Glossary and Comments
- Saltpeter (also spelled saltpetre), also called niter
(or, chiefly British, nitre) is the mineral form of potassium nitrate
(KNO3). Historically, it was one of the ingredients for
gunpowder, also called black powder, the other ingredients being sulfur and
carbon (usually charcoal). Gunpowder was probably invented in China in the
9th century. Since the middle of the 19th century, black powder has been
replaced with various smokeless powders. Since then saltpeter has been used primarily in making
- F.F.V. = “First Families of
Virginia”; refers to those families that made their fortune in Virginia in the middle of the 17th century, mostly as tobacco growers;
many were refugee cavaliers during and after the English Civil War, including the Randolph and
- The 13 colonies were generally grouped as New England (New Hampshire,
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut), the middle colonies (New
York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware), and the South (Virginia,
Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia). Sometimes the South was divided
into the Upper South (Maryland and Virginia) and the Deep South (the
Carolinas and Georgia). But because Virginia was both the oldest colony
and the most populous, it was sometimes considered a region in itself, with four
colonies in each of the other three regions
- Gout = a disease found usually in males characterized by inflammation of
the joints, usually beginning with the big toe. (See the entries at Dictionary.com.)
- In the 18th century, watches for men were always pocket
watches. Wrist watches had been considered lady-like until they became
common for men in World War I from the need to keep precise time in artillery
firing. The men returning from the war sported wrist watches, and no one
would consider a WWI vet to be unmasculine! Beaumarchais, the author of The
Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, created a clock so
small it could fit into a lady’s ring. He gave one to Mme de Pompadour,
and soon he had orders from every lady at the French court!
- Tria juncta in uno: Latin for “three joined in one”,
used here in reference to the three members of the Delaware delegation: Caesar
Rodney, Thomas McKean, and George Read, ironically, since the latter two didn’t
agree most of the time. (Used as the motto of the Order of the
Bath: may refer to the crowns of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland,
and Ireland; or perhaps Great Britain, France, and Ireland, as the British
monarchs included the style of “King of France” in their title until
1800; the motto may instead refer to the Trinity; or the three Christian virtues
of faith, hope, and charity; or, conceivably, the three offices of Christ:
prophet, priest, and king. Admiral Nelson was a knight of the Bath, and so
the motto appears on his arms. Other famous knights of the Bath include
the Duke of Wellington and Lord Kitchener. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.
M .S. Pinafore, Sir Joseph is of that order, as is Captain Corcoran in Utopia,
- Committee of the whole refers to the whole membership of a legislative house sitting as a
committee and operating under informal parliamentary rules,
in order to debate a measure that is not fully digested, which would not be
possible under the stricter parliamentary rules of the house. The committee of the whole has its own
presiding officer, and reports its action in the form of recommendations, which
are then acted on by the same body, but under the stricter rules.
- Battle of Hastings, 1066, in which England was conquered by William,
Duke of Normandy, making Norman French the court language of England instead of
Anglo-Saxon, creating a new landowning class (William’s followers, whom he
called barons), and making England a major player in European wars.
- Magna Carta, 1215, Latin for “Great Charter,” which King
John was forced to sign, agreeing that the Royal power had limits; considered
the founding document of English (and hence American) liberties.
- Strongbow: Both Gilbert, Earl of Pembroke (died 1148), and his son
Richard, Earl of Pembroke, were known as “Strongbow”, because of their
skill in the use of the Welsh longbow. Richard took the side of King Stephen
against the Empress Matilda (who had been designated heiress to the throne by
her father, King Henry I [1100-35]) in the civil war lasting most of King
Stephen’s reign [1135-54]. But toward the end of the war, King Stephen
seized his lands, fearing he would switch sides. In the next reign, Henry
II [1154-89], son of Matilda, Richard Strongbow conquered much land in Ireland, but yielded it to
King Henry and received much of it back again, but as vassal to King Henry. (More
- Richard Lionheart, king of England, 1189-99, one of the leaders of the
third Crusade; failed in his quest to retake Jerusalem; on his return captured
by the duke of Austria and held for ransom; considered (not completely deserved)
as a model of chivalry.
- Francis Drake, English seaman and privateer, ravaged the Spanish Main
(1570-72); circumnavigated the globe (1577-80); led expedition against Cadiz,
destroying 33 ships and escaping unscathed (1577); as vice-admiral helped to
defeat the Spanish Armada (1588) off Gravelines; pursued Armada to north of
Scotland; on expedition to West Indies, died aboard his own ship, 1596.
Known to the Spanish as El Draque, the Dragon.
- Tudors, Stuarts, and Plantagenets: Some of the royal houses of
England and Scotland. The Tudors ruled England 1485-1603, the Plantagenets
1154-1485. The Stuarts (spelled Stewart until c. 1543) ruled
Scotland 1371-1714 and England 1603-1714.
- Spartacus, a Roman gladiator and slave from Thrace; led a slave revolt
(bc 73-71, the Servile War); defeated Roman armies several times; defeated by
Crassus and killed in action. (Pompey didn’t want Crassus to have all the glory in
the Servile War, so he got involved and captured many of the slaves and had
thousands of them crucified.)
means “tending to cause fire”; hence, “inflammatory.”
- A demagogue
originally was simply “a leader of the people”; but now it means “one who leads the people by impassioned appeal to emotion or
- The “Pennsylvania proprietors” really should refer to the Penn
family, which began with King Charles II (1660-83) granting Pennsylvania to William
Penn. His heirs continued to be the proprietors of the colonies of
Pennsylvania and Delaware. After independence was achieved, the
legislature of Pennsylvania in the Divestment Act bought out the
remaining proprietary rights of the Penn family for £130,000. The last
Penn, was allowed to retain their estates and proprietary manors.
Adams probably is referring to the upper class of Pennsylvania, which were the
descendants of the original Quaker settlers. As a general rule, the Quaker
aristocracy, including John Dickinson, were quite satisfied with the Penn
proprietorship. Delaware, however, was also owned by the Penn family and had the
same governor as Pennsylvania. The people of Delaware were tired of being
dominated by Philadelphia, and thus were in favor of independence.
- A fribble
is a trifle, or thing of no significance, or a frivolous person.
- Mark of Cain (Scene 3, p 52) Hancock is referring to the curse laid by
the Lord on Cain for murdering his brother Abel (Genesis
4:1-16). By setting colony against colony the new nation would be
under a curse. (The mark of Cain actually was for his protection.)
- The word flu is first recorded in English in 1832, so Abigail’s use in
the song is anachronistic. The word influenza, though, came into
the English language in the 18th century.
- Quincy (pronounced Kwin-zy) is a family from which Abigail
Adams was descended. It was later the name of the town where both John
Adams and John Quincy Adams were born.
- The Franklin
stove is actually a heater, rather than a cooking stove. At the
beginning of the 18th century, people heated their homes by fireplaces, which
were fairly inefficient, since most of the heat went up the chimney. (Cooking
was generally done in the fireplace too.) Ben
Franklin designed a stove, which he called the Pennsylvania
Fire Place that was freestanding, and was more efficient. However, his
design was flawed, in that he had the smoke go out the bottom, which meant that
the stove didn’t stay lit long. It was redesigned by David R. Rittenhouse,
and called by him the “Rittenhouse
Stove”. By 1790 it was in wide use, but called ever since the
- The waltz became popular in Germany around the middle of the
eighteenth century, but was first introduced in English court balls in 1816, so
in 1776, it was certainly a new dance!
- The minuet
was a slow stately couples pattern dance in triple time popular in the 17th and
18th centuries, so called because of the short steps of the dance.
- The gavotte
is a somewhat difficult couples pattern dance in duple time popular from the
16th to the 18th centuries.
- The terms right and left (referring to political alignments) as
well as the terms liberal and conservative date from the period of
the French Revolution, and thus are anachronistic in 1776.
- A half-crown
is (now) a demonetized unit in Great Britain worth two shillings and sixpence
(2s 6d); a crown naturally was worth 5s, or one quarter pound sterling.
- The dollar had not been established as the legal tender in the
colonies at the time, but could refer to money in general, but more likely, to
the Spanish milled silver dollar, worth 4s 6d (four shillings and sixpence).
This was the most common coin in the colonies; the British forbade the
importation of gold and silver to the colonies, so there was always a shortage of
specie (gold and silver). But the British also demanded payment of taxes in gold and silver,
which further infuriated the colonies. In Massachusetts, a (Spanish)
dollar was counted as 6 shillings, and in New York, as 8 shillings, which
further west became 8 bits. This also meant that a New York pound of
account was worth about half of a pound sterling. After independence, when the
dollar was defined as the money of account in the United States, one dollar
was defined as a unit of pure silver weighing 371 4/16 grains (24.057 grams),
which was the weight of the Spanish dollar. In 1873, silver was demonetized,
and the dollar was defined in terms of gold.
- French disease = syphilis
Syphilis is believed to have originated in the New World, and was probably brought back to Spain on
Columbus’s voyages. The Spanish then brought it to Italy, and the French
picked it up on one of their invasions, which began in 1494. It was called Syphilis, sive Morbus
Gallicus (Syphilis, the French Disease), 1530, in a poem by Girolamo Fracastoro (1478?-1553).
The French referred to it as the Italian disease, or the disease of Naples, and
it has also been called the Spanish disease (by the Italians), the German
disease, or the Polish disease (by the Russians).
- The bald eagle was adopted as the national bird of the United
States by the Continental Congress in 1782. The bald
eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a native of North America,
and its range includes all of the contiguous 48 states, much of Alaska and
Canada, and some of northern Mexico. (There is no evidence that Franklin
proposes making the (wild) turkey the national bird of the United
States, but he did not like the choice of the bald eagle. And there is no
evidence that Jefferson proposed the dove.)
- Trial by jury was an important part of English common law. But
in the admiralty courts, there were no juries, which was to prevent the colonial
juries from acquitting their friends involved in smuggling.
- It is surprising that the colony of North Carolina would bring up fishing
rights. The right to fish on the Grand Banks would be far more
important to Massachusetts, and was made a part of the Treaty of Paris of 1783,
which ended the war for independence.
- Antigua (pronounced An-TEE-ga), in the Leeward Islands, was
settled by the English in 1632. It is now part of the nation of Antigua
- Barbados was the most valuable of the English sugar islands, more
valuable to the English than any of the continental colonies.
- Angola is a country which in 1776 was Portuguese West Africa, but the
term Angola probably was not used as precisely as it is now, and could refer to
the coast, from Namibia north to the Congo.
is also a country in west Africa, but the term, a corruption of Ghana,
referred to the African coast from Gambia to Angola. Sections of the area from the Bight of Benin westward were known to early traders as the Slave, Gold, Ivory, and Grain Coasts.
- Ashanti: a region of present-day Ghana (which was known in 1776 as the
- Ibo, or (properly) Igbo, refers to a people of southeast
Nigeria. In 1967 they attempted unsuccessfully to secede from Nigeria as
the state of Biafra, leading to a bloody civil war (1967-70).
trade was system used especially by the merchants of Newport, Rhode
They would purchase molasses from the Caribbean sugar islands (Jamaica,
Barbados, Antigua, &c), bring it to Newport, where it was distilled into
rum. Rum was then taken to the Gold Coast to trade for gold, ivory, and
slaves, which were brought to the Caribbean and the southern continental
colonies to be sold. Rum produced in Newport (called “Guinea
Rum”) was especially prized. And the merchants of Newport came to
dominate this traffic, far more than Boston, so that the delegates from Rhode
Island were as strident as the Carolina delegates about removing the “slavery” clause from the Declaration of Independence.
16:26 reads: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
- To cross the Rubicon: to take decisive, irrevocable action. In
Roman history, in the first Triumvirate, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus had divided
the Roman world between them. Caesar had Gaul, and the boundary between
Cisalpine Gaul and Italy was the small river Rubicon. The triumvirs were
not allowed to bring an army into Italy without the permission of the Senate. So
in bc 49, after the death of Crassus, Pompey controlled the Senate, Caesar
crossed the Rubicon, he said “Jacta alea est”: the die is cast;
knowing that he was provoking a civil war, a war in which he was eventually
victorious and became dictator of Rome. (And I believe Caesar crossed the
Rubicon by wading across, so he didn’t have to burn the bridge behind him; that
would make a mixed metaphor!)
- Harvard College, founded in 1636,
is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The College
of William and Mary, founded in 1693, is the second oldest. The
premier academic honor society in the US, Phi Beta
Kappa, was founded at William and Mary. Both Adams and Jefferson received an
honorary doctorate from Harvard. (For reference, Yale
College, the third oldest, was founded in 1701, and Princeton,
the fourth, was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey. The University
of Pennsylvania was founded by Benjamin Franklin and others in 1751, and was
the first college not founded specifically to train clergy.)
- The events of 1776 took place in the summer in Philadelphia.
Congress met in the state house, which was next to a stable.
- The Articles
of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, adopted
during the war.
- It may seem curious that the Declaration declares independence from the
king, and not from Parliament. That is because the colonies believed that
the British parliament had no jurisdiction over them, and could not
legislate for them, because they had been founded with charters from the
- A bibliography of American history
- Pictures from the show
- For corrections, additions, suggestions, or comments, please email me:
tf_mcq <at> yahoo.com.
- Revised May 14, 2016; Last updated: October 02, 2017; Original version October