Woody Holton, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, has written a nearly 800-page tome entitled Liberty is Sweet and sub-titled The Hidden History of the American Revolution. His previous books include a definitive biography of Abigail Adams and Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, a work I much admire. Even before this recent Holton book was released, it ignited controversy. Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times’ 1619 Project has touted it as evidence for the project’s claim that the Revolution was provoked by a British threat to slavery. After Holton argued in the Washington Post on July 4th, 2021, that “Whites’ fury at the British for casting their lot with enslaved people drove many to the fateful step of endorsing independence,” six leading Revolutionary historians responded in a critical open letter. Tom Mackaman was more scathing at the Trotskyist “World Socialist Web Site,” which previously had published attacks on the 1619 Project by several scholars. The resulting debate even spilled over into Twitter.
But the book itself is more guarded and restrained than either its early champions or detractors have presumed. Liberty is Sweet is certainly interesting, densely packed with detail, and exhaustively researched, with nearly every paragraph documented with an ample endnote. It does have a unique focus and gives greater attention to certain aspects of the Revolution than do other general histories of the period. Some will have quibbles and minor disagreements with Holton’s interpretations. Yet, despite Holton’s casting occasional aspersions on an alleged standard “myth” about the Revolution, his account doesn’t really stray very far, at least with respect to its overall interpretation of the Revolution’s causes and consequences, from other scholarly volumes on the topic. 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.”
Holton’s account is almost relentlessly chronological and occasionally disjointed. Thus his description of the internal revolt of the Regulators in North Carolina that took place well before armed conflict with Britain (and is portrayed, not entirely accurately, in later seasons of the TV series “Outlander”) is broken up across three separate chapters interspersed with the treatment of other events. In covering the major contemporaneous military campaigns that resulted in the British occupation of Philadelphia and the battles near Saratoga in New York, the book jumps back and forth between the two theaters, rather than separately treating each in full. Although this approach should pose few problems for those familiar with the period, it may compromise the appeal of Holton’s book for a more general audience.
In the first of the book’s three distinct sections, covering the events leading up to the break with Britain, Holton addresses the question of slavery’s role in motivating the Revolution. The more extreme proponents of this charge invoke the 1772 Somerset court decision in Britain that freed a slave brought from the colonies. But Holton only goes so far as to state: “For many slaveholders, it strengthened the case against the king.” And he concedes that other measures “proved equally decisive.” Indeed by this point his narrative has covered almost a decade of colonial grievances and protests against such measures as the Proclamation of 1763 and Stamp Act of 1765. Moreover, in an endnote, Holton even backtracks slightly, admitting that while “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.” Specifically citing and contradicting Hannah-Jones’s “Introduction” to the 1619 Project, he adds that “This claim vastly exaggerates the strength and size of the of the British abolition movement in 1772.”
Only in the book’s second section, covering the war itself, does Holton engage in a bit of a stretch. Half a year after conflict had erupted in Massachusetts, and after royal authority had evaporated in Virginia, the Virginia assembly effectively governed independently of the Royal Governor, the Earl of Dunmore. Dunmore had fled to a British warship, and in November 1775 he issued a proclamation offering freedom to any slaves or indentured servants who would fight for the British. The offer applied only to Virginia slaves and servants owned by rebels and not to those owned by Loyalists. 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.”
On the one hand, historians have long recognized that Dunmore’s Proclamation stiffened resistance in Virginia, especially because it raised the specter of slave revolts. Robert Middlekauff, in his history of the American Revolution, published in 1982 as part of the Oxford History of the United States series, wrote “Whatever loyalty there was in Virginia pretty much flickered out with Dunmore’s call.” Even Murray Rothbard in the fourth volume of Conceived in Liberty acknowledges this effect. Notice also that Holton is not claiming that the proclamation sparked the rebellion itself but only that it promoted the desire for full independence in Virginia alone. Still, on the other hand, Holton’s implication that Virginians would have otherwise hesitated about declaring independence seems far too speculative a counterfactual. Moreover, he himself in subsequent pages brings up several other factors that propelled the rebels toward a complete separation from the mother country.
British General George Clinton subsequently issued a broader proclamation offering freedom to rebel-owned slaves in all colonies, regardless of whether they fought for the British, again excluding those owned by Loyalists. Although Holton several times refers to an “Anglo-African alliance,” it is unclear how far he can push this term. He does scrupulously record nearly every military engagement in which Blacks participated, no matter how minor their role. But he does so on both sides of the conflict, concluding: “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.” It is true that additional fleeing slaves who did not serve as British combatants tip the scale toward some kind of alliance. Yet while more than three thousand emancipated slaves joined the British evacuation from New York at the end of the war, Holton finds that many of the African-Americans who shipped out of British-held Savannah and Charleston “were likely to remain a slave,” either handed over to white Loyalists “or snapped up by a British officer,” often landing in the British Caribbean slave colonies.
In a subsequent post, I will look at Holton’s attentive treatment of African-Americans prior to, during, and immediately after the Revolution.
[Editor’s note: An earlier shorter version of this review appeared in Reason (March 2022).]
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is an historian and professor of economics at San Jose State University.