Review: The Founding of America

A few days ago, I promised a review of the History Channel’s extensive collection of documentaries and docudramas, repackaged into a single offering titled The Founding of America, a 14-DVD set that looks at various issues in the American Revolution and its aftermath. I had hoped to have made it all the way through the set before the end of the Independence Day celebrations, but we have seen enough to realize what a remarkable and essential collection this is to anyone who wants to educate themselves on the Revolution.

None of the material is original. For those who watch the History Channel on a regular basis, most or all of this will be familiar, especially The Revolution, which the broadcaster replayed this weekend. Some of it overlaps; The Revolution covers much of the same ground as Founding Fathers, which occasionally caused confusion as to whether we had seen an episode of each or not. Founding Fathers is an older series, while The Revolution has a better transfer to the DVD, but both are excellent. Both make extensive use of the pan-and-scan technique that gives motion to static portraits and use a healthy amount of reenactment without actual dialogue. Both feature the talented Edward Hermann as narrator, who patiently and entertainingly walks viewers through various engagements and political battles, and all-star casts to read the words of the historical figures involved. The material is accurate and fascinating.

The best of the documentaries that we have seen, though, is Founding Brothers. Also narrated by Edward Hermann, it focuses mainly on the political fights that erupted during and after George Washington’s presidency and how they shaped the nation. The conflicts between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists (referred to as Republicans in this series) show that the great debates over the proper role of the federal government go all the way back to the post-Washington period, and that the rivalries it generated were at least as partisan as today. Jefferson’s character assassination of his friend John Adams is breathtaking, and his poses as a man of the people while in the White House seem quaint and laughable today. (Potential trivia answer: who was the last President who answered the door of the White House himself, wearing slippers?) Alexander Hamilton gets his due as the architect of the American economy, covering an oft-neglected part of American history. The series more or less stops with Jefferson’s presidency, except to follow the course of the rapprochement between Jefferson and Adams. Madison and Monroe get brief mentions but are not given the same kind of stature as Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton in this production.

For a better overview of the politics and machinations involved in the Revolution, the set contains a series of documentaries that are stand-alone but intended for serial viewing. Some of these focus on particular personalities, such as Ben Franklin, Washington & Arnold, and Washington the Warrior.  Others weave the personalities into larger contexts, as do The World at War, England’s Last Chance, and Birth of the Republic.  Obviously, with the territory being similar, some of this overlaps with the other presentations, but it never seems duplicative.

I have already previously seen The Crossing or Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, but only earlier on The History Channel.  Regarding the latter, after seeing the other documentaries in the series, Arnold’s treachery is put into better perspective, and the History Channel gives a broader accounting of the serious injuries done to Arnold by his colleagues that prompted him to sell America out to the British — and it’s fascinating.  In The Revolution, the documentary makes a plausible case that Arnold wasn’t alone, and that General Charles Lee may also have sold out to the British, and that his ignominious retreat from the Battle of Monmouth may have been intentional sabotage.  I have only a vague recollection of the docudrama, which stars Aidan Quinn, but I do recall enjoying it and am looking forward to watching it again.

The Crossing stars Jeff Daniels as George Washington at one of the most desperate times of the Revolution.  Chased out of New York and freezing on Christmas Eve, Washington faces a question of whether to fight the Hessians by crossing the Delaware — and whether or not it’s even possible.  Daniels is excellent as Washington and the presentation gives full weight to the drama of the situation.

In short, this 14-DVD “megaset” would be an excellent addition to anyone’s collection.  At its present price of $65 from Amazon (and $63 at Best Buy if you can find it stocked in your nearby store), it’s an absolute steal.

Addenum: I believe I have mentioned this before, but the John Adams docudrama miniseries from HBO is equally worthy, if a little pricier for the amount of material provided. Don’t miss the pop-up fact track, which displays in the bottom letterbox area.

Note: Purchases through the above links will result in compensation to myself with no extra charge to the purchaser.