Rebels with a Cause
The Founding Fathers Come Front and Center in History's Sons of Liberty
Sam Adams may be best known these days as a brand of beer, but viewers of a new History miniseries can expand their knowledge of the real Samuel Adams and his pivotal role in the history of the United States.
Sons of Liberty , premiering January 25, opens 10 years before the Revolutionary War, when the future Founding Fathers were young guys killing time at the Green Dragon, a Boston tavern established in 1654 and still in business today.
Here’s a closer look at five of the era’s key players, with insights from the actors portraying them and from writer–executive producer Stephen David.
Portrayed by Ben Barnes
The American statesman — like the Brit who plays him — displayed a mix of tenacity and tenderness, David says.
“Ben can be tough; he’s a boxer in real life. Sam Adams got in plenty of fights, but was a person who’s all heart as well. Adams’s fault was that he almost cared too much, and I see that in the actor, too. Not the fault, but the vulnerability.”
Barnes admires Adams’s conviction and determination, but says one quality he doesn’t share with the patriot is natural leadership.
“The War for Independence was sprung from clandestine meetings in pubs in Boston concerning the injustice of British taxation and oppression of the colonists, most of whom didn’t realize their freedom was being violated,” Barnes says. “I’m surprised Sam Adams was able to instigate a rebellion from such negligible beginnings.”
QUOTE: “The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom and defended it as they ought.” —Samuel Adams, Boston Gazette , October 14, 1771
Portrayed by Rafe Spall
Coming from one of the wealthiest families in the Colonies, Hancock — a guest at the coronation of King George III — seemed an unlikely revolutionary.
“John Hancock was using Sam Adams because Sam knew people, and people followed him,” David says. “And Sam Adams was using John Hancock because he had money. It’s a rich guy–cool guy buddy thing.”
In auditions, British-born Spall projected an aristocratic air that Hancock undoubtedly possessed. “That surprised me in a good way,” David says. “Rafe can also be extremely funny while still being completely grounded. That made the relationship between Hancock and Sam Adams really entertaining to watch.”
David was also struck by Spall’s resemblance to early images of Hancock.
Spall, who admires Hancock’s political success, found one detail about the man especially surprising: “He used to run military drills on his front lawn for fun.”
QUOTE: “There! I guess King George will be able to read that without his spectacles!” — John Hancock, on signing the Declaration of Independence
Portrayed by Michael Raymond- James
The legendary silversmith — a dentist on the side — was the hardened veteran of the core group of patriots, David says, but during auditions for Sons of Liberty , most actors read Revere’s lines as if they were out of an ‘80s action movie.
However, “Michael Raymond-James played it completely straight. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s Paul Revere!’”
Shocked at how little he knew about Revere before taking the role, the actor researched his character. “The more I delved into who he was and searched for ways I’d be able to play him, the more I came to admire him and his accomplishments,” Raymond-James says. “He was so much more than a man on a horse that fateful night. He was, in fact, a founder and field operator in the machinery of what we’d today call the intelligence community.”
MISQUOTES: Revere probably never yelled, “The British are coming!” since he was covertly spreading the word about the enemy. And “One if by land, and two if by sea,” comes directly from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere . ”
Portrayed by Henry Thomas
"At this point in time, John Adams was like an ambulance-chasing lawyer,” David says of the man who would become the country’s second president. “He had horrible clients. He was trying to live by the book but wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Yet Adams proved to be the voice of reason among the Founding Fathers.
While Paul Giamatti made an indelible impression as Adams in HBO’s 2008 miniseries, David says, “Henry is an amazing actor. He’s embodied this character so well, he’s put a whole other image in my head.”
While many consider Adams radical for his time, Thomas doesn’t agree.
“I think he was very conservative,” the actor says. “The radical within him was ruled by the letter of the law and his rights as an Englishman vis-à-vis the colonial charter with the King of England. I admire the great courage John Adams displayed when he represented the British soldiers on trial for what became known as the Boston Massacre.”
QUOTE: “Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.” —John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law , 1765
Portrayed by Dean Norris
A couple of decades older than his fellow patriots, Franklin was known as an inventor, diplomat and bon vivant . He also was gregarious and hard-drinking.
When it came to casting, “we wanted somebody who could feel real [as a respected statesman] even though he’s so off-the-wall,” David says.
Seeing pictures of Franklin and Norris side by side, David knew the right makeup, hair and costume would be important, since casting iconic characters is tricky. “To not have the actors look like them would be weird for the audience.”
While Norris admires how Franklin rose from modest means to become one of the most respected men in U.S. history, there was something he particularly enjoyed learning about the man on the $100 bill: “His great genius seems to have been matched by his love for, and indulgence in, debauchery.”
QUOTE: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” —Benjamin Franklin, February 17, 1775