Long before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, there was a group of radical young men who fomented rebellion against the British monarchy.
They represented all tiers of society, from well-heeled lawyers to humble craftsmen. They met in secret at Boston's Green Dragon Tavern to plot daring acts of defiance. They railed against taxation without representation.
And rather than serve as second-class subjects of a distant monarch, they famously believed that all men are created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those seminal years leading to America's violent separation from the British Empire are re-created in "Sons of Liberty," a six-hour scripted miniseries that begins airing Jan. 25 on History. "Many people think of powdered wigs and quill pens when they think about that period," says Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager of History and H2. "We're bringing this story to life in a way a lot of people haven't seen before. We want it to be adventurous, bring some adrenaline to it."
In developing the miniseries, the producers consulted with historians to be as accurate as possible. "You can't make a documentary," Hoogstra acknowledges. "No one knows what was said. Some parts you have to fictionalize, so you can't be 100% factual.
"I know for sure," he adds, "if people are entertained, they're going to Google it. They're going to engage with American history in a way they might not have before."
English actor Ben Barnes ("The Chronicles of Narnia") stars as Samuel Adams, a tax-collector-turned-statesman who spread discontent among the colonists. Today the name Samuel Adams is commonly associated with beer. But the American patriot was actually a deeply religious man with a master's degree from Harvard and an affinity for politics rather than breweries.
Barnes describes Sam as the "beating heart of the revolution." He was also a sort of Robin Hood who put himself in the British cross hairs by refusing to collect taxes from some of his fellow citizens. In the TV show, Sam evades arrest by racing across rooftops and jumping through windows.
Along with Sam, dubbed "The Instigator," the miniseries features his conservative cousin — attorney and future president John Adams — referred to as "The Reluctant One." He's played by Henry Thomas ("E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Gangs of New York").
Michael Raymond-James ("Jack Reacher," "True Blood") has the role of silversmith and midnight rider Paul "The Thug" Revere. And Rafe Spall ("Prometheus," "Life of Pi") is featured as wealthy merchant and smuggler John "The Spoiled Son" Hancock. Ryan Eggold ("The Blacklist") plays Joseph Warren, a physician who later fought and died for his country as a major general.
Representing the redcoats is Marton Csokas ("The Lord of the Rings") as villainous Gen. Thomas Gage, who battled the Boston uprising. Portraying Margaret, the general's wife and a suspected spy, is Emily Berrington ("24: Live Another Day").
"They were very individual characters from different backgrounds coming together — almost in the style of an 'Ocean's Eleven' team in order to work toward the independence of the country," Barnes says.
But while they shared a common vision of free and independent states absolved from allegiance to the British crown, the nation's founders often disagreed about how to achieve their goals "and had to debate and sometimes fight it out regarding whose approach was best," Barnes explains.
Sam Adams, for instance, favored a "headstrong, fists-first approach" to revolution, Barnes notes, while Hancock was much more sympathetic to the Brits. "They initially seemed like the odd couple," Barnes says of the close friends. "But their ideals were more similar than they first realized."
In a bit of irony though, the film was shot mostly in Europe. Over the four months of shooting, it is Bucharest, Romania, that stands in for colonial America.
But "Sons of Liberty" is in keeping with a trend at History toward scripted dramas, including "Vikings," "The Bible," "Hatfields & McCoys" and "Houdini." In production is "Texas Rising," an epic about the fall of the Alamo and the birth of the Texas Rangers.
"We're still primarily a nonfiction and unscripted network, and that's really our core business," Hoogstra says. "But scripted dramas are such an amazing way to spark interest in history in such a big way."