(This is a user-submitted post by Jordan Hashemi-Briskin)
I have come to notice that, besides the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, geology, or astronomy), history—be it of the world as a whole or of a specific region—is perhaps the most popular subject in educational television for kids of grade-school age. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most important, since learning about history helps us to connect with the past and avoid repeating the mistakes of those who came before us. Given the state of the world now, it is imperative that we teach our children the value of history early on. And I cannot think of any better way to start than with the classic PBS Kids original series, Liberty’s Kids, which ran from September 2, 2002 to April 4, 2003.
Created by Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Maliani, this program follows three early-adolescent kids prior to and during the American War for Independence: James Hiller (an American colonist with aspirations of becoming a professional journalist), Sarah Phillips (recently arrived from England to search for her missing father), and Henri LeFevbre (a French citizen who was orphaned en route to the Colonies). Along with their associate, Moses (an engineer of African heritage), they work at Benjamin Franklin’s publishing firm, reporting on the goings-on from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 all the way up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (mysteriously, they never seem to age). Throughout the series, they are eyewitnesses to many key events in early American history, and, naturally, are afforded the opportunity to consort with various historical figures (voiced with aplomb by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars).
Of all the animated TV series I’ve reviewed for Rotoscopers thus far, Liberty’s Kids boasts probably the most complex and three-dimensional cast of characters I’ve seen, and it constantly demonstrates the senselessness of thinking in terms of black and white, given the vagaries of human nature. James, for example, starts out very much a dyed-in-the-wool patriot with little sympathy for the British, but as time goes on, he loses his narrow-minded idealism as he sees the atrocities committed by both sides. But by far, the most intriguing character arc belongs to Sarah, who is initially a staunch British Loyalist, but after seeing so much during her time among the Americans, ultimately makes the very difficult decision to change allegiances. (This level of development makes her my personal favorite of the eponymous trio of protagonists.)
Likewise, the VIPs of American history depicted on the show could have easily been portrayed as flat, uncompelling ciphers based on our preconceptions of them, but thankfully, they are handled just as realistically as the fictional characters. One particularly notable example is Benedict Arnold, who famously betrayed the Continental Army; the show reminds us that his decision must have required a great amount of soul-searching and second-guessing on his part. Truth be told, however, the best part of the series’ portrayal of history, for me, is its commitment to telling the stories of figures who are often not acknowledged, like Phillis Wheatley (an African-American poet and author whose work helped fuel the abolitionist movement), Sybil Ludington, Deborah Sampson (who enlisted in the army disguised as a man, à la Mulan), Nathan Hale, Elizabeth Freeman (the first enslaved African-American to successfully sue for her freedom), and most notably the Indigenous leaders who found themselves caught in the crossfires: Hokoleskwa of the Shawnee Nation and Thayendanegea of the Mohawk.
The most important thing about Liberty’s Kids is that it serves to remind us of why the Revolution was fought, and the ideals upon which the United States was founded: justice, equality, freedom, and democracy. As such, when viewing the series today, in a time when our civil liberties and aforementioned ideals are under constant attack, the series takes on a new sense of timeliness. Even the theme song, “Through My Own Eyes,” becomes a sort of anthem of protest. I can’t think of any other artistic endeavor prior to Hamilton that better encapsulates the never-ending struggle for liberty.
In summation, Liberty’s Kids is an intelligent, emotionally involving, and above all, highly thought-provoking behind-the-scenes look at early American history, allowing viewers to see the past come to life as one could otherwise only imagine, and reminding us of what America is supposed to stand for. I am proud beyond measure to have grown up with this program and will be sure to introduce it to my children in the years to come.
Did you watch Liberty’s Kids growing up? What did you like most about it? Sound off below!
Edited by: Kelly Conley