Woody Holton doesn’t have such a hidden history

Woody Holton, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, wrote a tom of about 800 pages Freedom is sweet And sub-titled The Secret History of the American Revolution. His earlier books include a specific biography of Abigail Adams and Unruly Americans and the source of the Constitution, A work I admire so much. Even before the publication of this recent Holton book, it has given rise to controversy. Nicole Hannah-Jones, its creator New York TimesThe ‘1619 project claims it as proof of the project’s claim that the revolution was provoked by the British threat to slavery. After the Halton argument The Washington Post On July 4, 2021, six leading revolutionary historians responded in a critical open letter to the fact that “white people’s anger at the British for their place with the captives had led many to take a decisive step in support of independence.” Tom McMahon was even more hostile to the Trotskyist “World Socialist Web Site”, which had previously been attacked by several scholars over the 1619 project. The resulting controversy even spread on Twitter.

But the book itself is more reserved and restrained than its early champions or opponents might have guessed. Freedom is sweet Undoubtedly interesting, full of concentrated details, and thoroughly researched, almost every paragraph is documented with an adequate endnote. It has a unique focus and pays more attention to certain aspects of the revolution than any other general history of the time. Some would scoff and disagree with Halton’s explanation. However, despite Halton’s occasional notion of a so-called standard “myth” about revolution, his account is not really far off, at least in terms of the overall interpretation of the cause and effect of revolution, from other scholarly volumes on the subject. . Even Gordon Wood, one of the most eminent historians who has signed the critical open letter, gave the book a trivial but apt jacket blurb: “A passionate account of the revolution that brings everyone and everything into the story.”

Holton’s accounts are almost relentlessly chronological and occasionally isolated. Thus his description of the internal rebellion of regulators in North Carolina that took place before the armed conflict with Britain (and illustrated the following season of the TV series “Outlander”, is not entirely accurate) is divided into three separate chapters. With the treatment of other phenomena. To cover contemporary major military operations in the aftermath of the British occupation of Philadelphia and the war near Saratoga, New York, the book jumps back and forth between the two theaters instead of treating each one completely. While this approach should create some problems for those familiar with the period, it may compromise Holton’s book appeal for a more general audience.

In the first of three separate sections of the book, covering events leading to secession with Britain, Holton addresses the question of the role of slavery in inspiring the revolution. More extreme proponents of this accusation call for 1772 Somerset A court decision in Britain that freed a slave brought from the colony. But Holton only said so far: “For many slaves, this strengthened the case against the king.” And he acknowledged that other measures have been “equally decisive.” In fact, his description at the moment covers almost a decade of colonial grievances and protests against measures such as the Declaration of 1763 and the Stamp Act of 1765. Moreover, in a final note, Holton admits that he even went a step further. “Somerset Angry slaveholders (especially in the Caribbean) find little evidence for the argument that white Southerners favored secession from Britain in July 1776 because they feared Britain’s growing anti-slavery movement. ” By doing and opposing, he added that “this demand greatly exaggerated the strength and size of the British abolitionist movement in 1772.”

Only in the second section of the book, covering the war, does Holton expand a bit. Half a year after the start of the conflict in Massachusetts, and the evolution of royal authority in Virginia, the Virginia assembly effectively ruled independently of the Royal Governor, Earl of Danmore. Danmore escaped on a British warship, and in November 1775 he issued a proclamation proposing the release of any slaves or contract servants who would fight for the British. The offer only applies to Virginia slaves and rebel-owned slaves and not to loyal owners. Holton boldly asserted that “there is no other document – not even Thomas Payne’s Common sense Or the Declaration of Independence. It did more than just declare Danmore to transform the white population of Britain’s most populous American colony into a cause for independence. “

On the one hand, historians have long acknowledged that Danmore’s proclamation toughened resistance in Virginia, especially since it raised the specter of a slave revolt. Robert Middlecoff, in his History of the American Revolution, published in 1982 as part of the Oxford History of the United States series, writes that “the allegiance that was in Virginia is much more flickering to Danmore’s call.” Even in the fourth volume of Murray Rothbird Freedom has been conceived Acknowledges this effect. Note further that Holton is not claiming that the declaration itself gave rise to the revolt but only promoted the desire for full independence in Virginia. Yet, on the other hand, Holton’s idea that the Virginians would otherwise be reluctant to declare independence seems to be a much more speculative retrospective. In addition, he himself points out in the following pages a few more factors that led the rebels to complete secession from the motherland.

British General George Clinton subsequently issued a comprehensive declaration proposing the release of rebel-owned slaves in all colonies, regardless of whether they fought on the side of the British, again excluding those owned by loyalists. Although Holton has repeatedly referred to an “Anglo-African alliance”, it is unclear how far he can take the term. He faithfully recorded the role of blacks in all military activities, no matter how small. But he did so on both sides of the conflict, concluding: “By the end of the war, about 9,000 African American Huigs served in the army and navy – almost the same number as those enlisted with the British.” It is true that extra-fledged slaves who did not act as British warriors give a scale tip to any kind of alliance. Although more than 3,000 freed slaves joined the British eviction from New York at the end of the war, Holton saw that many African-Americans who had come out of British-controlled Savannah and Charleston would “probably remain a slave, either handed over to white loyalists” or Was snatched by a British officer, “often in British Caribbean slave colonies.

In a later post, I will look at Holton’s attitudes toward African-Americans before, during, and immediately after the Revolution.

[Editor’s note: An earlier shorter version of this review appeared in Reason (March 2022).]


Jeffrey Rogers Hamel is a historian and professor of economics at San Jose State University.

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