The American Revolution is hot. That’s the only conclusion one can justify in light of the numerous highly popular history books about the era in recent years, plus TV series such as Sleepy Hollow (FOX), Turn (AMC), and of course HBO’s John Adams.
It was thus inevitable that the History Channel would get into the game with a big, splashy, six-hour (including commercials) miniseries, Sons of Liberty, which premiered last night.
It was by no means inevitable, however, that the actual production would be so historically inaccurate as to make the paranormal fantasy Sleepy Hollow look like a docudrama by comparison. There is more to the series, however, than its historical inaccuracies, though the latter are substantial, and those dismayed by the recent decline of America’s fortunes may find the series to be of surprising interest.
As to the inaccuracies, Thomas Verenna documents them in great detail at the Journal of the American Revolution (h/t P. J. Gladnick of NewsBusters), observing,
While it plays well for those who are in on the secret [i.e., those who know the actual history of the era], if you’re looking for facts about the Sons of Liberty or information about the War for American Independence, don’t plan on discovering those facts in this miniseries; you won’t find them. Instead of portraying actual historical events and giving each character balance and depth, the writers and producers have gone with a standard archetype of good and evil—you can probably guess which side is good and which is evil
That was precisely what we saw in last night’s premiere episode. Yankees good, Brits evil. It was as simple, and simple-minded as that, and the production twisted the facts as needed in order to accomplish that straightforward dichotomy. The episode is at least as historically distorted as Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, but without that movie’s compelling personal story and resulting emotional power.
It also suffers from fashionably dark cinematography and the set designers’ false cliche that the world was always coated entirely by grime before the 1980s, even though the factories of the Industrial Revolution were still nearly a century in the future during the Revolutionary era.
You really should read Verenna’s article to appreciate the full panoply of historical distortions in the miniseries, but here’s just one section to give you an idea of the extent of it:
- What British Soldiers Didn’t Do in Boston – Let’s just cover these now (thanks to J.L. Bell for parts of the list) because the show just depicts the British army in all the wrong and mythological ways it can.
- Soldiers didn’t arrest patriot/populist leaders. No homes were stormed, family members seized, or fathers taken away from crying sons.
- Soldiers didn’t shut down any patriot newspapers. The two of the most radical papers continued to publish until the printers left town just before the war broke out in April 1775.
- Soldiers did not try to stop the Powder Alarm of 2 September 1774, the Worcester court uprising, any of the Massachusetts’s conventions, or meetings of the illegal Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
- Soldiers did not retaliate against the 400 armed New England militiamen who stormed Fort William and Mary, assaulted five soldiers and an officer (who fired on the militia after demanding they stop several times), and stole all the gunpowder stores, weapons, and ammunition, in December 1774.
- Soldiers were not quartered in unwilling civilians’ homes, despite the popular myth to the contrary. In 1774 and early 1775, the only British military men staying in civilian homes were officers renting rooms from willing hosts. Back in 1768 and after the war started, the British army did use some public buildings.
- In 1774 the army didn’t use or confiscate public buildings as barracks. The troops were housed in tents on Boston Common. Eventually barracks were constructed from old warehouses and other unused buildings, all rented from their actual owners.
- Soldiers did not use force to break up peaceful political demonstrations.
- Soldiers did not issue or enforce warrants. Despite the show’s insistence that British Regulars entered homes and gave summonses to attend court hearings for missed payments, none of this happened.
- Soldiers didn’t broadly shut down businesses owned and run by patriots. The troops came to Boston to help the Customs service enforce the Boston Port Bill, so in a sense they did shut down businesses that involved trade through the harbor.
The characterizations of some of the historical personages are also rather bizarre. Most notable is the portrayal of Samuel Adams as a thirtyish action hero born and raised in poverty. Actually, Adams was 43 years old in 1765, was married and gainfully employed (not a homeless bachelor as depicted in the show), was left substantial property by his father, was never in any danger of actual arrest in the matter of £8,000 of uncollected taxes on his father’s estate, and was generally a sensible, contributing member of society.
He certainly was not a bitter firebrand who repeatedly cudgels a British soldier at the scene of the Boston Massacre in episode one, nor did he climb up walls and run across roofs to escape British troops. He was a leader and an intellectual, not a swashbuckling martial artist.
All of these changes seem to have one common purpose: to make these heroes of distant history more appealing to modern young people raised on video games and entirely uninterested in what happened five years ago, much less two and a half centuries in the past. But it appears to me that there is another impulse at work here: a strong sense of populist libertarianism.
The entire thrust of the first episode largely pits two types of people against each other: the wealthy and politically powerful and those who serve them, and the common people who want nothing more than an opportunity to earn a decent living and live a good life of peace and contentment. The British represent the former, of course, and the colonists the latter. The fact that this dichotomy was not historically true is what makes all the distortions necessary.
What we are left with, though, is a story that makes great fundamental sense to Americans today, despite its historical inaccuracy, as we contemplate a system in which political and economic power have consolidated in a system resulting in increasingly economic inequality and social unrest. Although the mainstream media relentlessly mock the Tea Party movement, Sons of Liberty suggests an affirmation of the impulse and its validity as a response to the present moment.
Sons of Liberty is by no means accurate in its account of what happened a quarter-millennium ago, but it’s surprisingly incisive regarding what is happening in this country today, with its sentiments clearly on the side of the citizenry against an overweeningly powerful government that has corrupted the nation’s wealth to serve its own designs. And maybe that’s more important, ultimately, than whether it correctly conveys Samuel Adams’s marital status, athletic ability, and fullness of pocketbook.
Part 1 ends on a down note with the Boston Massacre, but current-day Tea Party partisans may well take hope from the knowledge of where the real-life story went from there. Perhaps Sons of Liberty will prove not only accurate in the most important ways but also prescient about the nation’s future.