Melissa Walsh

History Channel's Sons of Liberty: Void of Common Sense

Powerplay Communications (self) | February 5th, 2015 | Blog post - History Channel's Sons of Liberty: Void of Common Sense

Paine

By Melissa Walsh

The History Channel’s Sons of Liberty was beyond bad; for a channel whose namesake is “history,” it was irresponsible. The script not only presented ridiculous falsehoods in a ludicrously dummied-down drama of what an unread audience might perceive as history; it omitted key figures and developments that led to America’s prodigious Patriot Movement of the 1770s.

From the early first-episode scene depicting Samuel Adams pursued by one-dimensional red-coated thugs and running across Boston rooftops like David Starsky, I was disappointed. Artistically the truth would have been a much more compelling story to portray than the soap-opera casting and cheesy, 21st-century dialogue the History Channel gave us in Sons of Liberty. Perhaps the screenwriters interviewed Drunk History contributors as research.

I continued to watch nonetheless, with an agenda: I wanted to see if the writers bothered to add Common Sense to the script.

They did not.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, not Sam Adams' strong-arming, was arguably the key cultural force that pulled colonists en masse away from British loyalist tradition and pulled them into vision for a new American nation-state. Common Sense is what dared and convinced them to take up arms against the super power of the world. This is not to say that Sam Adams’ contribution to the American Revolution was not remarkable. It is to explain how Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty comrades in arms were able to gain the sizable Patriot following and build an army of men and boys that paid for independence from Britain with their lives.

Were colonists upset over taxation without representation? Yes. But were they more likely to own land in the American colonies than in Britain? Yes. American colonists remained largely loyal to the crown in 1775. And, despite the rebel-rousing of Sam Adams and friends, they may have remained complacent under colonial rule if it weren’t for a devoted, prolific, and enlightened writer -- Thomas Paine.

As the Sons of Liberty managed the muscle and logistics of American revolution, Paine gave it the authority of Common Sense.

Written in 1775 and reviewed by Dr. Benjamin Rush, David Rittenhouse, and Samuel Adams, Paine’s 48-page pamphlet Common Sense was released in January of 1776 and sold 120,000 copies in three months in the American colonies alone. Paine published the pamphlet anonymously, taking no royalty payments. Initially, many believed that Common Sense had been written by Benjamin Franklin (Paine’s friend and mentor) or John Adams. Soon it became common knowledge that Paine had written the explosive, seditious pamphlet.

“If any man is entitled to be called the Father of American Independence,” wrote Sidney Hook in the Introduction to a Signet Classic collection of Paine’s writings," it is Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense stated the case for freedom from England’s rule with a logic and a passion that roused the public opinion of the colonies to a white heat.”

What Paine understood:

New Media

As a writer, Paine knew the potential power of the modern medium of his day to make his message go viral, if you will -- the printing press. He was a journalist in Philadelphia well-positioned to spread his message. Common Sense remains the highest selling and circulating title in American history.

“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”

~ Thomas Paine, Common Sense

“The People”

The 18th century was a period of rapidly expanding literacy among common classes. While writers continued to address the traditionally literate aristocracy and gentry, Paine addressed all of society. The democratic appeal to an all-inclusive readership, to the people, was radical and fresh, and later adopted by Thomas Jefferson as “all men” in the Declaration of Independence. Paine wrote in clear language a common message to all classes of society of the American colonies. He galvanized them into a single American identity and loyalty.

“For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have the right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his cotemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”

~ Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Loyalism

Paine appreciated the colonists’ nostalgic and cultural ties to the British monarchy. In Common Sense, he convinced colonists that they were indeed merely colonists in the view of Britain, minor subjects ruled by an Imperialist power, and not citizens of England. He fastened a new allegiance to a vision of an American nation-state, with Europe as its parentland, not Britain.

“One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

~ Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Enlightenment

Paine was a driven student of philosophy, long before landing in Philadelphia in late 1774. To present a grand and global vision of American legacy, Paine submitted arguments borne from his study of leading-edge philosophical ideas of his time, such as Kant’s notion of reason as central to morality and Voltaire’s advocacy of separation of church and state.

“Posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now.... The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

~ Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Perseverance

During the Revolutionary War, 1776 to 1783, Paine released a series of pamphlets known as The American Crisis, using the pseudonym “Common Sense.” As Common Sense convinced colonists to resist British rule and fight for independence, The American Crisis kept their faith in the American cause for independence as they suffered the horrors of war.

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”

~ Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Would the American colonies have become the United States of America without Thomas Paine’s writings? No matter the response to that question, Paine and his Common Sense should never be omitted from the telling of the story of America’s Sons of Liberty.