Sons of Liberty on “History” is terrible and stupid and partly accurate

Posted on February 12, 2015. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Everyone by now is talking about History.com’s Sons of Liberty and how blazingly inaccurate it is. Everything that can be falsified has been falsified, from the ages of the leading participants to their motives to their actions. The AV Club sums it up better than we can here.

We went to the History.com website to take a look and were intrigued, given the circumstances, to see a box called “Historians’ View” on the landing page. Once clicked, we came to a page that begins with this statement:

“SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please check out the links below.”

A slew of links out to other resources follow this, and most of them are accurate, which seems baffling at first—if you know the real story, why not tell it?

But that brief statement explains all. Should the “History” channel offer historical fiction rather than fact? No. Should it present historical fiction as a documentary for TV viewers, with this disclaimer buried below the episodes on the website? No. Should it promote 21st-century gun values by claiming that they are part of our hallowed revolutionary history? No.

The latter is most important, because the Revolution was all about our evolution from a tradition of mindless, horrible violence to a focused legal, philosophical, and military fight for liberty and justice. In our post The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence, we describe the terrible violence and destruction that Americans felt no qualms about using when they were upset, or for no real reason at all. Violent action was sanctioned in the American colonies in ways it never was in Britain. Mobs formed at the drop of a hat, and destroyed people’s homes and businesses—literally tearing them apart brick by brick—to settle personal grudges as well as political arguments. Tarring and feathering, which is somehow presented as a harmless prank today, involved holding people down naked and pouring boiling tar over their bare skin, then covering them with feathers. At the time, it was called “the American torture”. It cost many lives.

It was this kind of violence that the real Sons of Liberty’s leaders began to realize had to go if Americans wanted to claim they were calling for a just war against Britain. The Boston Tea Party was the striking departure from that tradition of violence. It was deliberately carried out without costing a single life—the men who called for the protest and led it in the harbor read the riot act to all participants: no one was to use any violence against any one. The protest had to be completely nonviolent for the same reason Martin Luther King wanted civil rights protests to be nonviolent: to show the injustice of the inevitable hostile reaction when compared with the high ideals of the protestors. And it was successful. The Tea Party was completely nonviolent, and that’s what aroused general public sympathy throughout the American colonies when the British cracked down so hard on Massachusetts in retaliation.

So making “Sons of Liberty” violent is indeed to “capture the spirit of the times”, as the disclaimer says, and if early episodes showed the unthinking violence our forefathers used early in the run-up to revolution, it would be completely accurate. But then it has to show the evolution away from violence in late 1773. It has to focus on the efforts of John Hancock, the Adams cousins, and others to swerve the growing energy for revolution away from mindless personal attacks to directed, politically powerful stands for liberty that could serve as building blocks for that liberty.

Instead, this series unsurprisingly focuses on imaginary affairs and other forms of make-believe that just confirm our judgment that the series’ producers and the “History” channel either a) did not know the real story or b) did not believe the facts were interesting enough to present, or both. It’s baffling how many shows about historical events believe those events were so incredibly boring they’re not worth making a show about, and fill in with guns and sex and made-up speeches and events instead. If you think the facts are boring, just write your fictional show and be done with it. Why call it Sons of Liberty when it’s not about them?

Perhaps one day, 100 years from now, someone will write a miniseries about the producers and management at the History Channel that shows them all as ex-cons who commit terrorist activities on the weekends. They could hardly complain, could they, from beyond the grave?

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Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes

Posted on May 27, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

Second in our series “Five Myths about the Revolutionary War” , concerning taxes.

Ask the average American what their colonial forebears thought about paying taxes and she will answer that they didn’t want to—wouldn’t do it, in fact, and went to war over it. But this is not so.

Americans in the Revolutionary period were not against paying taxes to Britain. Again, they were British citizens, thought of themselves as such, and had no problem with paying taxes like any other Britons to support the empire.  The problem was that Americans began to suspect that they were being asked to pay for the French and Indian War (1756-63) all on their own.

In truth, Americans paid far less tax than people living in England. Taxes in England in the mid-18th century were very high. America was taxed less for a few reasons: for many beginning decades in the 1600s the colonies were not able to produce enough to be taxed very much; England was afraid to tamper with the fledgling colonial economies; it was easier and faster to collect taxes in England, where the money could be in London with days rather than weeks or months; and finally most Americans had very little actual cash, relying on bills of credit issued from London.

America also cost England very little until the French and Indian War. While England fought France and Holland in Europe, defending the home island was the main objective, and the people living on it paid the government’s expenses to do so.

But when the war with France came in full force to America in 1756, Britain had to expend a great deal of money and effort to fight and win the war there. Yes, Americans were vital to that war effort, and many volunteered to fight the hated French, but in fact most colonial governments actually charged the British army for their help. British soldiers bought food and supplies at incredibly inflated prices, paid for their board, and fought beside American militia members whose colonial governments hired them out to fight, making a pretty penny for those colonies.

Once the war was over and won for Britain, Americans assumed things would return to normal. But Britain, realizing that its citizens in England were exhausted financially, while its citizens in America had actually made money on top of their usual robust economy, turned at last to those colonies to pay for their war.

The British government might have done it, too, successfully and without any problem, if it hadn’t been impatient. Rather than introduce higher export duties on American merchants and farmers, or some other more gradual measure, it came down hard with sweeping taxes that invaded every aspect of life—taxes on stamps, sugar, and tea that made life harder for all Americans.

Even these taxes might have been accepted, if Parliament had given the Americans some say in the matter. Americans had begun to expect that they should have seats in Parliament.  As British citizens, they should be able to participate in their own government. Perhaps every colony could send two representatives to Parliament, so that Americans could actually make the laws that would affect them. But the British government refused. Despite American claims to the rights of Englishmen, there was no denying that almost from the start of the colonial era there had been a clear divide between America and England, and a sense of alienation on both sides. (see Why did America Rebel against Britain? for more.)

So London did not really accept Americans as Britons, or America as just another branch of England. America was a colony, a possession, a piece of property, and its people were not British citizens but dependents on Britain. There could be no seat in Parliament for a foreign people under British rule.

When the Americans realized they would not be given a say in their own government, including what taxes were levied on them, their willingness to help pay for the French and Indian War evaporated and a rallying cry was born: “No taxation without representation.”

Americans, then, did not rebel against taxes, but against unfair government. Those Americans today who see protesting against all taxation as upholding the Revolutionary spirit and purpose are completely mistaken. Americans realized then as they do now that a government must tax its people. You pay taxes to get services. But it’s only fair to pay taxes if you have a say in them through your government representatives. If the Americans had been given their seats in Parliament, their representatives would have voted for most of the taxes and that would have been the end of it, rather than the beginning of a war.

Next time: The Revolution happened quickly

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What caused the Revolutionary War?

Posted on May 4, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America | Tags: , , , , |

I’ve been thinking about this question outside the context of New England, looking at the whole of the 13 American colonies (and even the British Caribbean) to figure out what led to revolution in the 18th century.

It’s easy to see how the Puritan New England colonies almost instantly developed a sense of their own nationhood, separate from England. Their religion and civil society were radically different from the ones in place in England. But what about the royal colonies of the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, and the South? What spurred them on when their religion was Church of England and their politics were, for the most part, in line with English demands?

I think it must come down to the important coincidence of the English Civil War breaking out just as most of the American colonies got started. Just 35 years after the founding of Virginia, the first North American colony, the English government devolved into civil war, which had many more immediate and long-term consequences for the colonies than we realize. Royalist and Parliamentary factions each turned to the colonies for support, trying to win the loyalty—and trade—of transplanted English people. Then, as Parliament consolidated its victory, it felt it had to build up a massive navy to protect its colonies from takeover by other nations looking to take advantage of the fledgling and conflicted English government. The massive navy led to many developments: increased English governmental meddling with/control over American trade, particularly in the Caribbean; war with the Dutch, which impacted not only trade (Holland being the largest trade partner of most colonies) but the Middle Colonies settled near Dutch holdings; and the new threat that colonies which did not hew to the political and religious dictates sent out from London would be blockaded and invaded by the English navy.

New England, supposed by the Puritan Parliament to be a natural ally, was exempted from the close scrutiny and interference with trade that the other royalist colonies experienced. But New England was cruelly disappointed by the new government, which came to support a religious toleration that was anathema to the American Puritans. New England offered no support to the new government, and its sense of being separate and even at odds with England itself grew even stronger.

Inside the colonies, there was conflict between groups supporting Parliament and those supporting the king. Even worse, men who had no real loyalty to either side used the opportunity to cause trouble. In Maryland, supposed devotion to the Puritan Parliament was the cover for ruining the religiously tolerant society created there by Catholics and Protestants, as Catholics were driven out.

By the time the Stuart line was restored in 1660, the American colonies had experienced almost 20 years of conflict with England. Moreover, those who had been born in England and gone to America felt that the country they had left behind, the king to which they pledged allegiance, the religion they had grown up in, were all gone. England was no longer home as it had been before, no longer the place they felt most comfortable, the place they wanted to re-create in the New World. England became a foreign land, run by people they did not know, embracing religions they did not like, and preventing the profitable trade they had come to depend on.

By the time James II imposed the Dominion of New England in 1686, it seemed like only the last in a series of provoking actions by a mostly alien government in London. When William and Mary were enthroned in 1689, the colonies all looked forward to improving relations with England, which in itself is telling: they saw England and its government almost as a foreign nation they had to establish diplomatic relations with. While William and Mary were popular throughout the colonies, the sense of division was impossible to fully overcome. Even while the colonies felt tied to England, and demanded their rights as English people, they felt they were not really part of England. And the English government felt the same way. A tie had been broken between them during the Civil War. The Americans were really the English-descended people of another nation by the mid-18th century, and as such would never be afforded full rights as English people by England.

If England had not gone through Civil War, I think things might have been very different. There would have been no reason for all but the Puritan colonies to feel alienated from England, or to feel that England itself as they knew and accepted it had ceased to exist. It was an unfortunate coincidence for England that its internal war had to happen just as its colonies were launching, severing the ties of home almost the moment they were stretched across the sea.

Continue the story—see how the French and Indian War triggered the Revolution.

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The Puritans and their ridiculous beliefs… in 1776

Posted on December 6, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, The Founders | Tags: , , , , |

I’m reading The Puritan Ordeal by Andrew Delbanco, and while the book is focused on the Puritan religious beliefs in the 17th century, one can’t help reading it as a treatise on American political beliefs in the 18th century.

–The Puritans “impute all faults and corruptions, wherewith the world aboundeth, unto the kind of ecclesiastical government established.” And in 1776, all faults and corruptions would be imputed to the kind of political government established.

–“[The Puritans] had a deep desire to believe in human moral capability. …Virtue, like a muscle or a limb, required continual strengthening through exercise.” Just as the Founders believed in the ability of humans to improve themselves and their condition, and believed fervently in the need for regular exercise of democratic virtue.

–“[Some contemporaries of the Puritans felt] they were fanatics who held out the fantastic promise of renovating human nature by effecting institutional change [within the church].” In 1776, it was institutional change in government that offered the ridiculous promise of utterly changing mankind.

In short, the Puritan conviction that the right religious practice could perfect the human soul, end poverty, curtail crime, alter human nature, and change the course of human history, putting it on a teleological path to utopian paradise on Earth, is almost indistinguishable from what the Founding generation believed the right form of government, in this case representative democracy, could do.

It is natural for us today to feel the Puritan reliance on religion was personal and uninformed, while we honor the Founders’ identical beliefs because the Founders transferred the process of perfecting humankind from religion to politics.

But Puritan religion was political, in the sense that the original New England Puritans developed their own social and political structures based on their religion. The small town, unified around one church, representing its people at regular intervals in town meeting, which was adopted across the nation over the course of centuries is the legacy of the Puritans. The New England Puritans also created a chief legislature in Boston (the General Court), to which towns elected representatives.

This social and political structure reflected the Puritan religious belief in the independence of the individual, and the right of people to associate and represent themselves freely, which had been denied them in England.

It is no great leap to see that these religious beliefs in New England morphed slowly into political ones. It’s a quick and easy step to go from Puritan fervor for a religion that upholds individual liberty and self-representation to Founding fervor for a form of government that does the same.

Everything that can be said slightingly about the Puritans’ wacky religious beliefs, then, can be said admiringly about the Founders’ inspiring political beliefs. You just become fully aware of how the lens of religion affects your opinion. Primed to dislike people who were religious fanatics, and who have gained a reputation for intolerance and violence, we find the Puritans’ beliefs that the religious practice they invented could change the very nature of humans to be ridiculous, typical of religious zealots. Primed to admire people who founded this nation and introduced representative democracy to the modern world, we find the Founders’ beliefs that the political system they invented could change the very nature of humans to be thrilling, and self-evident.

I have to believe that thousands of New Englanders living in the Founding period, who came from Puritan stock, inherited their ancestors’ passion for perfectablility, expressing it through politics rather than religion. As we know from our own experience, politics can be a powerful religion.

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More Puritan myth busting at American Revolution

Posted on November 10, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

Brad Hart reviews an interesting study of Puritan (and other colonial American) sexuality at American Revolution. I agree that it’s hard to study colonial sexuality when only the most sensational of situations (court cases, executions) were recorded for public posterity, but there’s certainly work to be done combing through the journals and other records we do have.

The image we tend to have of Puritans in New England as sex-haters is completely mythical; see just about all my Truth v. Myth posts on the Puritans for proofs!

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American Revolution, 1638

Posted on June 23, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

The Massachusetts Bay Colony had an ongoing battle with Parliament over its royal patent, issued by Charles I and given to John Winthrop to carry over to New England with the Puritan settlers in 1630.

The patent gave the colony’s governor and officers the power to make laws for themselves and basically to be self-governing, so long as their laws did not contradict the laws of England.

What’s interesting there is that the colonists were supposed or allowed to make their own laws. If those laws were not supposed to contradict those of England, then why allow them to make laws at all? Why not just say “follow the laws of England”?

The answer may be twofold. First, on England’s side, there was no real written body of laws, no constitution, to copy and take with them. Second, on the Puritans’ side, there was the understanding that special and/or unexpected conditions in the New World might call for new laws not pertinent to England. But on MBC’s side, there was also the firm if unspoken intent to function as a nearly sovereign state. The battle it fought to remain so is amazingly similar to the battle against royal authority in which Massachusetts took the lead in the 1770s.

As early as 1634, the Commission for Regulating Plantations, headed by Puritan foe Archbishop Laud, was seeking a revocation of MBC’s patent. In September 1634 Winthrop received a letter from the Commission stating its power to oversee MBC, call in its patent, make its laws, remove and punish its (elected) governors, “hear and determine all causes, and inflict all punishments, including death itself.” Sounds remarkably like the terms of what we call “the Intolerable Acts” of 1774.

In January 1635 we find the MBC reacting to this threat, calling all ministers, the governor, and the assistants together in Boston to discuss “what we ought to do if a general governor be sent out of England.” The decision was “we ought not to accept him but defend our lawful possessions (if we were able); otherwise, to avoid or protract [the confrontation].”

This very early decision not to accept direct rule from England is startling. This is from a colony only 4 years old, and far from secure. The MBC perceived threats from the French in Canada and today’s Maine, the Dutch in New York and western Connecticut, and potentially the Pequots or Narragansetts in Eastern Connecticut. Yet it was determined to manage its own affairs.

Over the years, the MBC used the “avoid or protract” strategy to parry many requests that it send its patent back to England for “review.” Winthrop particularly used a wide variety of ruses to avoid this. Once a demand for the patent was included in a packet of personal letters for Winthrop, and so, since the demand had not come by the usual official government messenger, Winthrop decided it was not a valid demand, and instructed the person who had delivered it to him to say the letter did not exist.

By September 1638, there was “a very strict order” from the Commission for sending back the patent. Again the governor (Winthrop) and the court of assistants agreed not to do so, “because then such of our friends and others in England would conceive it to be surrendered, and that thereupon we should be bound to receive such a governor and such orders as should be sent to us, and many bad minds, yea, and weak ones among ourselves would think it lawful if not necessary to accept a [royal] governor…”

It’s pretty astonishing to see English colonists in 1638 stating that only the bad or the weak would think it lawful to accept a governor from their home country, from the king they are supposed to be loyal to, from the government supposedly governing them.

The final quote on this could have come from 1775: in February 1641, the Long Parliament was in session, and its triumphant English Puritans wrote to MBC asking for its best men to come back to England to join Parliament and further their great work. The MBC’s response?

“But consulting about it, we declined the motion for this [reason], that if we should put ourselves under the protection of the parliament we must then be subject to all such laws as they should make, or at least such as they might impose upon us, in which course though they should intend our good, yet it might prove very prejudicial to us.”

It’s no surprise that Massachusetts led the way to Revolution in the 18th century. From its English settlement it was led by people who were determined to self-govern. This determination was largely if not completely based on religion, in that the Massachusetts Puritans had left England in order to live under a government consonant with their religious principles. Before 1640 they would not be ruled by an Anglican Parliament. After 1640, they would not be ruled by any Parliament. (The English Parliament’s espousal of toleration and presbyterianism quickly and completely alienated the Massachusetts Puritans, who then had dangerously difficult relations with the English Puritan government.)

The active leaders of rebellion in Massachusetts were mostly born in the 1730s and 40s. Those people would have had grandparents born in the late 1600s, who remembered when Massachusetts was at last subdued under a royal government in 1690.  Those grandparents would have known and told stories about their own grandparents, who fought Parliament in the mid-1600s. So the link between the rebellion of the 1630s and the rebellion of the 1770s is not so distant. When we look for the seeds of rebellion in America, we need to look all the way back to the beginnings of colonization, in the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts.

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