History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty” was an excellent opportunity to tell the tale of the events that drove Massachusetts against the crown, setting the stage for independence. Unfortunately, it is a highly fictionalized account that gets much wrong. It is filled with myths, dramatized character assassinations, false hyperbole, and relevant omissions. Ultimately, it fails to shed light on important historical events.
The following does not address all inaccuracies of this program, only the ones I felt were most significant. It is a candid attempt to separate fact from fiction, and provide a more complete viewpoint for those that are actually interested in learning about this period.
Episode 1: “A Dangerous Game”
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Samuel Adams is portrayed as a young, rowdy criminal who hangs out at pubs. He uses his position as a tax collector to protect his friends. He openly flirts with his cousin’s wife.
Reality: It is true that Samuel Adams failed to collect taxes from many people (which added to his popularity), but he actually filed suit against several delinquent taxpayers. Adam’s political opponents even attacked him for doing this; given the commonplace stance that the taxes that were levied were unconstitutional under Britain’s constitutional system. Adams was elected as a tax collector by his town hall, not appointed by the governor. Adams was never served a warrant, as is shown. Additionally, Adams was much older at this point (43) than is portrayed, is married to his second wife, and there is no good evidence to suggest that he was a heavy drinker that hung out in local pubs. There is no evidence to suggest that he ever flirted with his cousin’s wife.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Thomas Hutchinson, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, is introduced.
Reality: Hutchinson, who is portrayed as the Royal Governor, did not obtain this position until 1769.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” The Sons of Liberty take Hutchinson’s house in response to the warrant for Samuel Adams’ arrest.
Reality: Hutchinson’s household was taken in reaction to the Stamp Act, not in response to Samuel Adams’ fictional warrant.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” British soldiers shut down newspapers, arrest popular patriot leaders for acts of insubordination, and stifled political demonstrations in Boston.
Reality: There is no evidence to suggest that British soldiers shut down newspapers, arrested any popular patriot leaders, or stopped any peaceful demonstrations in 1765.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Benjamin Franklin was kicked out of the colonies and sent to London.
Reality: Benjamin Franklin was not “kicked out of the colonies,” as the show portrays. He was in London in 1765, but he went voluntarily in attempt to convince the king to allow Pennsylvania to be considered as a royal colony and to raise his objections to the Stamp Act.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” John Hancock attempts to enlist Samuel Adams for assistance in smuggling wine without paying taxes, just so he can get back at Gage.
Reality: The show makes reference to an 1768 event in which Hancock paid duties on 25 pipes of wine, but the British suspected that he had additional wine unloaded during the nighttime. This led to a highly publicized trial in which John Adams defended Hancock against the accusations. The charges against Hancock were eventually dropped. Also, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Samuel Adams was involved in any way, whether or not the incident actually occurred. Smuggling was a colonial reaction to unconstitutional duties levied upon goods. The practice did occur, but Hancock’s guilt cannot be definitively established based on the evidence available, and historians debate the issue to this day.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” On King Street, a small group of soldiers fires into a small mob of Bostonians.
Reality: In the real incident, there was a larger mob of people on the street. There were also more British soldiers, and a captain (Thomas Preston), who most likely did not give any order to fire. Most historical narratives seem to suggest that the order to “fire” was misinterpreted by the British soldiers as an order, but actually came from challenges made by the looming crowd. Five died (including one boy who died to his wounds 10 years later), and six others were injured. No Bostonians beat British soldiers with clubs, but they were accused of throwing rocks at them. Sam Adams was not there, and he also did not beat a British soldier with a club. John Adams represented the men accused of murder, and they were acquitted. While this incident was a contributing event that set the course for independence, Adams had reason to believe that harsh retaliation against the British soldiers would actually damage the patriot cause.
Episode 2: “The Uprising”
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Sam Adams gives a signal for his followers to move toward the harbor from a street alley. In doing so, Adams threatens and his followers threaten to shoot several redcoats who attempt to stop him. Adams starts throwing tea over the edge. He is threatened to be shot by a redcoat, but the he is convinced not to so that Sam Adams cannot be made into a martyr. Sam Adams and his group continue to dump all of the tea into the harbor. The patriots participating in this event do not attempt to hide their identity in any way.
Reality: On the night of the Boston Tea Party, Samuel Adams was conducting a meeting of about 7,000 people in the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Before the culmination of the meeting, a much smaller group of people poured out of the meeting house, put on Mohawk Indian costumes, and dumped out 342 chests of tea into the water. Those involved in this incident were sworn to secrecy, and the individuals involved are unknown. At least one contemporary account suggests that Sam Adams tried to stop people from leaving the hall since the meeting was not over. No one was shot or attacked on the ships. Sam Adams was not at the harbor, and his complicity in the planning of the event is still hotly debated. Regardless of whether he assisted in planning the event, he certainly worked to publicize it afterward. At no time were there ever any redcoats that had to be convinced not to shoot at Sam Adams (who wasn’t there) or the Bostonians in costumes. Similarly, those participating in the incident did not threaten to shoot others.
History Channels “Sons of Liberty:” The Boston Tea Party is portrayed as a tax protest against the crown.
Reality: The 1773 Tea Act actually lessened taxes on tea. The actual resentment shown by the patriots was related to the purchase mandate that was attached to the tea, which forced people to purchase it from the British East India Company. Since the company was struggling and on the verge of bankruptcy, the British government awarded the British East India the exclusive right of privilege in North America (a monopoly), and the colonists were indignant about being forced to purchase the tea from a particular firm. Certainly, taxation without Parliamentary representation was controversial, but in this case the objections were focused squarely against the mercantile economic system of Britain.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Benjamin Franklin urges London not to react strongly in retribution toward Massachusetts, calling the destruction of the tea a “protest.” He suggestions that the colonists are justified in their behavior because of the purchase mandate on the tea. He warns the British Prime Minister that if Massachusetts is dealt with harshly, the inhabitants would be considered as “sons of liberty.”
Reality: Benjamin Franklin urged Massachusetts to pay for the destroyed tea. He criticized the Bostonians for destroying private property, and wrote that it was “impossible to justify.” He wrote that paying for the tea would be “no dishonor” and that he hoped there would not be any other “compulsive measures” to destroy private property. While Benjamin Franklin later sided with independence efforts (and signed the Declaration of Independence), at this point he urged for peaceful resolutions with Britain and the East India Company, refusing to justify the destruction of the tea. While Franklin empathized with his countrymen’s qualms, he did not attempt to rationalize their behavior in this matter.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Gage arrives in Massachusetts to relieve Hutchinson and take charge of military affairs.
Reality: Gage had actually been in America since 1763-1773. He did take a trip back to England but returned in 1774, when he actually did relieve Hutchinson. He was familiar with America, his children grew up in America, and he married a woman from New Jersey.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Formation of the Committee of Correspondence, and establishment of a Massachusetts Provincial Congress either do not occur, or are too insignificant to cover. Instead, fictional incidents related to redcoat brutality are featured.
Reality: These two situations are substantial successes of the Sons of Liberty and whig leaders. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress was a calculated attempt to resist the Massachusetts Government Act (part of the Coercive Acts), which reformed the government and provided the king with the full authority to appoint members to its executive council. To resist this, a new government was formed with John Hancock as its president, and the body exercised de facto control over Massachusetts. Additionally, some of the main characters play a part. The Committee of Correspondence was formed by Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams with the aim of disseminating ideas and educating the people on the constitutional transgressions of the British government. Legitimate disputes against British policy were raised, and strong legal arguments were made. It allowed for a coordinated response to British activities, helped arrange boycotts, and set the stage for independence. Later, it facilitated communication with the Committees of Correspondence in other states and provided intelligence that helped win the war.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Gage takes over Hancock’s home, quartering soldiers there.
Reality: Hancock’s home on Beacon Hill was not taken by the British until 1775, after Hancock and Adams had fled and were gone for months. The 1774 Quartering Act, which was passed in reaction to the tea incident, was a malicious and unauthoritative act. The show never makes any reference to the fact that this practice was specifically outlawed and unconstitutional in the British constitutional system. Since the 1628 Petition of Right, the government was prohibited from billeting/quartering soldiers in civilian households during times of war. The show implies that there was disdain toward this practice, but it seems to be misdirected and the viewer is never elucidated on why it was considered such a transgression.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” George Washington, appearing at the First Continental Congress, calls Thomas Gage a “cancer” who responds with “brutality.”
Reality: For George Washington to call Thomas Gage a “cancer,” especially in the time portrayed, is laughable. Washington maintained a longtime friendship with Gage, having served with him during the French and Indian War. Gage and Washington were on friendly terms, and Washington even dined with him. Denying his respect and admiration for the man is ridiculous, and in 1774 it is clear that Washington thought quite highly of him. The two significant outcomes of the First Continental Congress were to call for a boycott on British goods, and to arrange for a secondary Congress to meet the next year. At this stage, many delegates advocated for a peaceful negotiation with the crown, favored petitioning for a redress of grievances, believed the woes facing Massachusetts were a local/state matter, and refrained from endorsing hostile policy toward the British.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Thomas Gage is a ruthless, brutal oppressor who has a disdain for the colonists. He does not consider them Englishmen, and believes that strict reprisal is necessary to quell the rebellious tendencies of the agitators in Massachusetts. He takes a strict position toward insubordination, orders a civilian to be whipped for stealing goods from a British ship.
Reality: Thomas Gage was not ruthless, and he had a deep concern for producing a peaceful remedy to conflict in Massachusetts. He married a woman from New Jersey, lived in the states for a long time, and he owned a lot of American property. Also, Gage actually allowed Revere to observe his troops and interfere with British military practices. This disgusted some of his subordinates, who thought Gage was being far too lenient with Revere and others. Gage also did not punish civilians for theft, and never ordered a civilian to be whipped. The British constitutional system called for a separation between military and civilian justice, and Gage realized he had no authority to punish civilians. He did have the power to punish his own soldiers for bad behavior, and he did so several times. He never engaged in brutality against civilians as depicted. In comparison British commanders that in engaged in actual brutality, such as Banastre Tarleton, Gage was compassionate. Gage was something of an idealist, but he had a vested interest in the colonies and their well-being. There were many legitimate qualms the colonists had against the Parliamentary Acts and British policy toward the colonies, but Gage’s aggression was not one of them. By any definition, Thomas Gage was one of the more respectable military commanders the British had, because of his honest attempt to seek nonviolent mediation and produce a positive result.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Adams and Hancock meet a man in attempt to acquire a cache of guns and men to fire them. This is considered a necessary step for confronting the British and their hostility to liberty.
Reality: Massachusetts had a regular militia for at least 100 years, which drilled regularly as prescribed by law. They trained openly, and the British were familiar with the practice. During this timeframe, arms were not prohibited, and each citizen had the right to keep arms and ammunition, which had been recognized by the British and codified into their constitutional system by the 1689 English Bill of Rights. Gage did not make any attempt to stop militia drills, and actually urged his own soldiers not to make any flagrant movements or create the appearance of interrupting drills.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Thomas Gage’s wife, Margaret Gage, conducts an affair with Dr. Joseph Warren and provides him with knowledge of the upcoming raid on Lexington and Concord.
Reality: There is absolutely no evidence that indicates Margaret Gage and Joseph Warren had an affair. There is also no hard evidence that Margaret Gage tipped of Warren and alerted him to the raid of Lexington and Concord, although some speculated that she was a spy and did so. While there is nothing more than circumstantial claims regarding this incident, Margaret Gage was sent back to England by her husband a few months after the battle.
Episode 3: “Independence”
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Samuel Adams and John Hancock are shown participating in the Battle of Lexington. Adams utilizes some battlefield heroics to save Hancock as he is being attacked by a redcoat.
Reality: Both Samuel Adams and John Hancock were not on/near the battlefield. Gage’s objective was to seize armaments supplies that were being stored in Concord. While accounts differ, some contemporary accounts suggest that Gage ordered his men to arrest both Adams and Hancock. Whether or not this was the case, Paul Revere warned both men that the troops were on the march and that Gage may arrest them. While John Hancock wished to be at the battlefield, several of his friends, along with Adams, convinced him that it was unnecessary given his status as a patriot figurehead. Both men escaped from the area. After the battle, Gage made an unambiguous proclamation that those who did not resist the British would be spared, with the exception of Adams and Hancock. Historian Mercy Otis Warren wrote that Gage’s announcement added to the fame of both men.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Major Pitcairn sinks his knife into the wound of a minuteman, causing him to suffer immensely. Pitcairn orders him to be killed because he would not offer the location of Adams and Hancock.
Reality: No such thing happened. This scene apparently serves no purpose other than to demonize Pitcairn.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” John Hancock rides to visit Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren at a campsite. He notifies the two that a second Continental Congress had been called in response to the situation in Lexington and Concord.
Reality: Actually, the decision to call a second Continental Congress was already made during the culmination of the first, in the fall of 1774. The resolution called for the Second Continental Congress to meet on May 10, 1775.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” The Massachusetts delegation visits Benjamin Franklin at his home. In doing so, they interrupt him paying a prostitute for her services. He alleges that the delegation’s aims seemed to not be for independence, but to forge a new country. Franklin calls this belief crazy but commends this opinion, saying that it was his vision as well.
Reality: Benjamin Franklin was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, even though he was struggling with health issues at the time. While he did favor a failed plan for a national association under the crown earlier in his life (The 1754 Albany Plan), this aim failed. By all accounts, the primary objective of the Second Continental Congress was to debate how to respond to the situation in Massachusetts and how to respond to the British government. As the proceedings in the convention commenced, it was clear that the colonies eventually expressed a candid desire to retain their own colonial legislature and for decisions to be made by local government, not to forge a new nation. In the 1776 Declaration of Independence that was signed later, the last paragraph makes known that each state in North America (as compared to the state of Great Britain) were free an independent states, each with independent powers. Effectively, it was a declaration of secession that enumerated the causes that impelled the states to depart. The Confederation government under the Articles of Confederation, which created a loose confederation of states, did even not go into effect until 1781. The Treaty of Paris, that officially ended the war, was not made between Britain and America as a whole, but between Britain and the individual states. The reality is that the colonial struggle for independence was not a calculated attempt to institutionalize a modern nation. While the struggle is often deemed a revolution, it is more accurate to say it was a war for independence. Simply put, “creating a new country” was not an aim of the struggle from the perspective of the state delegations. It is true that Benjamin Franklin was known for being shameless regarding his own sexuality, but there is no evidence that he paid prostitutes for their services.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” Gage takes command at Bunker Hill. After a hard fought battle, he approaches Joseph Warren on the battlefield and shoots him in the head from behind, execution style. Afterward, he orders his soldiers to mutilate Warren’s body. Later, Gage announces to his wife that Warren is dead, and that he was personally responsible for Warren’s death. He declares that she will head to England on the next ship.
Reality: William Howe had arrived by this time and taken control of the British Army, and was personally responsible for the frontal assaults. Warren was at the battle, but Gage did not shoot him or order his body to be mutilated. Instead, he was killed instantly by a shot to the head. It is true that his body was mutilated several times following the battle, but not by the order of Gage. His body was not recovered until months later, when it was confirmed by the presence of an artificial tooth. Since Gage did not kill Warren, he did not announce to his wife that he did so.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” George Washington declares that he will confront the British in Massachusetts himself, and asks if there are any objections. Washington leaves the Philadelphia State House.
Reality: Washington actually arrived in Philadelphia donning military garb, signifying his belief that war would come. Instead of pledging to confront Howe in response to Bunker Hill, he was nominated to lead the Continental Army on June 14 by John Adams, which was before the battle. He was unanimously appointed the Commander in Chief of all Continental forces the next day, also prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. At this point, most of the convention hoped for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Even after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson wrote the Olive Branch Petition, which aimed to present a list of grievances to the king in hopes that he would intervene and restore order and the liberty of the colonists. The king rejected the petition without reading it, considering an irrelevant request from an illegitimate assembly. Still, Dickinson clung to hope for a year that the king would bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” George Washington, in assuming his new role, meets with Thomas Gage. Gage demands safe passage to Boston, saying if he does not receive it he will “burn Boston to the ground.” Washington reluctantly agrees. Upon departure, Gage insults Washington and reminds him that he never achieved the British commission Washington once hoped for.
Reality: This scene is pure fiction. Washington’s chief task at Cambridge was to assume more supplies. He achieved this with the assistance of France and from raids focused on British arsenals. He forced the British to retreat in May of 1776 by successfully reorganizing the army, obtaining needed supplies, and by placing artillery on Dorchester Heights, a series of low hills surrounding Boston. This was seen as a minor victory, but the fighting was far from over. Washington moved his army to New York, where William Howe was poised to launch a massive strike designed to take the city.
History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty:” The Massachusetts delegation and Benjamin Franklin has a meeting in a room, where Franklin suggests that a declaration that announces independence should be crafted. John Adams announces that he has someone in mind to write the document. Jefferson is approached about the idea. Samuel Adams makes a passionate speech in favor of independence just prior to the vote. Dickinson leaves the hall frustrated, allowing Benjamin Franklin to cast Pennsylvania’s vote in favor. John Hancock signs the declaration in large letters, saying that his intention was for King George III to see his writing. The rest of the delegation signs the declaration. The rest of the delegates affix their signature to the declaration. Washington reads the document to the Continental Army.
Reality: A special Committee was formed by John Adams to discuss independence while the Continental Congress was on recess. The assembly had already heard a proposal for a resolution that called for independence (called the Richard Henry Lee resolution), but most states did had not received instructions from their home legislatures approving independence. It was Adams that reasoned that Thomas Jefferson should write the document, not Franklin. Adams’ reasons for this were threefold: 1) Jefferson was a Virginian, the most powerful and influential colony, who Adams thought should be involved with the effort, 2) That Jefferson had an eloquent pen, and 3) that Jefferson was not unpopular and distrusted, unlike how Adams perceived himself. Before the Richard Henry Lee resolution passed on July 2, Jefferson crafted the document over a two week period while staying in Philadelphia. It was Virginia’s instructions to its delegation that called for independence: Virginia had already kicked their royal governor out of the state, crafted a declaration of rights, and codified a new government under the Virginia Constitution of 1776. It was John Adams, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Roger Sherman who discussed Jefferson’s draft before presenting it to the convention as a whole. There is no record that confirms such a speech was made by Samuel Adams just prior to the vote for independence. Contrary to the show, both Dickinson and Robert Morris of the Pennsylvania delegation abstained, allowing the remainder of the delegation (3 representatives) to vote in favor, not just Franklin. The myth that Hancock suggested that he signed the document large so that the king could see his writing is a commonly repeated myth, and a classic tall tale. There are two plausible explanations as to why Hancock’s signature is featured larger and more prominently than his peers: 1) at the time of the signing, he was the President of the Continental Congress, and 2) Hancock was most likely the only person to sign the document in July of 1776. After signing, he provided a broadside to his printer friend so that copies were made. The rest of the signatories to the document did not affix their names to the broadsides until August, almost a full month later.
The relevant omissions are glaring and significant. In a series about a group dedicated to the preservation of liberty, and the disposition that natural rights exist and are worth defending, the show does an efficient job of ignoring these themes completely. Instead of focusing on policy, the show becomes an antagonist/protagonist quarrel rather than an indictment upon government overreach and unconstitutional policy. The contrived scenes are sometimes laughable, sometimes insulting. The show ignores the legitimate arguments against the unconstitutional policy of the crown, while overemphasizing the dispute as a personal vendetta between Thomas Gage and the patriots. The characters are marginalized into caricatures, despite their historical charisma. I believe they could have been portrayed in an interesting light without the need for reinvention and bastardization. This was done to a reasonable extent in the HBO miniseries on John Adams.
I am of the valuation that despite History’s disclaimer on their site, the show does not cover “real events” but instead marginalizes real events to create a narrative that does not recognize the constitutional quandary of the time. Instead of “capturing the spirit of the times,” it paints a portrait inconsistent with the spirit of the times by omitting important and relevant information. Furthermore, it assists with the perpetuation of myths, imparts falsities into the public psyche, and engages in character assassinations of Samuel Adams, Thomas Gage, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and others.
The real Sons of Liberty were a group that accepted natural law, believed contemporary British policy was unconstitutional, and denied that their state was bound by Parliamentary acts. Rather than be confined to caricatures, their antagonism sparked a movement and changed the world.
History’s disclaimer adopts the position that this show is “historical fiction.” But it is has been exactly this type of work, and narratives like it, that has overtaken historical truth through the years. Fiction has entered the cultural narrative, and it deserves to be corrected. This series promises to perpetuate myths rather than to encourage us to learn more about our history and heritage.