“Sons of Liberty”: Historical fiction vs. fictional history

Colonial rebels in the Battle of Bunker Hill (photo: DY)

Colonial rebels about to fight the Battle of Bunker Hill (photo: DY)

From the standpoint of pure entertainment, I thoroughly enjoyed “Sons of Liberty,” a three-part mini-series depicting events leading up to the American Revolution, which premiered earlier this week on The History Channel.

The series is centered in Boston between 1765 and 1776. Major events such as the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Battles of Lexington and Concord, and Battle of Bunker Hill are all there. Much of the everyday action takes place in the streets, taverns, and homes of old Boston, and that look-and-feel renders a gritty authenticity to the series, despite — as I’ll explain below — its many historical inaccuracies.

Among the various film depictions covering Boston’s Revolutionary history, this one vividly imagines what it must’ve been like to live there and then. So many of these historical sites have been preserved, and now I want to go visit them again.

Hancock (l) and Sam Adams (r) often butt heads. (Photo: DY)

Hancock (l) and Sam Adams (r) often butt heads (Photo: DY)

Most of the iconic historical characters are present, too: The tension between rebellious, rough-edged Samuel Adams and financier/smuggler John Hancock receives a lot of play. Among the colonials, Dr. Joseph Warren, John Adams, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington also get their share of air time. On the British side, governor Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage are most prominent, with Gage’s young wife Margaret playing a key role in the story. (You can check out the main cast members here.)

“Sons of Liberty” attempts to give these figures distinct, relatable personalities, with varying success. Sometimes they utter lines that made me think to myself, surely they didn’t talk like that back then, did they?

Depicted here is the old State House, also the site of the Boston Massacre (Photo: DY)

Depicted here is the old State House, also the site of the Boston Massacre (Photo: DY)

The series opens with Sam Adams escaping from British troops in a roof-hopping scene befitting an action show — fans of Jack Bauer in “24” will enjoy it — immediately telling us that “Sons of Liberty” will not be a stiff docudrama. This mini-series is meant to hold our interest, and its narrative flow moves along briskly.

Along the way, it takes a ton of historical, umm, liberties, many of which are explained in an excellent post by historian Thomas Verenna, “Discover the Truth Behind the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty Series” for the Journal of the American Revolution blog. In brief, a lot of the facts are wrong, the personalities of major characters are sometimes at odds with those of their real-life counterparts, and the British officers and soldiers behave much more brutally than the historical record indicates.  Especially after reading critiques of “Sons of Liberty” by historians deeply familiar with the era, I’d suggest that it straddles the line between historical fiction and fictional history.

General Gage's supposed trophy wife turns out to be more than just another lovely face (Photo: DY)

General Gage’s supposed trophy wife turns out to be much more than just another lovely face (Photo: DY)

That said, I really enjoyed this mini-series, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again. My suggestion is to view “Sons of Liberty” first, and then to read Verenna’s article. Its faults notwithstanding, the series breathes life into the major events and figures of the Revolutionary era. Verenna understands this when he diplomatically avoids slamming “Sons of Liberty” for its inaccuracies, even after documenting them:

The takeaway from this is that the Sons of Liberty program is highly entertaining historical fiction. We hope it energizes more people to study the Revolution and discover the truth behind these events. In many cases, the real story is better than fiction.

One response

  1. I recently read Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion, about this same time period in Boston. I can’t believe how pathetically little I knew about this history and how engaging it is.

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