The Many American Revolutions

Whose Revolution?

The history of the United States’ founding from below.


To the surprise and consternation of scholars, history has recently emerged as a battlefield in the ongoing culture wars. Generally, historians welcome public debate about the past. But new state laws banning from classrooms any discussion of the history of racism have been accompanied by so much demagoguery and misinformation on the part of legislators, school board officials, and agitated parents that one is tempted to believe it would be more edifying to ignore history altogether for the time being.

In these debates, the American Revolution plays an outsize role. The 1619 Project, which began life as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine consisting of scholarly essays about the roots and persistence of racial inequality, has become a focal point for patriotic outrage. The project posits that given the centrality of slavery and its legacy to American development, 1619—the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia—is a more appropriate starting point for understanding the American experience than 1776, the date of the Declaration of Independence. Republicans seeking to galvanize their base have latched on to “1619” as a catchall term for what they claim is a campaign by teachers to denigrate the country’s founders. In the waning weeks of his presidency, Donald Trump, not previously known for an interest in American history, established the 1776 Commission, charged with promoting “patriotic education.” According to the Trump White House, the commission’s spare report—it ran to only 20 pages—offered a “definitive chronicle of the American founding” to counteract those historians who were said to instruct students that the United States “is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” Ultimately at issue is not simply what students should learn about the past, but the nature of American society today.

Since well before the current controversy, Woody Holton, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, has been engaged in a different but related debate over how best to understand the American Revolution, including its relationship to slavery. A leading practitioner of what is sometimes called “history from below,” Holton has charged that too many historians, fixated on the words and actions of a few well-known leaders, ignore how less prominent Americans, including lower-class whites, Native Americans, and the roughly half-million slaves, powerfully affected the struggle for independence. Holton’s first book, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, published in 1999, contended that pressure from below “forced” a reluctant elite to embrace independence.

Over a century ago, the historian Carl Becker remarked that the American Revolution had two components: the contest with Great Britain over “home rule” and an internal struggle over political and economic power—or the question of who should rule at home. In the past few decades, as part of a broader shift in historical scholarship, the study of the revolution from below has become a major cottage industry. Indeed, just as most of the 1619 Project’s content was not new to those familiar with recent writing about slavery and race, the idea that ordinary Americans did much to shape the revolution is now commonplace. What is new in Holton’s latest book, Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, is his effort to unite “the known and unknown revolutions” in a single narrative. Like Becker, to whom he tips his hat by titling one chapter “Who Should Rule at Home?,” Holton depicts the revolution as simultaneously a struggle for independence and a series of overlapping conflicts between and within groups of Americans. The result is a book with a remarkably capacious cast of characters. Jefferson, Washington, and other iconic founders are here, but so too are the many “obscure Americans” who were also consequential historical actors. By foregrounding their experience, Holton arrives at a complex, bittersweet calculus of how independence was achieved and who gained or lost as a result.

In the years leading up to the War of Independence, Holton writes, “vicious” internal conflicts plagued the American colonies. In the Hudson Valley, tenant farmers resisted the exorbitant rents demanded by landlords. Mobs in backwoods North Carolina calling themselves “Regulators” refused to pay taxes levied by the far-away provincial legislature. Slaves openly demanded freedom. Native Americans resisted white settlers encroaching on their land, leading to persistent violence on the frontier. Holton notes that far from uniting Americans, the war exacerbated these and other cleavages. Communities fractured into loyalists and patriots. More and more lower-class Americans challenged existing elites. (“The gentry begin to fear this,” remarked Gouverneur Morris.) Native American nations chose sides, so that Native warriors sometimes faced one another in combat. And, Holton writes, the war became, in part, “an African American civil war,” as slaves aligned with whichever combatant seemed to advance their own prospects for freedom. Once France and Spain entered the conflict on the side of the colonists, the War of Independence was also absorbed into the long-standing struggle for global power among European empires. As Holton points out, George Washington sent troops into battle not only against the British Army but also against Native Americans, Hessians, and Black soldiers. This is not your grandfather’s American Revolution, a simple tale of liberty-loving patriots rising up against British tyranny.

Women also play a larger role in Holton’s account than in most histories of the era. The struggle, he writes, inspired many to add their voices to the public debate for the first time. “I must be a little of a politician,” wrote the poet Hannah Griffitts. Abigail Adams, the subject of one of Holton’s previous books, is widely remembered today for her letter urging her husband John to “Remember the Ladies” when new state governments were formed. Women, she playfully observed, would “not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice.” Not playful was Adams’s later decision to write her own will, a direct challenge to the common law of coverture, according to which a married woman’s property belonged to her husband. Adams left everything to her female relatives and servants. Women, she believed, needed independence from male authority as much as men did from British rule, and without their own economic resources, they would never enjoy it.

A few women took a more direct role in the conflict, disguising themselves as men and enlisting in the Continental Army. Some, living in occupied territory, passed military information along to patriot forces. Holton echoes the 19th-century writer Elizabeth Ellet’s speculation that “contempt for female influence and intelligence” led British officers to commit the serious mistake of discussing their plans openly in the presence of American women.

Partly because it has been caught up in recent debates, Liberty Is Sweet has attracted an unusual amount of public attention for a volume that runs to over 700 pages and includes a 60-page bibliography and more than 100 pages of endnotes. Not long ago, Holton and Gordon Wood, a major scholar of the revolutionary era and one of the 1619 Project’s vocal critics, engaged in a livestreamed debate at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Wood used the occasion to castigate the last generation or two of scholars for, in his view, hostility not only to prominent founders but to the revolution itself. Holton identified Wood with what he has called the consensus account of the revolution, which he claims privileges American elites. Surprisingly, given their substantial differences, Wood provided a prepublication endorsement for Liberty Is Sweet. It appears on the back cover and calls the book “a spirited account of the Revolution that brings everybody and everything into the story.” Since it is an axiom of historical scholarship that constructing a narrative of past events requires careful selection from an endless array of available facts—as a professor of mine once said, “What makes a book good is what you leave out”—this must qualify as one of the least complimentary blurbs on record.

As one reads Liberty Is Sweet, one gets a sense of why Wood might have struggled to compose a more enthusiastic accolade. Holton’s take on the most prominent founders—seen by Wood and many other historians as exemplars of self-sacrificing devotion to the common good—is less than celebratory. In Holton’s account, they were land speculators, smugglers, and slave owners for whom self-interest often took precedence over principle. One reason for the colonists’ opposition to the Quebec Act of 1774, he tells us, was that it extended the boundaries of that province, recently acquired from France, to include the land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, a blow to colonial land speculators with claims there. In the same year, when the Continental Congress suspended trade with Great Britain to protest the punitive Coercive Acts, Virginia obstinately demanded and received the right to sell tobacco to the mother country for another year, while South Carolina secured permission to continue to export rice. During the conflict, leading merchants were denounced by ordinary folk as “Engrossers” and “Monopolizers” for holding scarce goods off the market to drive up prices.

Readers familiar with Holton’s earlier books may be surprised by how much of Liberty Is Sweet consists of detailed accounts of troop movements and military engagements, large and small. By the end, they may feel that they have personally walked the battlefields, waded through swamps, and traversed forest paths with Holton as their guide. He reminds us that despite Britain’s military strength, the geography of eastern North America, with its dense woods and numerous stone walls, gave American forces a considerable advantage. They knew the terrain far better than their opponents and found it easy to find defensive positions from which to fire on advancing enemy units.

Holton takes a dim view of the military commanders on both sides. British generals shuffled troops from one colony to another to little apparent purpose. Holton credits George Washington with economic shrewdness, calling him “the gold standard against which lesser [land] speculators were judged.” But when it came to the war itself, he chastises Washington for an obsession with heroically driving the British from New York or Philadelphia, an idea that, fortunately, he never acted on. Indeed, Holton writes, Washington’s “single greatest contribution” to American victory was changing his mind and abandoning the notion of storming British lines.

Often, it was not the decisions of generals but rather misperceptions, accidents, and sheer luck that determined the outcome of battles. Unanticipated contingencies—a smallpox epidemic, storms that delayed the arrival of troops—wreaked havoc on military plans. But the actions of ordinary folk lost to history also helped to determine the course of events. An unknown American officer in 1775 disobeyed orders and fortified Breed’s Hill overlooking Boston rather than nearby Bunker Hill. His decision helped bring about a battle (erroneously named for the latter hill) that became, for the British, the deadliest of the entire war.

In Holton’s account of the revolution, Native Americans play a central role. By the eve of the war, the nearly 2 million white colonists and approximately 500,000 slaves greatly outnumbered the over 90,000 Indigenous peoples living east of the Mississippi River. But the Indians’ determination to retain their land shaped the war’s origins and conduct. One of the first precipitants of colonial anger against British policies was the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited land-hungry white settlers and speculators from encroaching on Indian holdings beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The British government was not particularly sympathetic to Native peoples; it simply wished to avoid endless military conflict on the frontier. Indeed, the decision to leave some 10,000 British soldiers in North America after the Seven Years’ War with France ended in 1763—what Holton, with a nod to today’s politics, calls “a western border wall”—stemmed from a desire to avoid combat between colonists and Native peoples. Troops, however, cost money; hence the government in London experimented with new taxes to raise revenue. The “principal purpose” of the Stamp Act, one of the best-known mileposts on the road to revolution, was not to undermine Americans’ liberty, as so many colonists charged, but, Holton writes, to fund the troops intended to prevent a war with Native Americans. Not surprisingly, when the War of Independence broke out, Indians mostly sided with the British.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson expressed the common colonial view of Native peoples, calling them “merciless savages” whose only “rule of warfare” was one of destruction. (Over half a century later, in his speech on the meaning of the Fourth of July to slaves, Frederick Douglass would brilliantly reverse Jefferson’s dichotomy between civilization and barbarism. Given the brutality of slavery, Douglass insisted, white Americans were the ones guilty of “crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”) As for the laws of war, patriot forces violated them with impunity where Native peoples were concerned. In 1779 Washington dispatched a contingent of soldiers to upstate New York to burn Indian towns and crops and seize hostages “of every age and sex.” The following year, while serving as governor of Virginia, Jefferson ordered troops under the command of George Rogers Clark to enter the Ohio Valley and bring about the expulsion or “extermination” of local Indians.

What of the complex question of the revolution’s relationship to slavery? Among the 1619 Project’s more controversial claims is that a “primary reason” American colonists (in the recently published revised edition, “some of the colonists”) fought for independence was to safeguard slavery from future British interference. Although a number of historians questioned this statement, Holton argues that protecting slavery was in fact a significant motivation for many American patriots, especially in colonies where the slave plantation was the foundation of the economy.

In recent months, Holton has posted on Twitter documents that underscore the tremendous impact of the 1775 order by the Earl of Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offering freedom to slaves who enlisted in the British Army. Holton does not claim that Dunmore’s proclamation “caused” the American Revolution, but he does insist that it played a significant role in transforming resistance within the British Empire into a movement for outright independence. Following Dunmore’s proclamation, Washington—who initially rejected the idea of allowing Black men to serve in the Continental Army—changed his mind, allowing those already free to enlist, and as time went on some Northern states offered freedom to slave soldiers. Black men and women chose to ally with whichever side they considered most likely to assist them in gaining freedom. Holton tells us that around 9,000 Black soldiers served in Washington’s army during the war, and a similar number chose to fight for the Crown. Overall, however, the enslaved identified the British, not the revolutionaries, with the promise of freedom and acted accordingly. Their knowledge of the local geography often proved vital to British forces. In 1778, for example, Sampson, a Black pilot, guided British warships upriver to within two miles of Savannah, leading to the city’s capture.

During the war, slaves fled by the thousands to the areas under British control. To be sure, as Holton makes clear, offering freedom to the slaves of an enemy nation was common practice in wars in the Western Hemisphere. This was a military strategy aimed at depriving the enemy of manpower and supplies, not an expression of hostility to slavery. Some British commanders saw the slaves who flocked to their lines as an annoying burden. While ensconced with his army at Yorktown before his surrender in 1781, the British commander Lord Cornwallis expelled hundreds of runaways who had helped build his fortifications, allowing their former owners to seize them. As a result, Jefferson himself recovered six who had run away. He gave one as a gift to his sister and sold the rest as punishment. In the treaty ending the war, the British promised to return the Americans’ escaped slaves. But some generals declined to do so, saying it would be a breach of the “national honor” to re-enslave people who had been promised freedom. When the British evacuated New York, Charleston, and Savannah, they took thousands of former slaves with them. Many ended up free in Nova Scotia, Great Britain, or Sierra Leone. Others were sold into West Indian slavery.

The Black desire for freedom forced both sides to modify their military plans. Britain felt it necessary to transfer troops from mainland North America to the Caribbean to secure the lucrative sugar islands there against both French invasion and slave uprisings, thus weakening the campaign against the American colonists. Similarly, the need to “prevent insurrections among the Negroes,” as the South Carolina legislature explained to Congress, meant that a significant number of able-bodied white patriots were exempted from military service. (Something like this occurred during the Civil War, when the Confederacy excused from the military draft one white man for every 20 slaves on a plantation.) Patriots took other steps to bolster slavery’s stability. When the British invaded South Carolina, the patriot leader John Laurens proposed arming thousands of slaves to defend the colony, but the legislature rejected this idea. Instead, to attract white recruits, the lawmakers offered slaves as enlistment bonuses: One could fight for freedom and end up owning slaves. With money scarce, a number of the new state governments used the enslaved as a kind of currency. Georgia’s legislature, Holton observes, paid the governor’s salary in slaves seized from loyalists.

After his detailed account of the coming of the revolution and the war itself, Holton’s brief final section on the origins and writing of the Constitution comes as something of an anticlimax. As in earlier chapters, he emphasizes how the actions of ordinary Americans helped to shape events. Here his focus is on the small farmers suffering from a postwar economic downturn, who opposed, sometimes violently, efforts by creditors to force the payment of outstanding debts or to foreclose on farms. Some states suspended the collection of debts or printed paper money that rapidly deteriorated in value but, to the alarm of creditors, could be used to pay existing obligations. “Farmers’ resistance,” most notably what came to be known as Shays’s Rebellion, and the pro-debtor actions of some state governments convinced elite patriots of the need to create a stronger central government to keep popular passions in check. With its ban on states issuing paper money and “impairing the Obligation of Contracts,” the Constitution, Holton writes, was “above all, an economic document,” and Shays and his followers its “inadvertent coauthors.”

In some ways, Holton’s account echoes Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which over a century ago argued that the framers were mainly concerned to establish a federal government powerful enough to ensure the repayment of government bonds and prevent states from interfering with the rights of property. Beard’s iconoclastic takedown of the authors of the Constitution opened him to widespread condemnation. Then, as now, most Americans preferred a more heroic portrait of the nation’s founders.

Holton’s entire book might be viewed as a reckoning with what he calls “the ambiguity of the American Revolution.” One can only admire the wealth of information he has assembled and the clarity with which he narrates this complex history. Ambiguity, however, does not constitute an overarching interpretation. Instead of a fully worked-out conclusion, Holton at the end offers a brief assessment of how the achievement of independence affected various groups of Americans. It is not an inspiring balance sheet. “Agrarian radicals” were mostly disappointed. “Ordinary freemen” made “modest gains” via the expansion of political democracy in the states, but these were partly reversed by the Constitution. The status of free women barely changed. For the Native population, American independence was a disaster. The expulsion of the British deprived Indians of a powerful ally. And by agreeing to the Treaty of Paris, which recognized the new nation’s control of all the territory as far west as the Mississippi River, the British unconscionably abandoned their Native allies.

The only people who experienced a genuine enhancement of freedom, Holton writes, were African American slaves, who pursued their own revolution alongside the one pursued by white Americans. Tens of thousands served and departed with the British or acquired liberty by fighting in the Continental Army. Revolutionary rhetoric about liberty and equality helped inspire laws in the Northern states for the gradual abolition of slavery and provided a language with which African Americans staked their own claims to freedom. Lemuel Haynes, a Black clergyman and soldier, for example, published an antislavery essay in 1776 titled “Liberty Further Extended,” which began by quoting Jefferson’s words “All men are created equal.”

Yet against these gains, Holton asks us to weigh the fact that the vast majority of enslaved men and women remained in bondage, and their owners quickly came to dominate the new national government. In its three-fifths and fugitive-slave clauses and the provision empowering the federal government to put down insurrections, the Constitution offered powerful protections to slavery. And to the extent that Black people’s supposed racial inferiority became a convenient explanation for the existence of slavery in a land purportedly dedicated to liberty, the American Revolution reinforced white racism. Overall, Holton offers a stark assessment: The revolution “produced more misery than freedom.”

Holton’s title, Liberty Is Sweet, is taken from a 1775 letter by Lund Washington to his cousin George. It could easily be mistaken as an epigram for the entire struggle for independence. Yet Lund Washington did not have in mind the white patriots fighting to throw off the yoke of British tyranny. Rather, he was explaining why some of his cousin’s slaves were certain to try to escape to the British. Lund Washington understood that, unlike many white Americans, Black men and women saw freedom as a universal entitlement, not one limited by race. In that sense, the slaves and their descendants were the true inheritors of revolutionary ideals. That is an insight that ought to be taught in every classroom in the land.


Due to a copyediting error, an earlier version of this article stated that “Among the 1619 Project’s more controversial claims is that the ‘primary reason’ American colonists (in the recently published revised edition, ‘some of the colonists’) fought for independence was to safeguard slavery” instead of “a ‘primary reason.’” The article has been corrected.

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