Expanding Our Understanding of the Revolution

Liberty Is Sweet: A Hidden History of the American Revolution, by Woody Holton, Simon & Schuster, 779 pages, $37.50

Woody Holton was not the only one who knew about it. Liberty Is Sweet was released, it ignited controversy. Nikole Hayne-Jones is the founder of The New York TimesThe 1619 Project cited it as proof that the British threatened to slave labor and provoked America’s Revolution. Holton, an historian from the University of South Carolina, then argued: The Washington Post that “Whites’ fury at the British for casting their lot with enslaved people drove many to the fateful step of endorsing independence,” prompting six leading historians of the period to respond in a critical open letter.

The book is actually much more contained than its critics and champions had thought. Though Holton casts occasional aspersions on allegedly standard “myths” about the Revolution, his overall interpretation of the Revolution’s causes and consequence doesn’t stray very far from other scholarly volumes. Even Gordon Wood, one of the most prominent historians who signed the critical open letter, gives the book a terse but apt jacket blurb: “A spirited account of the Revolution that brings everybody and everything into the story.”

Liberty Is Sweet It is fascinating, richly detailed, and meticulously researched. You will also find it to be a relentlessly chronological work, sometimes with some disjoints. For example, the description of North Carolina’s revolt by the Regulators is divided into three sections, with other historical events interwoven. This book does not treat each of the theaters in their entirety, but rather covers both the British invasion of Philadelphia and New York’s battles near Saratoga. While this should not pose any problems to those who are familiar with the period it can compromise Holton’s appeal for an audience that is less knowledgeable.

Holton, in his first of three sections of the book, addresses the issue of slavery’s involvement in motivating Revolution. This charge is supported by the extreme supporters. Somerset court decision in Britain that freed a slave brought from the colonies. Holton claims that this decision only “strengthened” the case against King George II for many slaveholders, and that it did not prove to be decisive in other ways.

His narrative covers almost a decade of colonial grievances over measures such as the Stamp Act of1765 and the Proclamation of1763. An endnote also admits that “While” is a valid point, it does not change the fact that there were some issues.Somerset angered slaveholders (especially in the Caribbean), there is much less evidence for the corollary contention that one reason white southerners favored secession from Britain in July 1776 was that they feared Britain’s growing anti-slavery movement.” Holton specifically disagrees with the 1619 Project by stating that Hannah Jones’s claim “greatly exaggerates” the size and strength of the British Abolition Movement in 1772.

Holton is a little outlandish in the second section of the book, which covers the war. The Virginia Assembly was able to govern itself independently from the royal governor, Dunmore, half a year later than the Massachusetts conflict. Dunmore made a proclamation in November 201775 offering freedom for any indentured or slave servants that would support the British, after Dunmore fled to a British warship. Only Virginia slaves and servitors were eligible, as well as those belonging to rebels. Holton boldly asserts that “no other document—not even Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or the Declaration of Independence—did more than Dunmore’s proclamation to convert white residents of Britain’s most populous American colony to the cause of independence.”

History has long known that Dunmore’s proclamation in Virginia weakened resistance, particularly because of the fearsome prospect of slave rebellions. Robert Middlekauff stated in 1982 that Virginia had lost any loyalty to Dunmore. Murray Rothbard even, In Liberty ConceivedThis effect was acknowledged by Holton. Notice also that Holton is not claiming that the proclamation sparked the rebellion against Britain—just that it promoted the desire for full independence in Virginia.

The implication that Virginians wouldn’t have hesitated to declare independence is far more speculation than it actually seems. Holton cites several factors which pushed the rebels towards a total separation from their mother country.

George Clinton (a British general) issued a wider proclamation that granted freedom to rebel-owned slavery in all colonies regardless of whether or not they fought against the British. This also excluded Loyalists. Holton frequently refers to the “Anglo African alliance” and meticulously records almost every military engagement where blacks took part. But he does so on both sides of the conflict, writing that “by war’s end, some nine thousand African Americans had served in the Whig army and navy—roughly the same number who enlisted with the British.” Holton says that while more than 3000 emancipated slaves joined Britain’s evacuation of New York, Holton believes many African Americans who fled British-held Savannah or Charleston were still slaves. They were often taken up by British officers, and sometimes landed in Britain’s Caribbean slave colonies.

Holton pays more attention to this topic than any other accounts of African Americans in the period. However, his description of “the rise of an important free African American population” during “the post-revolutionary United States”, however, overlooks one significant contributing factor. Holton credits Vermont’s independence in 1777 as the reason it was “the first modern world country to abolish slavery.” In addition, he mentions Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation of 1780 and Massachusetts 1780 Declaration of Rights which made them “first of thirteen original states to abolish slavery.” He doesn’t mention Virginia, Maryland and Delaware as the states in the upper South that relaxed restrictions on slave owners voluntarily releasing their slaves. Virginia did this in 1782, which resulted to the exoneration of approximately 10,000 slaves in the following decade-and-a half. This was more than the number who were released in Massachusetts through judicial decree.

Liberty Is Sweet provides a similarly expansive approach to Native Americans. It begins with a map showing the boundary of “First Nations”, which Holton uses frequently in Canada. Like black Americans, members of these groups fought on both ends of the conflict. However, the British dominated the battle. Another group that the book highlights is the women. These women supported British boycotts and participated in food protests.

This section focuses on military events and is the most unique. Holton includes details about minor raids and skirmishes which often go unreported in military histories. Holton’s descriptions include telling stories about individuals, which help to convey the chaos and brutality of war better than other accounts. Holton’s description reveals that until the twentieth century, soldiers were more likely to die from disease than in battle. The resistance against conscription is also given more emphasis by Holton, who explains how commanders from both sides may have been motivated to make mistakes due to the 18th century’s obsession with honor. However, the book’s focus on combat causes some problems. It also neglects wartime finance and politics.

This section covers postwar events. It goes beyond the Constitution’s adoptation and includes the Whiskey Rebellion as well as the Washington administration’s Indian campaign. Holton’s view of the Constitution is similar to his previous book, and he views it as a counterrevolution in favor of the government. This conclusion matches nearly all of recent scholarship. This chapter deals appropriately with territory that was lost to 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. He warns against any attempt to explain the American Revolution strictly in ideological terms. However, no serious historian that I am aware of ever claimed that ideology drove the Revolution, regardless of whether it was the historian’s particular interest.

In short: Liberty Is SweetThe book discusses many aspects of the revolutionary era, which other accounts tend to ignore or not mention. However, despite being called a “hidden History”, it doesn’t significantly alter existing theories.