J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Top 3 Errors in History Channel's The Revolution

Last night the History Channel unveiled its new series The Revolution with an episode titled "Boston, Bloody Boston," as I noted earlier. I'm hard to please when it comes to TV history. But it's simply impossible to summarize the decade or more of political strife in less than an hour (with time out for John Hancock Insurance commercials), so I watched with a charitable eye.

I can excuse how the show's writers fell for some common myths, such as the Sons of Liberty or Continental Congress as secret organizations, or John Adams's "courageous" choice to represent the soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. I can overlook the mash-up of visual material, so most of the "period" engravings shown actually date from the 1800s and a broadside on Lexington and Concord was used to depict the reaction to the Boston Massacre. And of course we have to expect low-budget reenactments that make a dozen men in slow motion represent hundreds, and a wooded lot in summer stand in for both the streets of Boston in winter and the farmland of Concord in spring. But three misstatements stood out for me.

3. Bostonians had to house British soldiers in their homes in 1774-75, and soldiers ransacked homes on their way to Concord looking for arms. The only British soldiers housed in private homes before the war were officers renting rooms from willing hosts. Boston's dispute over quartering was whether the town had to provide barracks space in publicly-owned buildings in the middle of town, or could insist on housing the soldiers in an island fort. As for the British column on its way to Concord, they were too scrupulous and too much in a hurry to enter people's homes. Soldiers did enter homes on their way back to Boston, both to protect their column from ambush and to loot. But the notion of colonists forced to host soldiers who search for privately-owned weapons is an NRA myth.

2. Two of the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre were punished with "life imprisonment." Multi-year sentences weren't yet part of the British-American penal code. The two soldiers convicted of manslaughter were sentenced to hang, then in a legal ritual plead "benefit of clergy," allowing them to escape the death penalty and instead be branded F (for felon) on the base of one thumb.

1. Samuel Adams—who's Samuel Adams? This episode covered the ten years between the Stamp Act and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It covered the resistance to taxes, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, growth of a Patriot correspondence network, and Continental Congress. It focused on Boston. And yet the single most important political organizer in that town, a man involved in each and every one of those events, was never highlighted. That's like doing a documentary on the rise of the Hollywood studio system without mentioning Louis B. Mayer.


J. L. Bell said...

Since posting this, I've learned that the producers of The Revolution originally planned to feature Samuel Adams prominently, but that a technical problem made them decide to scrap the footage they'd shot of an actor playing him. So that's a little reassuring, though the broadcast result is still strangely incomplete.

Anonymous said...

I DVR'd this show and watched the section regarding error #2 over and over. To me it sounds like the narrator said that the "other two recieved light sentences," not life sentences.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the sharper ears! In that case, #2 would be one of my top errors.

Being branded on the thumb was a relatively light sentence alongside what the soldiers were tried for: murder, with a painful hanging as the penalty. At the same time, being convicted of manslaughter was a serious matter, and people who had already plead benefit of clergy once could be hanged for that crime. That's why I think of the outcome of the soldiers' trial as a mixed verdict.

It also seems clear from the royal authorities' private correspondence and how they handled the Ebenezer Richardson case that they would have sought pardons for any soldiers convicted of a worse crime and/or facing the death penalty.