The Storm over the American RevolutionHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, historiography, American Revolution, democracy, Native American history, Woody Holton
Eric Herschthal is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah and author of The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress.
The summer of 1755 was a terrible time for George Washington. The 23-year-old Virginian slaveholder was serving as an aide to the British general of North America, Edward Braddock, in the Battle of the Monongahela. At the time, colonists like Washington still considered themselves proud subjects of the British Empire. But the routing that Washington was about to receive set in motion the steady unraveling of the imperial relationship.
French soldiers, along with their Ottawa, Ojibwe, and Potowatomi allies, fended off Braddock and Washington’s assault near what is today Pittsburgh, killing a third of their 1,500 troops, along with Braddock himself. To many of the Indigenous nations involved in the battle, Washington was already a well-known figure. His family was one of seven wealthy Virginia developers that created the Ohio Company in 1748, which laid claim to millions of acres of Indigenous-inhabited land west of the Appalachian Mountains, including places like Pittsburgh. Iroquois nations even had an epithet for the Washington family: Connotacarious, meaning “devourer of villages,” a name Washington gleefully embraced.
The Battle of Monongahela was the first major conflict in the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763. But in his new history of the American Revolution, Liberty Is Sweet, Woody Holton sees it as the starting point for the War of Independence, which traditionally begins in 1775. In Holton’s account, the revolution had its roots, above all, in colonists’ desire for Indigenous land. By 1763, the British and their American colonists finally defeated the French and their Indigenous allies. But the British did not allow colonists to settle on the newly gained ground. They stationed 10,000 British soldiers in frontier garrisons, functioning as peacekeepers between Native Americans and backwoods settlers. To pay for those troops, Parliament issued the Stamp Act and the American Duties Act, the latter of which renewed taxes on New England’s chief import—slave-grown Caribbean sugar—and clamped down on its smuggling of cheaper French and Dutch slave-grown sugar. The final straw came between 1773 and 1774, with a series of onerous laws that Patriot leaders dubbed the Intolerable Acts: laws that forced colonists to house British soldiers, shut down New England town meetings, closed Boston’s ports, and not least, transferred prized western land in the Ohio River Valley to the new British colony in Quebec.
A great strength of Liberty Is Sweet is that it refuses to paint either the colonists or the British Empire as simple villains or victims. Indeed, Holton believes that too many popular histories of the revolution have become a “revolt against complexity.” The British, he tells us, may have acted reasonably by raising taxes on the 13 colonies, but they were also in league with Caribbean slaveholders. Rural colonial farmers, meanwhile, were justified in opposing imperial policies, which were, after all, meant to bail out slaveholders and bankers. Yet just when we think we have found Holton’s heroes, we are reminded that many of these same rural farmers are the ones who most desperately craved Indian land, as well as enslaved people to work it.
What is striking is that this complexity has been entirely missing in the recent public debates surrounding Holton’s book. In July, Holton published an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that British officials’ offers of freedom for service to enslaved Black Americans pushed many white Patriots to declare independence. Immediately, critics from across the liberal-to-left spectrum pounced, seeing Holton’s op-ed, and the yet-to-be-published book it promoted, as reviving the argument made by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which also highlighted slavery’s role in prompting the declaration. Socialists accused him of being a race-reductionist, seeing racism as the central explanation for all of American history. His liberal scholarly critics sympathized with his goal of highlighting racism’s role in America’s past but argued that he was grossly distorting the facts to do so. Holton has since doubled down, engaging in a recent, heated debate with Gordon Wood, another prominent scholar and fierce 1619 Project critic, who has long battled revolutionary histories written “from below.” But to see these debates, which center around slavery’s role in the American Revolution, as a reflection of the book’s main content is to miss the many causes and characters Liberty Is Sweet actually covers.
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