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Men in Tricorns - Or Maybe Not?

Everybody knows my head turns when I see a man in a tricorn, which only happens on a book cover or on television. Ben Barnes in a tricorn is even better. (I have no idea why I have this affinity for dark and handsome, but that’s a subject for another blog.)

When the advertisement for Sons of Liberty flashed across the screen, the nerd in me very near had heart palpitations. Anyone old enough to remember the 70s and the plethora of Revolutionary stories? I miss those days.

Naturally, despite my sometimes scathing opinion of The History Channel, I watched the series from the beginning to the end. (No one ever accused me of being a quitter.) Unfortunately, I fact checked with my laptop and the disappointment piled up like cow dung. (Sorry, but this is a blog about the 1700s.)

Now let me first say, that I am all for changing details for the sake of a story within limits. I did the same thing in Keeping Secrets which was “loosely based” on the lives of my own ancestors. Had I stuck to the facts as I know them, there would not have been enough to write a novel much less a trilogy. However, I did change the names since I took liberties with their lives and emotions. I have never, at any time, claimed the story of the real David Cayle and Annie McKechnie (remember names have been changed) went down as I have and will detail in The Children of the Light Trilogy.

The biggest difference between that sort of literary license, however, and what The History Channel perpetrated, is that they were revising the details of the causes of an American Revolution that made a democratic nation out of a handful of British colonies. The declaring of independence of a handful of colonists from the most powerful nation in the civilized world at the time did not depend upon the grievances and decisions of the real Cayles and McKechnies.

As for Sons of Liberty, it appears in some instances the creator took “unknowns” and made “leaps.” Take, for example, the two versions of Samuel Adams’ involvement in the Revolution’s beginnings in Boston. Most accounts and historians claim he was no more or less involved than others at the time. Another tale has him fomenting mob riots, publishing propaganda, and inciting rebellion. Obviously, The History Channel chose the latter version. However, Sons of Liberty takes this angle even further by suggesting that the whole movement for independence was Samuel Adams’ idea alone. This is hardly the truth of the matter.

Samuel Adams, about 1772

Samuel Adams about 1772, by John Singleton Copley

It is also worth noting that Samuel Adams, in 1765, was 46 years of age, with several failed businesses behind him, a paunch, and was on his second marriage to a woman 15 years his junior. He was hardly a roguish, athletic Ben Barnes, and it was not likely he ran through the streets of Boston at night trying to evade British soldiers.

Less problematic, but still disturbing, was the liberty taken with the roles of Margaret Gage and her husband British General Thomas Gage. Respected historian David Fisher Hackett suggests there is good evidence that Margaret, who was a colonist herself, was telling secrets to Dr. Joseph Warren before his death at the Battle of Bunker Hill the summer of 1775. One could naturally leap to the conclusion that the two were having an affair. It is known that Warren died in much the same way portrayed in Sons of Liberty, but there is no evidence Gage was the man who wielded the bayonet. Gage was reported to have said that the death of Warren was as good as the death of “500 men,” so there is evidence there was animosity between the two. One could even jump to the conclusion that the officer who did kill Warren knew of the man’s relationship with Margaret. As a novelist, I can forgive this sort of license for the sake of a story.

What I cannot forgive is the butchering of the character of General Thomas Gage. The man, while a British general, certainly was not known for the cruel, sadistic behavior the Sons of Liberty portrayed of him. There are, after all, two sides to every story. Portraying one dimensional characters with little depth does not represent a balanced account of the causes which led to American Independence. Overlooking facts does not aid in people’s understanding of how “history went down” either.

As for the causes of the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, which was fought for seven years in both the colonies and in Europe, was costly and greatly depleted King George’s coffers. In this country, the war was fought on the frontier along the western border just east of the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountain chains from New York all the way to the Carolinas. Naturally, when the war ended in 1763, taxes were the only way to replenish the King’s treasury.

In the colonies, however, the war continued to rage along the frontier, and the colonists’ clammered and cried for British troops to rescue them from the Indians. The British Parliament could have cared less, but because the colonists were “loyal British subjects of the King,” and because they wished to hold a border intact from further French incursions, they sent aid from time to time in the form of the British Army. Of course, this was another and larger expense as the war continued to rage on the frontier until and beyond the American Revolution.

On 22 March 1765 Parliament enacted the Stamp Tax. This provided that the colonists paid a small tax on any printed paper they used, from legal documents to playing cards. In and of itself it was negligible, but it was the first time taxes were imposed for the raising of funds. In reality, the colonists had no problem with the raising of taxes, for on the face of it they understood the price of war. The prevalent belief, however, was that the Stamp Tax would set a precedent for future taxes without consent. It was this “consent” that was the problem, and thus the mantra “no taxation without representation” began to circulate. As the colonies had long been given little consideration in Parliament, they had a right to be concerned.

In reality, unlike Parliament’s portrayal in Sons of Liberty, it was actually their negligence that cost them the British colonies, not malicious intent. They viewed the colonists as backward rabble rousers (and of course there is much evidence to support this) who did not deserve to be recognized as true Englishmen. After the passing of the Stamp Tax, Boston spiraled into revolutionary chaos. Each step King George took to bring Boston to heel, such as the stationing of more and more troops, the right of British troops to enter homes at will and to confiscate goods or household items as well as imprison colonists without due process, and the closing of the port, only fueled the animosity. By 1775, ten years after the discontent started, the situation culminated in the Battle of Bunker Hill and by the next year, on 4 July 1776, the colonies had declared their independence.

Death of General Warrn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull

A war was inevitable. Britain’s ability to understand colonial concerns, much less control the colonists, could not possibly be managed over the depth and breadth of an ocean. However, it is safe to say that had King George handled the situation with a bit more diplomacy, the situation would not have climaxed nearly as quickly as it did.

I could go on and on (and you know I could but I will not) about the inaccuracies in Sons of Liberty. There are a number of articles online detailing such, some minor, others major. You can find those for yourself with a quick Google search.

I will say, though, that what makes the History Channel’s portrayal so awful is that it is the History Channel. Granted, the creator himself said he was “telling” a story and was more concerned with the “spirit” of the times. Unfortunately, most Americans glean what little they know about any history from this very station. It is upsetting to think of the number of people who will watch this mini-series .and adopt a rewritten version that Samuel Adams single handedly forged a nation and that the British army was a lean, mean killing machine with no heart at all.

As for me, I think I will look for men in tricorns on the covers of novels for the time being.

That is, if I can find them.

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