Historical Fact vs Historical Fiction: A Review of Sons of Liberty, Part 1

Here’s something I don’t really tell a lot of people: The American Revolution is my favorite historical era. Growing up in New Jersey, I learned about the Battle at Princeton and watched Liberty’s Kids back when it was on PBS. The only Felicity I knew at the time was the series of American Girl books about a girl named Felicity, who lived in colonial times. Later on, I fell in love with the musical 1776 and always tuned into History Channel whenever they did a documentary about the movers and shakers or events that went on in that era. Although I watched AMC’s Turn, I lost interest in the show when it started glamorizing the main character’s adultery and didn’t really go so much into actual historical events. I wanted Turn to be more like an 18th century version of Alias, not James Bond!

But I got seriously excited when I saw the promos for a 3-part event called Sons of Liberty. History Channel is at its best when it’s doing, you know, actual history. I loved The Men Who Built America because it was history brought to life. It was as entertaining as it was informative. I expected Sons of Liberty to be something similar to that: a documentary with re-enactments of the events leading up to the revolutionary war. Instead, it was more along the lines of Liberty’s Kids, historical fiction that centers more on what led up to the events everyone knew.

Spoilers ahead!

The first episode centers on the events that led up to the Boston Massacre. The main character of the series is Sam Adams, played by Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian). Sam Adams is the instigator, the firebrand, who makes his “obnoxious and disliked” cousin John (played by Henry Thomas from E.T. and Gangs of New York)  look level-headed by comparison. He’s not a straight-laced hero, but he looks out for others in a really heartwarming way. He gets a word of warning from Doctor Joseph Warren, played by Ryan James Eggold (Blacklist), that there is a warrant out for his arrest for money he has yet to pay the governor. Dr. Warren doesn’t have much to do in this episode, but he becomes a good ally as the movement begins, informing everyone about the recent shipment of soldiers who were assigned to be the governor’s bodyguards and enforcers.

The most surprising character in the series is John Hancock, played by Rafe Spall (Prometheus). Hancock is portrayed as the fence-sitter, hoping to keep the peace in Boston while running his merchant business, smuggling Madeira wine, and keeping good relations with the governor. He is shown as an outsider, wanting to belong with the Boston elite, only for things to go wrong when the governor seizes Hancock’s ships. It was hard for me to believe that the man who would later have the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence started out as an unrealistically optimistic pacifist.

The riots in Boston lead Parliament to pass the Townshend Acts, which affected John Hancock’s business. Eventually, Sam and John begin a reluctant partnership to start a smuggling ring and recruit the help of Paul Revere, played by Michael Raymond-James (Once Upon a Time, True Blood). He creates a coin that the members of the smuggling ring use to inform customers of where the wine can be bought or sold. Unfortunately, the governor eventually gets wind of the ring and most of the distributors get arrested.

The fallout from the smuggling ring leads to Sam Adams planning a boycott, which Hancock disagrees with. (Historically, though, Hancock supported the boycott.) Unfortunately, the mobs in Boston start targeting the Torys, which eventually leads to the death of a young boy. I was very certain that that particular scene was historical fiction because there’s no record of anything like that happening as a result of the boycott, but a recent comment informed me otherwise. Christopher Seider’s death provides the escalation that led to the Boston Massacre.

The episode as a whole shows that the events that led up to the Boston Massacre aren’t as cut and dry as they seem on the pages of a history book or a Wikipedia page. Unfortunately, while the main site has a page listing the historical facts behind the major characters, they don’t have anything that relates to the plot of the episodes. I enjoyed the acting from everyone overall, but have a soft spot for Michael Raymond-James since I’m most familiar with him. (I wonder if there was a blooper of the scene where Paul Revere gets caught by the British soldiers where they ask him what his business is and Michael Raymond-James says “I’m the son of Rumpelstiltskin and I have to get the daughter of Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin away from Captain Hook!) As far as the story is concerned, it was a good combination of historical fact and fiction.

I highly recommend this show to people who enjoy the colonial period and the pivotal players. If you’re looking for something more historically accurate, I recommend a documentary or Liberty’s Kids, which is a very well-written and historically accurate show, even if it’s targeted to children. You can catch up on the series on History Channel’s website or on your local cable or satellite provider’s On Demand service. The series continues tonight and tomorrow and I will be posting my reviews on them this week.

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