By Nelson Hultberg – January 30, 2015
The History channel’s new miniseries, “Sons of Liberty,”* will anger the purists and the prudes. But it will delight the swashbuckler in the rest of us. It is a big, bodacious screening with superb production values that covers the lead-up years to the American Revolution, 1765-1775. Yes, certain liberties are taken with some of the facts and events. The main characters are glamorized. But the essential theme of America’s birth is kept intact: we as a nation were spawned by a band of rebels made up of assorted firebrands, smugglers, and philosophers all coalescing together under the rubric of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Besides, what depiction of history is not romanticized by making the main characters a bit handsomer and younger than they, perhaps, were. Certainly not any depiction made for television.
The main character striding through “Sons of Liberty” is the famous Samuel Adams, played robustly by British actor, Ben Barnes, who doesn’t give us an actualization of Adams’ role in history, but rather a symbolization of it. First of all, Barnes is in his early thirties, and Adams was 51 years old when he fomented the Boston Tea Party. So the producers of “Sons of Liberty” are trying to give us the symbolic Sam Adams and what his role was in the creation of America. Sam Adams was the quintessential rebel mind. He didn’t have the scholarly genius of Thomas Jefferson, but he had a brilliant revolutionary mind. And valor permeated his entire life. He blended mind and defiance as well as, and perhaps better than, any of our Founders.
Sam Adams told his fellow patriots in 1773 in the build-up to the Boston Tea Party, “It does not take a majority to prevail…but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”
This is what brings about all revolutionary change in history – small minorities of men and women fervently committed to a cause that will require courage and resourcefulness to bring into fruition. Yes, luck is also necessary, but mostly courage and resourcefulness because luck eventually descends upon us all. It’s the ones with courage who ride the luck into history and change the fate of mankind. Sam Adams and the “Sons of Liberty” were these kind of men. They seized the opportunity that the arrogant, blundering British gave to them.
The valor of Sam Adams was the spark that made him one of our most important Founders. As we all know, the colonists were by no means united. “Sons of Liberty” portrays this Rebel-Tory division clearly, and it demonstrates how remarkable the likes of Sam Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Dr. Joseph Warren were. They were willing to break from the security and stability of life under the British Crown to venture into uncharted waters for a new future – a break that offered them certain death or prison if they failed, yet they eagerly proceeded. In the process they galvanized a band of rebels and lit the match to “the shot heard round the world.”
In the first segment, we see Sam Adams and John Hancock initiate their partnership, which eventually leads to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Adams is a scruffy, roguish firebrand, while Hancock is portrayed as a rich, cautious, unbearably foppish socialite who relies on trade and imports to bring him the lavish life he desires. In addition, the director, Kari Skogland, has him constantly urging Adams and his band of street rebels to “stop their insanity.” Unfortunately this is not the historical Hancock at all. Yet at every turn, Skogland and her writers insist on painting this false picture of Hancock as timidly opposing the rebellion, even opposing the dumping of the tea into Boston Harbor.
All historical records clearly show Hancock was a vigorous supporter of the colonial protests against the British from 1765 on in concert with Adams. Yet Skogland has him reluctantly and timidly dragging his feet throughout these crucial years. Hancock was not a warrior, but he was very much a willing rebel who financed the agitations and the dumping of the tea. He was upper class, yes, but hardly a fop. He fervently favored the revolution, and served admirably in various roles of political leadership for the American cause from the beginning. For some reason, however, Skogland’s writers have quite incorrectly portrayed him. Not good.
The British Are Coming
In the second segment, we are introduced to the tyrannical British Gen. Thomas Gage (played to menacing perfection by Marton Csokas) and also to the renowned Paul Revere and his epic ride (played forcefully by the rugged Michael Raymond-James). Revere was a silversmith, but he had a warrior persona. The Boston Tea Party is presented in a sensationalized manner with Sam Adams standing astride one of the ships to stare down a regiment of British regulars with muskets raised on the wharf, daring them to shoot him. Quisling Governor Hutchinson arrives just in time to halt the British regiment leader for fear of making the heroic Adams into a martyr.
If director, Skogland, is lacking in historical accuracy, she is certainly not deficient in the ability to entertain her viewers. She gives us action, conflict, suspense, and charismatic characters we care about, as well as a salacious romance between Dr. Joseph Warren and Gen. Gage’s ravishing wife, Margaret, played by Emily Berrington. Ryan Eggold is very appealing as the clever and courageous Dr. Joseph Warren. Berrington is pristinely beautiful as Margaret Gage. Their love affair is total fiction; but its insertion into the story allows “Sons of Liberty” to avoid being just a litany of politics and battles. It becomes a sexy romp as well. After all, America’s rebels were not prudes; they lusted after women in their day as we do in ours. This tale is not meant to be a staid documentary with sidebar commentaries by dreary Doris Goodwin types. It is meant to be a TV blockbuster. Sex is necessary for that.
Lexington and Bunker Hill
The third and final segment begins with the British rout of the rebels at Lexington Green on April 19, 1775 and the following rebel victory at the Concord munitions storage. Thus begins our War for Independence. These and the later battle scenes are carried off spectacularly with big sophisticated production values. The Concord surprise victory for the rebels shakes Gage and his troops severely, which is demonstrated by Gage’s hurried request to London for more troops and his demand to recklessly attack the rebels at Bunker Hill despite the certainty of heavy British casualties and warnings from his subordinate officers. Gage is vile and icy in demeanor. He will surely go down as one of the great villains of TV entertainment. There is a grisly inhumanity about the man. Gen. Washington termed him a ruthless cancer.
At John Adams’ insistence, our rebel heroes then pay a visit to Benjamin Franklin for advice and support. Apparently the historical Franklin is not in Skogland’s memory bank either, for the Franklin we encounter here seems more like a brawny biker with a Harley outside at the hitching post. He is played by Breaking Bad’s robustious Dean Norris. He pours forth the braininess we expect from Franklin, but Skogland has injected a few choice morsels of modern dialogue into his part. “You’re talking about a new country,” he informs a startled contingent of Sam and John Adams, and Paul Revere. They reply hesitantly that they guess they are, to which Franklin responds, “That’s a bat shit crazy idea.” But he assures them that he agrees with this crazy idea. Inserting modern slang into the revered mouths of the Founders may be “progressive” and “avant-garde” to Skogland, but to me it is a stink bomb for the script.
Next comes the Battle of Bunker Hill, and it is as gritty and grotesque as a battle can be. Huge casualties are suffered by the rebels as they are overrun by the monster British war machine and Gage’s fanaticism. In the aftermath, Gen. Washington, who up till now has remained a non-participant in the rebel hostilities, manifests as the heroic leader we know from history and assures the rebels that all is not lost. A fierce war is coming, but he will lead them.
The finale is a stirring speech for liberty by Sam Adams in front of the delegates of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in July of 1776 that prefaces the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Hancock inscribes his now famous signature to the storied document, a war begins, and a new country is born.
The Lesson for Us Today
In conclusion, “Sons of Liberty” is far from accurate history, but it is splendid entertainment. Most importantly it is true to the fundamental fount of America – that we were spawned by a new philosophical vision of strictly limited government instituted to protect men’s rights rather than manipulate men’s lives.
How did these scruffy “Sons of Liberty,” and the rag-tag army they morphed into, pull off defeating the most powerful military force in the world at that time? They did it because there exists a dynamic force in our lives that all tyrannical systems lack and all rational revolutionaries possess – moral truth! This is what brings the most powerful of tyrannies down. No matter how much military or regulatory control they possess, no matter how ruthless they are – they are always vulnerable in face of men and women who are in possession of truth and willing to take a moral stand against overwhelming odds. Moral truth connected to unbending human will is what eventually destroys the most entrenched of evil.
We have this force on our side today in the crisis we now face, which is identical in principle to the crisis our Founders faced. We possess the same moral truth that they had, and we can use it to overcome today’s Washington tyrants. We just have to design the right strategy to implement it. There are countless Americans out there just waiting for the right mix of political savvy and passion to come along and sweep them up into a crusade.
In 1776, the Tories timidly hid behind closed doors where it was safe and popular. They wallowed in pessimism and lamented that nothing could be done. The British were too strong. Why make a big fuss? But the rebels – men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, Paul Revere and Joseph Warren – would have none of it. They knew they had moral truth on their side, and that the British Gargantua would fall precisely because of that. And if they weren’t absolutely certain they would prevail, they knew they still must fight, or their lives were meaningless. This is the lesson we glean from the Sons of Liberty for our lives today.
Sam Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Dr. Joseph Warren are eternal archetypes of what is required as human beings to live freely and justly. If you missed this original History channel presentation of their fight, it will come around again. Don’t miss its rerun.
* History channel, January 25-27, 2015; Directed by Kari Skogland; written by Stephen David and David C. White.