History Channel’s Sons of Liberty Tarred and Feathered

Actor Ryan Eggold as Dr. Joseph Warren in History Channel's 'Sons of Liberty'

in about Warren

Source: This was prepared as a letter to the editor for newspaper publication by a committee of historical reenactors. In reflecting upon the History Channel’s popular miniseries Sons of Liberty, first  aired January 25-27, 2015, the letter raises several interesting points regarding the depiction of history in fiction, academic historians’ participation in pop culture, and representation of place in screenplays and television.

Commentary: “I and my compatriots here represent the Lexington Minute Men, an organization constituted in the wake of the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Additionally our numbers include the modern biographer of Dr. Joseph Warren (1741-1775), the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and real Son of Liberty, who dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes on the iconic Midnight Ride, and was a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill. While no one lays exclusive claim to the legacy of epochal events transpiring in Massachusetts of 1775 which led to the outbreak of hostilities, and ultimately to an independent nation, our ethos compels us to comment on the History Channel’s six hour mini-series Sons of Liberty.

Our concerns include gross misrepresentations of fact and locale that might be taken by the unwary as historical fact; shoddy writing; and a missed opportunity to have directed considerable acting talents and set design to a more entertaining and historically grounded presentation.

Relative to our concern that the ill-informed might mistake History Channel’s Sons of Liberty to contain any real history whatsoever, we do not believe that we are playing the nit-picky role of curmudgeonly local antiquarians. When the truth and complexities of America’s founding are no longer being taught in many public schools, any extended depiction of the era to a national audience may be the only exposure of many to the American Revolutionary saga.  The audience was notably large for a cable television series. First aired 25-27 January, Sons of Liberty enjoyed over 3 million viewers for its final episode.

If discriminating viewers paused at some of the more bizarre depictions of American patriots as a gang of thugs, they were reassured by enablers for the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty assuming a mantle of authenticity and respectability. The New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley gushed that the program was “not fact, but is close enough,” and found it “useful as well as entertaining.” So much for “all the news that is fit to print,” the Times’ motto.

Further legitimacy was conferred by some of our favorite academic and popular historians, appearing in short videos on History Channel’s website, and implicitly endorsing Son’s of Liberty. Among them are Annette Gordon-Reed, Woody Holton, Kathleen Brown, Michael W. Zuckerman, T.P. Slaughter, Edward Countryman, Patrick Spero, Bob Allison, and Denver Brunsman. These luminaries should have no fear that the inflamed antiquarians of Lexington might tar and feather them during their next visit to our scenic town. Rather, we beg their forgiveness for us forgoing the next toast in their honor, in this one particular instance, for their efforts advancing this twisted Sons of Liberty.

So what is the fuss about? In Sons of Liberty pseudo-history, Samuel Adams is a sulking, bearded troublemaker prone to jumping on rooftops and murderously discharging firearms at will from his private arsenal. The series can be interpreted as one long infomercial demonstrating that the eponymous beer is named after “one cool dude.” John Hancock is a wimp. British General Thomas Gage is a sadistic, fascist oppressor and vengeful cuckold. His fetching spouse Margaret Kemble Gage is an abused sex object and the only female presence of note in the entire production. Major Pitcairn’s reputation is needlessly assailed by mischaracterizing him as a murderous and sadistic lackey. Patriots of color bleed profusely but reveal nothing of themselves. The Minutemen militia are malcontents recruited by Dr. Joseph Warren from taverns and brothels to lurk in the forest in the manner of Robin Hood’s merry men. Paul Revere, when about to be captured by British scouts (as actually occurred on his iconic Midnight Ride), is instead released to complete his mission by a Rambo-esque Sam Adams gleefully blasting the British to perdition with a brace of flintlock pistols. The only convincing Liberty pole raising in this production is pursued implausibly between the sheets of Dr. Joseph Warren’s bedroom. The list of glaring distortions and errors involving all the principal patriots depicted by the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty – Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, as well as supporting characters – is too long to be enumerated here.  The goings-on in this alternate universe are so unlike the historical facts and personalities as to be laughable.

The setting and production design is pretty, but misleading in its own way. Can one honestly tout American values, while filming on location in Romania, and altering major events to match the Eastern European locations? Accordingly, there is no North Bridge at the Battle of Concord, but rather only Barrett’s Farm. The opening skirmish in Lexington occurs in a clearing of Robin Hood’s forest rather than on the Battle Green, as it actually occurred, in the center of town, right near fiery patriot Reverend Jonas Clarke’s church and the town’s Buckman tavern. Perhaps we should be thankful that Vlad the Impaler were not readily available on location in the Balkans, for surely the Sons of Liberty’s producers and writers would have found a way to include him in their American Revolution story line. The foreign locations are all the more puzzling when one considers the profusion of authentic locations of the real, historical action lovingly maintained by the Lexington Historical Society; National Park Service at Minuteman National Historical Park, Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters, and sites in Boston; Old South Meeting House Museum; Old State House Museum; Paul Revere House, etc. Our Massachusetts locations have hosted many a Hollywood production apparently more dedicated to authenticity than Sons of Liberty.

We are not amused, but hold out hope that the History Channel will better live up to its name in future productions.

Sincerely, Samuel A. Forman, Sam Doran, Bill Mix, Bill Poole, Alex Cain, and Bill Rose, by command of Captain Barry Cunha, Lexington Minute Men, Lexington, Massachusetts.” Contact: sforman@hsph.harvard.edu or @drsamforman

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