Fighting the American Revolution: An Interview with Woody Holton

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The scuffle over the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project—which has seen several eminent historians publicly pit themselves against the magazine issue and its editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, over some of the most fundamental issues in United States history—seemed like it might just be beginning to die down in the second half of 2021. That’s when Woody Holton, the Peter and Bonnie McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, launched himself into the fray. On his new Twitter account, and in a series of interviews and public appearances, Holton lent his support to one of Hannah-Jones’ most controversial claims: that the American Revolution was caused, to a significant degree, by slave-holders worried about threats to their human property.

Holton’s book, Liberty is Sweet, goes far beyond that particular point of debate. It’s a remarkably capacious and richly populated narrative history of the entire revolutionary period, full of lesser-known personalities, battle scenes, and sweeping synthesis. But it also shares the irrepressible, mischievous provocativeness that marks Holton’s persona as a scholar. In this conversation, we discussed the book’s aims, and the state of the field in the study of the American Revolution, as the countdown to the semiquincentennial begins.

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Tom Cutterham (TC): Liberty is Sweet is a “hidden history” of the American Revolution, meaning the story you tell isn’t the one your ideal reader was taught in school or has heard much of before. Can you say a bit more about who that reader is, and what you hope the book will do for them?

Woody Holton (WH): My ideal reader was never an academic, since Gary Nash, Alan Taylor, and others had already introduced scholars to many of the same themes and even some of the same characters I highlight in Liberty is Sweet. I really wanted to reach people who love history but don’t realize that what they have seen so far—mostly wealthy white men—is only the tip of the iceberg. My pitch to American Revolution lovers is that their favorite topic becomes even more exciting when you fully engage with its ambiguity and kaleidoscopic diversity.

My focus on non-scholars shaped the book in two ways, only the first of which I anticipated. I knew history buffs would want a narrative, and I was happy to provide one, since one of my main points is that women’s, Indigenous, military, and all the other histories transpired on the same timeline, constantly influencing each other, and we miss a lot when we devote one chapter to African Americans, one to diplomacy, one to the economy, and so on. But going chronological does not have to mean merely telling stories. I tried to use events like the boughs of a Christmas tree, with the ornaments being placed where I paused the narrative to share various social historians’ insights as well as my own.

The unintended consequence of my determination to reach beyond college towns was that I became a military historian! My initial attitude toward the battles was cynical: amateur historians demand them, so I had to write them up. But as I began that research, I overcame the conventional academic prejudice that military history is mere storytelling, and I ended up offering what I consider some fairly new interpretations of the war. Here’s one: the British realized early on that they could not win, since whenever they captured a hill—starting with Breed’s/Bunker—at the cost of 50 percent casualties, all the rebels had to do was drop back to the next hill and start the process over again. So all the Whigs (I found Patriots too partisan) had to do was stay on defense. But George Washington was initially bent on going on offense, and his classic elite-British-empire-masculine aggressiveness several times nearly ended in disaster. But he learned from his mistakes, and while he devised nearly a dozen plans to drive the British from their headquarters in Manhattan, he never actually executed even one of them. Ultimately Washington’s greatest contribution to the war effort was restraining his own aggressive instincts.

TC: It’s true that readers have found your interest in the military aspects of the war striking, especially for a historian not known as a conservative. But you also tell us about the other kinds of violence that historians have become more interested in over the last decade or two. In the end, what do you think is the significance of all that fighting? How, and how much, did the war shape the revolution?

WH: My own research confirmed a suspicion that had already received a boost every time I dipped back into Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters: that the American Revolution, by which I mean the political movement, affected free women much less than the Revolutionary War. I had already noticed that while writing my biography of Abigail Adams. Yes, she used the republic’s need for educated men to make the case for educating their mothers. But her real declaration of independence was economic. During her husband John’s absence in Congress and France, she made him rich, often by ignoring his directives and even warnings. And then after the war, she started laying claim to some of the Adams family property in defiance of centuries of English common law, which none of the new states had abandoned. Researching Liberty is Sweet, I saw the war transform other women as well, whether it was the laundresses who saved men’s lives by scrubbing the typhus-spreading lice out of their shirts and thereby felt empowered to strike for better wages (as my student Riley Sutherland discovered) or the female Bostonians who rioted against coffee forestallers—not as caffeine addicts but as she-merchants who needed to fill their customers’ orders.

What was true of women was also true for the other half of the population: the impact of political change paled in comparison to the impact of the war, whether net positive or (more often, I suspect) net negative.

TC: As you put it in the book, “the American Revolution produced more misery than freedom.” Naturally, plenty of people have taken issue with that. Jack Rakove wrote that your book downplays the positive significance of the revolution as a “manifestly political event.” How do you respond to that?

WH: Well I think for the people that Professor Rakove studies, the American Revolution certainly was a political event. Look how limited their political opportunities were in British colonial America. Only Rhode Island and Connecticut elected their governors. The rest were chosen, usually from among non-colonists, by colonial proprietors or royal officials in England. So were most of the governor’s councils. Where was the opportunity for educated and ambitious young colonials, especially those like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson who were not cut out for military service?

For men of Adams’s and Jefferson’s class, the revolution changed all that, as has been shown by Gordon Wood and many others, including my friend Conrad Wright and (with a closer eye on political economy) you. Before and even after the Constitution was adopted in 1788, gentlemen worried that the Revolution had also provided opportunities for the classes beneath them. But if the controversy over Marcus Rediker’s and Peter Linebaugh’s Many-Headed Hydra tells us anything, it is that often when elites see a hydra, there is no hydra, as even Rediker and Linebaugh would agree. The evidence of democratic (as opposed to insurrectionary) influence on government policy in the founding era is actually pretty thin, especially after the Constitution took away the states’ most important peacetime powers—levying taxes to pay off war debts and regulating debtor-creditor relations, including the money supply—and bestowed them on a new and designedly undemocratic federal government. Even for white men, true democratization would have to wait at least until the Jacksonian era.

The aspects of the revolution that did trickle down to the masses—women as well as men and all ethnicities and income levels—were violence, displacement, and disease. We have long known that in the west, the revolution simply continued and intensified settlers’ attempted genocide of Indigenous people. While optimists like me tend to focus on the African Americans who joined Governor Dunmore and got free, it appears that the majority died, mostly of disease. Elizabeth Fenn chronicled much of the carnage in Pox Americana, and I am eager to read Sean Gallagher’s forthcoming work on the recaptured Black Virginians who were sent to work in the lead mine out near the New River—basically a death sentence.

Work like Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence rightly emphasize the ubiquity of violence, even among whites. And I contributed my own cases in Liberty is Sweet, for instance the story of the two Vermont school friends who chose opposite sides and met at the Battle of Bennington: just as the Loyalist was about to bayonet the Whig, the Whig shot his friend dead. I long held out hope that many of the reports of sexual assaults by British and German soldiers would turn out to be just Whig propaganda. But when I got into the primary sources, it became clear that many of the accusations came from other Brits and Germans.

Still, I worry that our new focus on the violence of the revolution will cause us to forget that it killed many more people by stirring up disease. I have been surprised that five months after Liberty is Sweet appeared, no one has challenged by contention that not one of the Continental soldiers who spent the miserable winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge died of either cold or hunger, that what really took those more than 2,000 lives was disease. And even if someone eventually shows that I exaggerated, the bigger picture is clear. Fewer than 7,000 Whig men were stabbed or shot in the American Revolution; more Americans died in three days at Gettysburg. The real killer was disease, especially the disease that flew through the British prisons and prison ships. The best estimate I could find was that disease slew about 28,000 men—four times the number who succumbed to literal violence. And that is not even counting, as we rarely do, the women who were killed by the various diseases that the war circulated. In my next project, I hope to produce the first serious estimate of female deaths resulting from the war.

TC: All the themes of your previous work are here in this book, obviously. And you’ve synthesized an enormous amount of other scholarship that has uncovered this “hidden history” over the last half-century or so. Was there any moment while you were working on this book when your earlier understanding of the American Revolution was challenged, or when you had to reassess something significant?

WH: Yes. My work on Liberty is Sweet culminated my extended reconsideration of my depiction of the British-Black relationship in my first book, Forced Founders, which came out in 1999. I always knew that Virginia Governor Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation only applied to African Americans who were enslaved by Whigs, but I still slipped into depicting the British as liberators. Other scholars’ work, along with my own Liberty is Sweet research, compelled me to see Britain as an anything-but-perfect ally, whether to African Americans, Indigenous people, white Loyalists, or others. The source that really drove that home for me was a description of the aftermath of the failed British attempt on Charleston, South Carolina in 1779. Hundreds of African Americans had joined the British Army and served it well, but when officers realized they did not have enough space in the open boats that carried them back to their base in Savannah, Georgia, they abandoned their African American allies to the fury of their once-and-future enslavers. When some of the desperate Blacks swam out after the British boats and tried to cling to the gunwales, officers used their sabers to chop off their fingers.

I am more convinced than ever that during 1775, African Americans’ eventually-successful overtures to Governor Dunmore infuriated white Southerners, pushing many over the edge into supporting independence. While promoting Liberty is Sweet, I tweeted out seventy-six documents supporting that claim. But as I moved from Forced Founders, which focused on Virginia, to trying to see the whole chessboard, I discovered that by war’s end, about as many African Americans gained their freedom by fighting for the Whigs in the North as did so by serving the British in the South. And the northern abolition laws, criminally gradual though most of them were, would eventually free more African Americans than the British governors and generals had.

Yet we must never forget that a much larger number of enslaved Americans suffered from one of the war’s long-term effects: the removal of Native Americans from what became known as the Cotton Belt, which led to about a million Upper South African Americans being sold south, with many never seeing their parents, spouses, and kids again. And that leads to another reconsideration that my Liberty is Sweet research forced on me. I documented several cases where African Americans decided the fate of battles. But if scholars exploring Black people’s agency weigh all of their losses and gains, they might agree with my grim current summation, that it sometimes seems like African Americans (as well as Indigenous people) of the founding era had the power to influence everyone’s fate but their own.

TC: Poised between 2019 and 2026, it feels like the United States has embarked on an extended period of anniversary-based reflection. Your book will contribute to the debate—some would say, to the culture war. Do you have any advice for other scholars, about how best to engage with the public understanding of the revolution?

WH: Professor Rakove and I interpret the American Revolution differently, but we agree that the greatest threat to the United States today is the large portion of the population that denies that Covid ever existed, that Biden won the 2020 election, and so on. And there seems to be a consensus that mocking these people only stiffens their resistance to evidence. Instead we just need to keep piling up the proof and wait for their fever to break.

I would prescribe the same empirical medicine to the cult of the Founding Fathers.

If we really want the scientific method to defeat denialism, in history as in politics, we need to fully commit to it ourselves. That means admitting our mistakes. It also means not getting so caught up in our clever interpretations that we fail to display our evidence.

I think the Internet can be a real help here. In 2004, I published an article in the William and Mary Quarterly showing that Shays’s Rebellion and most of the other post-Revolutionary War farmers’ revolts were aimed, more than anything else, at overturning onerous taxes that state legislators had imposed on behalf of the speculators who had bought up the war debt. I knew better than to quote all of the hundreds of documents proving various aspects of my thesis, but I wanted to cite all of them in a series of footnotes, with a state-by-state breakdown in each. The editor, Chris Grasso, rightly balked at killing that many trees, but then he and I hit on a solution: stick most of the evidence on the Internet. I don’t know if anyone ever clicked through to my evidence, but no one has challenged my arguments, either.

If evidence-based history is ever to win the culture war, those of us who write it must also spend more time polishing our prose. That can seem impossible when you have a teaching load as heavy as the one I started with, but one way to resolve that dilemma, I have learned a little too late in life, is to focus on quality rather than quantity. Peter H. Wood, Laurel Ulrich, and Robert Gross have all published only one book about eighteenth-century America, but those are pathbreaking and beautifully written volumes, and it should come as no surprise that Wood, Ulrich, and Gross have received more recognition than people like me who are working on Number 6.

I realize it’s pretty facile of me to tell academic historians that the way to win the culture war is just to work harder! But the need is great. In Liberty is Sweet I posited that many of the descendants of the American Revolutionaries have carried out their own revolt: against complexity. Adherents to the Founders’ cult can only see their virtues—and, let’s be honest, debunkers like me in my thirties can only see their vices. If we can convince our readers that the Founders and their world were multi-faceted, that might help prepare them to see similar complexity and ambiguity in modern politics. And that in turn might start to undo the cultish tendencies that pose the single greatest threat to our incomplete experiment in government by the people.

You can also watch Holton’s debate with Gordon Wood, hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society from October 2021 to learn more.


Tom Cutterham is a Senior Lecturer in United States History at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. His book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic, came out with Princeton University Press in 2017.

Woody Holton is Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of many works, including Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

Title Image: Illustration of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, the likely inspiration for Molly Pitcher, stoking a cannon for the U.S. Pennsylvania artillery during the Battle of Monmouth.

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