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“Liberty: The American Revolution”, A Review
We know the story. Mostly English Protestants come over and form thirteen colonies here in America. At one point, England decides to be greedy and impose a series of taxes, both as a way to make money and as a punishment.
Fast-forward a bit, and we have the Boston Massacre where we protest English armed soldiers with stones. Not our best showing, however, they shoot, they kill, and we are furious.
Then, that worked well, so the British government decides to tax something everybody drinks: tea. We have a tea party in protest, and dump the tea.
We are sick of British control, so on a hot, stuffy day on July 4, 1776, our leaders from the thirteen colonies sign a Declaration of Independence. The die is cast.
George Washington, a relatively old (at the time) war veteran and plantation owner is named Commander of the Continental Army. He throws together a rag-tag of everyday citizens together and through frustration, sacrifice, and pure intelligence, they beat one of the greatest world powers.
What I Liked
Being a history nerd, I have seen a lot of documentaries. While some aren’t very entertaining or engaging, this one is the exception. The way they do it is by telling the stories, instead of talking at us. (By the way, that’s all history is is stories, People!) The stories come through the costumed real people, who give life and depth to their perspective. They take us right to the moment of what is happening at the time, and adds an urgency we wouldn’t anticipate from a textbook. The intensity of the material and the background music keeps each episode moving quickly. And each episode ends with James Taylor singing, which was a powerful wrap-up to each episode.
Who they choose to feature is also important as many, many people contributed to the revolution, aside from people we already know. We see perspectives from regular people like, an American Tory to a freed African-American slave enlisting in the American Army to a Hessian soldier to an American soldier, called Joseph Plumb Martin (played by the fantastic Phillip Seymour Hoffman) It’s incredibly refreshing, as normally soldiers don’t get usually showcased. Their stories need to be told as well.
We also get to see the British and Hessian’s point-of-view, which is pertinent when studying conflicts. In my opinion, we need every perspective to facilitate understanding, so we don’t make the same mistakes again (like John Burgoyne issuing harsh proclamations and ticking people off). That is the beautiful thing about historical mistakes: we don’t have to repeat them.
What I Didn’t Like
Honestly, I can’t think of anything I didn’t like. Being a performer myself, I have fairly high entertainment standards. From start to finish, this documentary actually engaged me. I‘d be happy if PBS did every one of their documentaries using talking heads and excellent editing. (Please be listening, PBS!)
The only thing I can think of is that I wish that the documentary itself was a bit cheaper: around $20 instead of $25.
Sharing is Caring
As I mentioned above, this series is absolutely fantastic. Educators, I hope you have a chance to show “Liberty” to your students. Everybody should watch it at least once.
Until you’re able to see it, let me give you a sample of what unique information you can expect to learn:
1. When the volunteer American army was formed, many of these everyday Americans had never fought in a battle before. They brought whatever weapons they had, including muskets, sickles and hammers. Could you imagine them fighting with sickles and hammers? Good lord.
Most had no official uniforms throughout most of the war as Congress had very little money. Any uniforms would have been from their state militia.
2. When George Washington took command, he had previously fought in the French and Indian War—for the British! His contributions were quite disastrous, but he obviously learned enough to pull a victory.
3. Hard to believe, but New York City was a British stronghold until 1783. In fact, the name New York itself is named after the city York in England.
4. Some fought with quill pens. The winter at Valley Forge was even worse than it has been described in history books. Some of the American soldiers weren’t fully clothed, some also lacked shoes and were walking on pure frozen ground. General Washington struggled to feed them as Congress was poor, and most enlistments were up at the end of the year. They had been pushed from New York City. Morale was low.
On December 23, 1776, General Washington found a piece of writing from a familiar name: Thomas Paine. Paine had previously written “Common Sense”, to which many felt was the basis for American independence. Paine continued to be inspired by their determination, in the face of great struggles, and wrote “The American Crisis “.
General Washington immediately ordered his officers to read Paine’s writing to his troops: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”. Paine’s words became fuel for the Battle of Trenton.
5. As General Washington received word that the German Hessians were stationed in nearby Trenton, New Jersey for Christmas, he decided to attack them. He surmised they would be drinking and would not be in any condition to fight.
He was right. That early morning, they completed their surprise attack and the battle was on. Over 800 Hessian soldiers were captured.
Interestingly, the night before, a gentleman urgently came to see Colonel Rall, who was acting commander that night, but he refused. The gentleman asked if he could give a note to him. The note was given to Colonel Rall, but for some reason, he didn’t read it and put it in his coat pocket.
When he died the next morning during the battle, this note was discovered in his coat. It said, “the Americans are coming to attack you tomorrow morning.” Talk about irony!
6. Native American tribes assisted both sides and were incredibly important in their knowledge of the land.
7. African Americans also assisted both sides during the American Revolution. Most who fought with the British were escaped slaves who had a vendetta against their former masters. Others simply fought for the chance of freedom and/or their country.
8. Nathanael Greene was a Major General on the American side. During the war, he won’t be known for winning battles necessarily, but for wearing the enemy down. At the time, in addition to New York City, a lot of the South was a major British stronghold. As the British usually outnumbered his men, he would make the BrIrish chase them through the backwoods while they slowly lost their provisions and men to sickness. Then, Greene would have his men cut down trees to impede their path. He literally used his wit to outmaneuver and outsmart the British to win the South.
9. The Americans were slowly gaining but pretty close to losing the war until the French signed on, thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s subtle begging. One of those French heroes signed on because he was infatuated by the idea of liberty, and George Washington. The man’s full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or the Marquis de Lafayette. He was nineteen years old.
10. Speaking of French heroes, Count de Rochambeau became the code name for the Battle of Yorktown, because it sounded like “rush on boys”.
Want a copy of your own?
It's well-made, and it features a lot of "talking heads" where you meet the historical figures from all sides of the revolution and get their stories. You also learn about things that you didn't necessarily delve into in school. For example, one of the main reasons we persevered (besides the French, of course) is because of George Washington's wit, patience, and knack for finding good talent. He could have given up at any time, and he didn't. It's truly inspiring. I watch it about once a year to refresh on the foundation of our beautiful country.
© 2017 Lauren Sutton