Patriot Games

Friendly Fire: KTCA's Liberty! shoots for a simple, affirming version of the American Revolution.

Liberty! The American Revolution
KTCA-TV and Middlemarch Films
Sunday through Tuesday at 8 p.m. and November 30 at 1 p.m.

LIBERTY! THE American Revolution is not your average six-hour historical documentary. This $5-million project includes a companion text chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club (selling for $39.95), a CD featuring James Taylor, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo Ma (only $16 from Sony), a Curriculum Package for teachers, and its own Web site (www.pbs.org). Each episode and all the ancillary material provide ample notice for Norwest, the "diversified financial services company," whose $2.5 million donation earned them the status as "exclusive national corporate sponsorship." Raise the battle cry for public broadcasting: Give us sponsorship or give us death!

The commercialism of Liberty! should make alarm bells go off when we look at it. Have these economic values helped shape the story being told? The answer, sadly, is yes: KTCA-TV, which produced this series, has seemingly gotten exactly the history they paid for.

Liberty! offers a simple narrative of a group of white male "patriots" drawn from the ranks of "the rich and the powerful," who "reluctantly" took up the cause of independence from Great Britain, defeated the world's best-financed military, and created "a constitution upholding principles of liberty and equality for a vast, free republic." The documentary dresses up this story--the one that most of us grew up with and that most of our kids are still being fed in school--with beautiful photography, veteran professional actors, hundreds of well-costumed "re-enactors," and a skillfully composed soundtrack.

Yet, though it boldly lays its claim to the truth--each episode opens with the notice that "words spoken by the actors in this film are taken from the diaries, documents, and letters from the people of the time"--the series advances a view of U.S. history that has been thoroughly challenged by at least a generation of historians. The filmmakers, however, have chosen to ignore this entire body of scholarship in favor of an older interpretation, and a simple, affirming narrative. The result: a handsomely packaged presentation of risible errors and pointed omissions.

The bicentennial of 1976 provoked historians like Alfred Young, Gary Nash, Linda Kerber, Jesse Lemisch, Eric Foner, Sidney Kaplan, Mary Beth Norton, Robert Gross, Dick Hoerder, and Steve Rosswurm to look beyond the standard celebration of the "founding father" to explore the roles played by artisans, seamen, urban crowds, women of diverse economic backgrounds, Indians, free blacks, and slaves. Some of these writers have demonstrated that artisans and urban crowds of men and women helped link social and economic independence from Great Britain. These crowds used traditional, ritualized forms of protest--rough music, food riots, effigies--to pressure both the British and their colonial sympathizers. This pressure also helped push a segment of the elite--men like John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton--to risk a break with their British business partners.

The above historians also traced the involvement of women in the revolution far beyond the roles of the observers and letter writers portrayed in Liberty!. They demonstrated that women helped provide food, clothing, and material support for the Continental troops; that they played important roles within the urban crowds, from mobilizing their neighbors to selecting the crowd's targets; and that they formulated an ideology of "republican womanhood," which laid claim to having earned the rights of citizenship. It is manifest, then--or should be--that these other groups (other than the elite, that is) were present in the revolutionary struggle. Their involvement, in fact, helped shape the very direction of that struggle.

And Liberty!'s distortions go even deeper, beyond errors of omission to errors of commission. Its simple treatment of our "founding fathers" refuses to confront the complications of their lives and ideologies. Here, we find no attempt to consider the conflicted ways that these men's quest for "liberty" cannot be understood apart from their experience of racial domination and masculinity in colonial society.

Particular examples are compelling, despite Liberty!'s silence about them. Take George Washington. How can we understand his warning to his soldiers that "You and your descendants will become slaves if you do not defend yourselves as men," if we do not engage the fact that he was one of colonial America's largest slaveholders--not just "a planter and a businessman" whose cousin managed his "estate" for him while he was away at war? Thomas Jefferson's peculiar case--the slaveholder who composed that memorable one-liner "All men are created equal"--is rather better known, yet similarly goes unmentioned.

In its final episode, Liberty! suggests that the Revolution and the Constitution created a tradition of liberty that, "over time, became a widening circle" for the groups (slaves, free blacks, women, propertyless whites, Indians...a long list) who had initially been left out of the notion of "we, the people." A more complex reading of these historical events, one which recognizes that domination and subordination, freedom and its absence, have existed--and continue to exist--in a dialectical and dynamic relationship with each other, would suggest a very different understanding of "liberty" and of the Revolution's meaning for us now.

 
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