When Political and Social Ideas are Born

As much as I enjoy historical fiction, I weary of seeing modern political agendas pasted into historical settings.

We’ve all seen it: a character in a book or movie openly shares a fully developed opinion that never would have been expressed during that period of history. It’s a form of anachronism. I find myself thinking, “There is no way anyone would have talked like this back then. I understand if you have a point to make, but don’t pretend people have always thought this way.”

That being said, however, we have to reckon with one thing: there was a time when nearly every political and social idea was “new.” There was a first for everything.

There was moment in time when someone suggested the novel—or the preposterous.

And there was a moment in time when many people laughed at him (or her), while a few others quietly agreed. And in many cases there was a period of time when this group of like-minded individuals with their brand new idea were labeled as revolutionaries, perhaps even dangerous ones. But eventually, after decades or even generations, this new idea became a tenet for more and more people—enough for it to either become an acceptable alternative view or to overthrow an existing system.

Not all new political and social ideas were good ones. And not all of the predominant ones we have today are good. But it’s interesting to trace the development of these ideas over time, and to study the different reactions they received in different eras and cultures. This is what I have seen a few select period dramas and historical series achieve.

1) HBO’s John Adams series offers a masterful portrait of the development of the political and social ideas that informed the American Revolution.

Aside from the stellar cast and costumes, this series elaborately traces the formation and interaction of the ideas that were ultimately solidified in both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. One thing that stood out to me was the way in which it is clear the American founding fathers knew they were not the first to invent certain ideas. The characters’ dialogue appropriately reflects the degree to which these documents drew upon the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, along with the Roman concept of a republic.

On the other hand, though, we see the first coining of the phrases “No taxation without representation,” “Don’t tread on me,” and several other American-isms that hadn’t previously existed. We also see the birth of the American conviction that every defendant in court deserves legal representation—this moment is dramatically depicted when John Adams decides to defend the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre.

While many Americans assume that our country’s key political and social ideas originated with the colonists and revolutionaries, I think HBO did history justice by showing the connection between the founding fathers and their European predecessors.

2) BBC’s The Mill presents a believable picture of the landscape in which labor reforms began.

On the heels of Labor Day, I think this series explores some interesting details about the labor movement in England, beginning with the Quarry Bank Mill. The story follows several workers at the textile mill, and their growing dissatisfaction with the abuse and misuse they and their counterparts across England endured in such work environment.

Rather than beginning with the modern premise that men and women deserve equal pay for equal work, and that children ought not be exploited for their labor, The Mill illustrates how these convictions formed. Starting with individuals, who witnessed horrors and tragedy firsthand, these ideas spread and gain traction as enough people gradually begin to say “no more.” As viewers, we watch specific characters face specific perils and punishments in their workplace, all of which eventually lead them to the conclusion that the system needs reform. We also see a single mother resolved to care for her child by continuing to work—rather than trying to find a husband so she can stay home.

Although were a couple lines of dialogue that sounded too progressive-minded for that time period, the series did an overall convincing job of showing the specific hardships that inspired people to expect and demand a more humane work environment for the laboring class.

Political and social ideas and norms are ever-changing…

But everything has a “first.” One mark of good historical fiction is the ability to believably depict the birth of ideas that we take for granted today.

One Comment on “When Political and Social Ideas are Born

  1. That’s the issue with overcompensation. With “racist” classics being removed, people are trying to rewrite the past by writing tales of the past as if they happened today. Everyone’s afraid of not being PC correct in their work so that their creativity is not later torn to pieces.

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