Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Taking Liberty with History

The other day, the History Channel aired a three part special about the beginning of the American Revolution.  It was fun to watch, for sure, however, I was pretty disappointed with how historically inaccurate it was.  For example, Samuel Adams is portrayed ten years younger than he actually should have been.  Bunker Hill was shown to have happened nearly simultaneously with the second Continental Congress, but the battle actually happened a full year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Thomas Gage was shown to preside over the Boston evacuation, and the Battle of Long Island, but he was actually recalled to England following Bunker Hill and General William Howe took over control of all Royal forces.

they also left out Mel.  And he's pissed!
There is a bunch of articles about how historically inaccurate this show was, expanding on some of the things I mentioned, and many others.  All Things Liberty does a pretty good job.  Just in case you want to read more in-depth debunking.  Most of the complaints seem to stem from aesthetic changes done in order to make the show action-packed and interesting, and to appease sponsors.  I want to talk about the people left out of the show entirely.  Like I said, I was disappointed.

The show was pretty Boston-centric, which is fine, Boston is awesome.  It makes sense, as most of the sensational events of the beginning of the war take place there.  The Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, Paul Revere's ride, the battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill all take place in the greater Boston area.  But, New York was also equally important to the development of the actual Sons of Liberty.  The characters should have at least mentioned similar action taking place in other cities, and how Boston was not actually alone in resisting the King, as the show seems to claim.  They were aware, and regularly communicated with other colonist rebels.

Speaking of characters, the show revolved primarily around four Boston patriots, and one British general.  Samuel Adams was the main character, and the show makes him out to be the architect of the resistance.  Joining him are his doctor buddy Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and the wealthy businessman John Hancock. Sam Adams's cousin John Adams (who becomes the second US president) has a smaller role.  General Thomas Gage has the role of the villainous British opposition.

I was particularly bothered by the heaps of important figures they left out.  The entire Otis family, for example, played a huge part in the Boston resistance, and they aren't even mentioned.  James Otis Jr coined the phrase "taxation without representation is tyranny", which is pretty central to the entire point of rebelling in the first place.  He had two younger brothers and a nephew who all played roles during the revolution.  Their sister married Dr Warren's brother, another figure sorely left out.  

Thomas Payne is also not mentioned.  In fact, print media is left out entirely.  The show actually ridicules writing letters a few times, which is pretty ridiculous given how important letters, pamphlets, and posters were to the revolutionary movement.  Ben Franklin, portrayed in the show, used a printing press to great effect.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was part of the climax of the three part series.  Paul Revere was shown to be at the battle, which is not true.  Daniel Shays should have been included instead of Paul Revere, as he was actually at Bunker Hill, and would later be responsible for Shays Rebellion.  Also, William Prescott was left out, the guy who said the famous line "do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes".

That doesn't really bother me as much as the addition of Ben Franklin's Join or Die cartoon as a flag flown during the battle.  The flags actually flown during the battle were the flag of New England, and the Bunker Hill flag.  The Join or Die flag never actually existed.

New England's red ensign

the Bunker Hill blue ensign
If the plan is to follow up this mini series with a sequel series picking up where they left off at the beginning of the Battle of Long Island, I hope they decide to be more historically accurate overall, but to also give important historical figures their due.