is that there’s no need to change anything about Charles Lee to create drama. He was drama on horseback, roving restlessly through the nascent U.S. of A. with his Italian manservant and his portable Shakespeare and his dogs. The man was a larger-than-life character: smart, slovenly, hot-tempered, witty, eccentric, and self-defeating. Someday I hope we’ll see a more accurate representation of Lee, writing political pamphlets and military plans and indiscreet letters, Washington’s most experienced officer and his biggest headache. Now that would be a show.