History Faculty Publications

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From 2002 to 2004, the children’s animated series Liberty’s Kids aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the United States’ public television network. It runs over forty half-hour episodes and features a stellar cast, including such celebrities as Walter Cronkite, Michael Douglas, Yolanda King, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, and Annette Bening. Television critics generally loved it, and there are now college students who can trace their interest in the American Revolution to having watched this series when they were children. At the turn of the twenty-first century, it is the most extended and in-depth encounter with the American Revolution that most young people in the United States are likely to have encountered, and is appropriately patriotic and questioning, celebratory and chastening. Although children certainly learn a great deal about multiculturalism from popular culture, the tropes and limitations of depicting history on television trend toward personification, toward reduced complexity and, for children, toward resisting examining the darker sides of human experience. As this essay suggests, the genre’s limits match the limits of a multicultural history in its attempt to show diversity and agency during a time when ‘‘ liberty and justice for all ’’ proved to be more apt as an aspiration at best and an empty slogan at worst than as an accurate depiction of the society that proclaimed it. This essay is not an effort to be, as Robert Sklar put it, a ‘‘ historian cop,’’ policing the accuracy of the series by patrolling for inaccuracies. Rather, it is a consideration of the inherent difficulties of trying to apply a multicultural sensibility to a portrayal of the American Revolution.

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Journal of American Studies





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