Must We Unite Around Slaveholders? Woody Holton and Jamelle Bouie on the Politics of History

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, public history, teaching history

Jamelle Bouie

My guest today is Woody Holton. He is a historian at the University of South Carolina and one of the foremost scholars of the American Revolution. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the American founding, especially given the central role it tends to play in debates about the broader arc of American history and national identity. And Holton’s work presents a truly fundamental challenge to the version of that history that most of us were taught in grade school.

Holton takes a much wider view of the Revolutionary era beyond the traditional founding fathers and their professed ideas. His new book, “Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution,” looks at the ways that often overlooked groups of people, from Native Americans on the western border of the British colonies to enslaved Africans within them, shaped the war, its outcome and its aftermath. And that leads into some pretty startling conclusions: that the founders were, more or less, forced into war with Britain, that material interests played a major role in the decision to declare independence and that the Constitution was ultimately a counterrevolutionary document meant to rein in excess democracy.

But to talk about a newer, broader history of the American Revolution is to talk about older history to the revolution as well — what they missed, what they ignored and what they got right. So that’s where we start, with the consensus understanding of the American founding that Holton and his generation of historians sought to challenge. It was a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation. And I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Woody, welcome to the show.

Woody Holton


Jamelle Bouie

So you have a new book out, “Liberty is Sweet,” that is about the beginnings of the American Revolution, the causes, the events, and pressures that lead up to at least one set of colonists breaking from Britain. But before we start on the book, I want to start our conversation by zooming out and talking a little bit about your career. So when you were first entering the profession of American history, how would you describe the consensus understanding of this period for your generation starting out and for maybe even the people who are leading in the field at the time?

Woody Holton

Well, I’m glad you used the word “consensus,” Jamelle, because that’s exactly what the main understanding of the American Revolution — that was the term that people used for it. It was the consensus view of American history in general and of the revolution in particular. And that was the assumption that just about everybody agreed on just about everything.

Now, in order to achieve consensus, the historians had to forget a whole heck of a lot of the people, starting with the 1/5 of the residents of the 13 colonies who rebelled, who were enslaved. And by the way, it also means forgetting about the 13 British colonies in America that didn’t rebel. There were 13 that did. There were a total of 26. So there was a lot of chopping that was necessary to get to consensus. And then even among white men — that’s who they were writing about — there was not consensus. There was great conflict.

The big argument that people in my generation are making is that you can’t understand why the revolution happened, how it came out the way it did or its impact into the 19th century — you can’t understand any of the three big questions — unless you know what African Americans, Indigenous people, poor whites and so forth were up to. So the previous generation basically said, it’s enough to focus on the guys that you’ve already heard of — John Adams in Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson in Virginia and so forth.

So one thing that my generation and, really, the generation before mine did was say, well, that’s great, but that’s the tip of the iceberg, and let’s look at the other 90 percent who are important, both in their own right and for their impact on the stuff you’ve heard of. I make the case that if it hadn’t been for Native Americans, there wouldn’t have been a Stamp Act. If people know anything about the revolution, they know no taxation without representation. And so that leads you to the Stamp Act, the Stamp Act riots against the British, all that stuff.

But I make the case that the real purpose of the Stamp Act was to fund troops keeping Indians and colonists away from each other. And so no Indians, no Stamp Act, just to give you one example one of the best statements I think ever made about the Revolution — and I’d love to say I made it or one of my contemporaries, but actually, it was made back in 1909 by a historian named Carl Becker, who said it’s a struggle for home rule, but the American Revolution was also a struggle over who should rule at home.

So the big difference between the generation that I’m a part of and the generation that came before is that where they saw consensus internally, we see conflict internally. And by the way, I think that’s a lot more exciting.

Read entire article at New York Times

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