Thanks to the History Channel, I was granted an early-access screening of the series Sons of Liberty (premiering 25 January at 9 p.m. ET). I binge-watched it for almost 5 hours and also reviewed tons of online content, press releases, and character biographies from the website. Previously, I had only seen and heard about the three-part miniseries through previews on television and social media. Despite some glaring inaccuracies spotted in the various trailers, it looked compelling. The production looked top notch and the acting seemed fun.
The previews give the feeling that it’s a dramatization of real, historical events, with an air of credibility: credentialed historians pop up between frames of a smiling Ben Barnes (playing Samuel Adams) or a sarcastic Rafe Spall (playing John Hancock) as sparks fly everywhere from the firing of flintlocks. Understandably, one might get the impression from these sneak peeks that this is some sort of docu-drama. Well, it’s not that at all.
You have to dig a bit to find it (it’s never explicitly stated in the trailers or promotional content), but on History’s website, they make it clear that this program is “is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.” It goes on to state that one of the goals is to “focus on real events that have shaped our past.” Whatever you do, don’t take that statement too literally.
As historical fiction (actually, it’s more of an alternate history) the miniseries is very successful. The acting is superb, some of the scenes are very clever, the special effects are fantastic (and believable), and—believe it or not—they actually included variations in the colors of the British soldiers’ uniforms (not all of the red coats have buff lapels, cuff and collars; some have yellow and some blue)! This is actually a huge step up from previous dramatizations of British soldiers.
While it plays well for those who are in on the secret, 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. So instead of the real General Thomas Gage, the viewer is told (in promotional material) that Gage is a brutal dictator-type figure who is abusive to his wife and orders his soldiers to act just as ruthlessly to the point of igniting the fuse of revolution. It’s complete bunk, of course, as we’ll see below.
To help guide the serious students of history, here is a list of the first episode’s most glaring historical inaccuracies and the real events and context behind them. There are too many to list them all, but this will get you started on the right path. Enjoy.
It’s Boston in 1765. Dr. Joseph Warren walks into a pub and stumbles into a drunk Samuel Adams. He explains to Adams that he’s been looking for him just as a group of British Regulars storm into the pub; there is muttering about a warrant, issued by Governor Hutchinson, for Adams’ arrest. The soldiers have come to collect! And we’re already off to a bizarre start. There were no British regulars stationed in Boston in 1765. They were there 1768-1770 and 1774-1776
Given all of this, the scene where Adams and Hancock meet a man about acquiring guns and men to fire them is ridiculous. Since Queen Anne’s War, and even before, Massachusetts had a militia law (that was in line with the English Constitution); each citizen had a right to keep privately-owned arms and ammunition. When the Massachusetts committees took a count of their fighting force in 1774, they had thousands of men to call upon to fight—these were colony-trained militia which had existed for well over 100 years. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had more trouble acquiring artillery and did authorize Warren to talk to men in Boston trained in those types of guns.