Songs from Musicals: #23, “Molasses to Rum,” from 1776

Honorable mentions: “But, Mr. Adams,” “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”

There was a musical about the Founding Fathers years before Hamilton was dreamed of; heck, it was first performed more than ten years before Lin-Manuel Miranda was born. And in these rankings, a song from 1776 outshines a song from Hamilton, and a little balance is restored to the universe.

The question of slavery is more or less elided in Hamilton; the people who speak out against it tend to die. Laurens’ thing is the abolition of slavery, and he doesn’t make it to Act Two; from there, slavery is left to pithy remarks and a wish that, had Hamilton lived longer, he might have been able to do more to fight slavery. 1776 doesn’t address it as consistently, but it dominates the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the play; if we’re honest, 1776 as a play is more concerned with the topic of slavery than Hamilton is. (Hamilton is probably more concerned with race in general, although that concern has to be seen more than heard, I think.) That concern with slavery, and the effect that slavery will have on the new nation, is reflected in “Molasses to Rum,” which is even more weirdly informative than “All-American Prophet.”

Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder and a rapist, has written that King George III is responsible for the evils of slavery coming to America. John Adams, who has no slaves and is against the institution, shouts and stumps in support of Jefferson’s resolution. Franklin, the third present member of the committee that put the Declaration together, is more or less silent. (He will later argue with Adams on that clause, arguing that it must be stricken so that the Declaration will be approved; his belief that independence is the issue very knowingly reflects the 20th Century sentiment that “the defining issue of the Civil War is states’ rights, not slavery!”) Edward Rutledge, a South Carolinian, takes the Second Continental Congress, exhausted from its revision of the Declaration of Independence, through the process by which slaves are brought to America, an endless and “beautiful waltz” of “molasses to rum to slaves.”

I felt guilty for enjoying this song as a fifth-grader (doubtless the seeds of “dramatic male solo” were being sown then as well), knowing that the man singing was expressing his strong belief in the justice of slavery. I was consoled, though, when I was reminded that the song is not merely about a guy who doesn’t want to give up his slaves. It’s about the complicity of New England (and, presumably, the other colonies) in promoting the slave trade and benefiting from the commerce it generates. The ships, Rutledge slyly notes, come from Boston and return to Boston. They are manned by crews from New England. The profits return to New England as well, even if the slaves tend not to make it there. It is a stunning element of the song; it reminds the listener that even the strident are not necessarily blameless, that the nation’s most segregated schools are in “the greatest city in the world,” New York City, that Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.


3 thoughts on “Songs from Musicals: #23, “Molasses to Rum,” from 1776

  1. I don’t think you need to feel guilty for enjoying “Molasses to Rum.” Despite Rutledge’s sympathies, he actually makes a very valid point to Adams about the hypocrisy of the North on the subject of slavery. Setting it musically as a waltz (i.e., in 3/4 time) was a stroke of genius, as a way of reflecting the triangular slave trade musically. Rutledge points out that the good people of Boston, who were eager to denounce slavery in the south, nevertheless owed much of their wealth to the Atlantic slave trade, since it was their ships that were transporting slaves from Africa to the West Indies and the American colonies, then transporting the molasses needed by New England distillers to New England, and then transported the rum made by New England distillers to Africa. Rutledge was merely pointing out what was, for many New Englanders, an uncomfortable fact!

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