Woody Holton's Not So Hidden History: Part 2
Woody Holton, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, has written a nearly 800-page tome entitled Liberty is Sweet and sub-titled The Hidden History of the American Revolution…After Holton argued in the Washington Post on July 4th, 2021, that “Whites’ fury at the British for casting their lot with enslaved people drove many to the fateful step of endorsing independence,” six leading Revolutionary historians responded in a critical open letter. Tom Mackaman was more scathing at the Trotskyist “World Socialist Web Site,” which previously had published attacks on the 1619 Project by several scholars. The resulting debate even spilled over into Twitter.
But the book itself is more guarded and restrained than either its early champions or detractors have presumed. [From Part 1.]
As I alluded to in my previous post, Holton does give far greater attention than other general accounts to African Americans, whatever their role, prior to, during, and immediately after the American Revolution. Which leaves me surprised that, in his discussion of “the emergence of a significant free African American population” in “the post-revolutionary United States,” he omits one notable factor contributing to this development. He does credit Vermont in 1777, as an independent republic, being “first in the modern world to abolish slavery.” He also mentions Pennsylvania’s adoption of gradual emancipation in 1780 and Massachusetts’ 1780 Declaration or Rights that made it “the first of the original thirteen states to abolish slavery.” What he fails to mention is that the upper-south states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia relaxed nearly universal slave-state restrictions on masters voluntarily freeing their own slaves. Virginia’s doing so in 1782 resulted in the manumission of an estimated 10,000 slaves over the next decade and a half, more than were freed in Massachusetts by judicial decree.
Holton offers an equally expansive treatment of Native Americans. Indeed the book opens with a map delineating the boundaries of the numerous “First Nations” (a Canadian usage Holton frequently employs) east of the Mississippi. Members of these groups, like Black Americans, fought on both sides of the conflict, although preponderately for the British. A third group the book brings to the foreground is women, who crucially supported boycotts of British goods and frugality crusades; launched campaigns to make shirts for the Continental Army; participated in food riots; took over management of farms, plantations, and business while their husbands were absent; served as sources of valuable military intelligence; and were often army camp followers, even sometimes fighting alongside the men.
The book’s second section is also unique in its detailed concentration on military events, with some nice maps (although even more would have been helpful). Holton covers many minor skirmishes and raids that are often not mentioned at all even in purely military histories of the war. And his descriptions are interspersed with telling vignettes about individual participants, conveying better than most accounts how chaotic and savage the conflict could be. It is fairly well known that, until the twentieth century, disease regularly killed more soldiers than battle, but Holton’s approach drives home this feature of the war. He also gives more attention than usual to resistance against state conscription. When dealing with commanders on both sides, he reveals how the eighteenth-century obsession with honor may have motivated them to make otherwise seemingly mistaken decisions. The downside of this heavy concentration on combat is that the book’s coverage of wartime politics and finance is comparatively abbreviated. (Given how economically inept is Holton’s brief, extraneous comparison of Revolutionary Financer Robert Morris with modern-day economist Arthur Laffer, though, perhaps it is best that he slighted finance.)
The book’s third and final section deals with postwar events, extending beyond the Constitution’s adoption all the way to the Whiskey Rebellion and the Indian campaigns during the Washington administration. Holton’s take on the Constitution mirrors his earlier book on the subject, treating it as a counter-revolution “in favor of government.” This conclusion is consistent with nearly all recent scholarship, whether specific writers approve of the result or, like Holton, disapprove. The final chapter appropriately deals with the territory lost by the First Nations. In appraising the Revolution, Holton finds benefits and costs, with a bit more emphasis on the latter, but this is ultimately a glass half-empty, half-full question. At one point he warns “against any effort to explain the American Revolution in strictly ideological terms” [emphasis mine], but no serious historian I know of has ever argued that the Revolution was motivated exclusively by ideology, unaffected by economic self-interest, even if ideology was that particular historians specific interest or topic. The two motives generally operate in sync, with Holton attaching greater weight to self-interest.
In short, there is considerable hidden history in Holton’s Liberty is Sweet regarding facets and details of the revolutionary era treated less copiously or ignored in other general accounts. But as far as dramatically overturning standard interpretations of the Revolution, the subtitle’s billing of the book as “the hidden history” turns out to be partly puffery.
[Editor’s note: An earlier shorter version of this review appeared in Reason (March 2022).]
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is an historian and professor of economics at San Jose State University.