It was the most successful revolution in history (and the most underrated), but one in which the winning side lost almost every battle that it fought. It was a war with dramatic battles and military campaigns, but whose greatest revolution was in political thinking and good government. And it was a war with larger-than-life heroes who were immortalized in statues and monuments; but it was won by the tireless efforts of ordinary people, without whose efforts the war would surely have been lost.
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
The American Revolution it created became the most powerful nation in the world, but was one of the weakest nations for most of its early history. Indeed, it would never have won its independence at all without the help of foreign powers (especially France), and the war was a desperate one whose outcome was not the inevitable victory it is often painted to be. The Americans could very well have lost that war, and the country as we know it would never have existed: the world would have been a very different place.
Not surprisingly, Americans have placed great emphasis on telling the story anew with each succeeding generation; and so there are two major documentary series in modern times that cover the war of independence for television. (They do not focus on just one part of it, but tell the whole story from beginning to end, focusing especially on the military campaigns that so defined its outcome.) One is a PBS fare called "Liberty! The American Revolution," and the other is a History Channel production simply entitled "The Revolution." Both are remarkably good, but in different ways; and each one has things it excels at more than the other. Thus, I thought I'd offer this review for those interested in the topic, to help them discover which of the two they would most like to see.
Boston Tea Party, 1773
But to do this, I must spend some time examining the history of the war itself. Like any major social revolution, the revolution has a complicated backstory, which turned loyal subjects of an empire into a rebellious insurgency clamoring for independence. It involves many complicated provocations, starting with being taxed by a Parliament in which they were not represented, which escalated to a declaration by this Parliament that they had the right to legislate over the colonies "in all cases whatsoever" - regardless of representation. To take someone's property without their consent is stealing, and taxation can only be justified if the people have consented through their representatives to pay it - whether by their own representatives' direct vote, or by the majority rule of the other representatives. Thus, even the taxation was a major provocation; and these documentaries both have to cover it. The network that covers this best is PBS, which spends much time on the causes of the war, and the complicated politics behind them. The History Channel picks up steam when it gets to the military campaigns, and gets out of the complicated territory of the fomenting rebellion.
Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775
Pretty soon, both documentaries are spending a lot of time on the outbreak of the war at Lexington and Concord, and the major battles from the early part of the war. From Bunker Hill and Long Island to Trenton and Saratoga, both documentaries spend a lot of time on the early part of the war, and each series covers it well. My preference is for the PBS coverage for this early part of the war, but the History Channel is better when it gets to the later portion; for PBS almost entirely neglects the middle portion of the war. The History Channel series is a full ten hours long, but the PBS series is only six hours long; and thus has to cut out a lot that the History Channel one can leave in. The place where it takes the hit most is in the middle part of the war, and so PBS covers almost nothing between the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France and the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. This leaves about three years of the war virtually unaccounted for.
General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the besieged Americans at Charleston in 1780
The omission is a major one, and the History Channel helps to fill in the gaps that PBS is forced to leave out. I'm sure documentaries for public television have a limited budget, while a for-profit network like the History Channel can get more money from investors for a popular subject like the American Revolution. Thus, they are able to cover the Southern campaigns of the war in great detail, giving extensive coverage of battles and campaigns that are entirely omitted in the PBS documentary. Events like the Siege of Charleston, the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, and the suffering of Washington's army at Valley Forge are all covered extensively, virtually all forced to be omitted from the shorter PBS documentary. The History Channel is at its best depicting major military events, allowing the action of the story to be told in a way comprehensible to modern audiences. I actually like the dramatic coverage of PBS better for the battles that it does cover, but there's a significant portion of the war that it doesn't cover, and the History Channel helps to fill in the gaps in the story.
British surrender at Yorktown, 1781
Besides the causes of the war, the other major area that the PBS series does better is their coverage of the war's effects. The catastrophic postwar situation was almost more threatening than the war itself, as the weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation had virtually no ability to get anything done. It had no power to tax or do anything of substance, and so the states tottered on the verge of a second rebellion and a civil war. This is virtually omitted in the History Channel fare. Thus, the History Channel does not help to understand the impetus for the Constitution; and why it was so important for the colonies to create the postwar Constitution (the one that we use today). The PBS series covers the Constitutional Convention, the document itself, and the ratification debates - helping viewers to make sense of what the war accomplished, and why it did not descend into chaos like virtually every other revolution in history has. The war had been won, but the peace had not; and so the revolution was not complete until the new government was created. This was the real miracle of the revolution.
The Constitutional Convention, 1787
One other point needs to be made about the talking heads: The History Channel has many interesting commentaries from American historians, including one in full military uniform from West Point; but PBS interviews British historians as well, mixing commentary from the Americans and the British into a two-sided commentary. This is not to criticize the History Channel's focus - there are advantages to focusing on one side of the story - but PBS also sets itself apart in getting the other side of the story on the record, and showing how the revolution is perceived in Britain today.
George Washington at Valley Forge, 1777-78
I've necessarily left out much of the meat of the story, and given only hints of its true drama; but both of these documentaries give the story in breathtaking detail and powerful drama, allowing you to understand the true importance of the Revolution.
PBS's "Liberty! The American Revolution" DVD at Amazon
The History Channel's "The Revolution" DVD at Amazon
Timeline of United States military history:
French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Cold War 1945-1991
Other wars to be covered later
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Constitutional Convention movie
French Revolution program
First episode of PBS series
Available on YouTube