RECAP: “The Hidden History of the American Revolution,” with Univ. South Carolina Professor Woody Holton

Given the strength—and to some degree the mysteriousness—of the subtitle for his most recent book, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, University of South Carolina McCausland Professor of History Woody Holton noted in beginning his November 11 lecture at the State Historical Society of Missouri this his goal for the talk was to provide some context for what, exactly, he was trying to unhide. So often, he prefaced, the book’s central task of revealing what’s been lost (or what was never known in the first place) involved reintegrating those figures—Indigenous peoples, free and enslaved African Americans, and women—into a revolutionary narrative that they’ve long been left out of.

His first example, however, was something quite known about the history of the Revolution: the 1763 Stamp Act. Known, but at the same time, he argued, widely misunderstood. Rather than using funds generated from the Stamp Act to offset debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War, as textbooks would have us believe, the British deployed tax revenue from the legislation to strengthen their peacekeeping military presence on the colonies’ western border, with the thought that doing so would both protect colonists from the Indigenous nations of the North American interior and protect these nations’ lands from profiteering colonial speculators. This wasn’t, Prof. Holton stressed, undertaken out of any newfound sense of enlightenment among imperial administrators when it came to Indigenous lands; it was, instead, merely a way to not do the most expensive thing a government can do—go to war.

This human wall of garrisons which colonists couldn’t cross—and, importantly, which these same colonists funded—would remain intact even after the Virginia Assembly, whose membership included Washington and Jefferson, petitioned in 1769 for a repeal of the Stamp Act and a subsequent opening up of the Western territories. In response to the threat of colonial expansion, women peace chiefs living in villages along the Wabash River sent out wampum belts to neighboring tribes with the goal of establishing a coalition capable of resisting what appeared to be a looming, and most likely violent, push for displacement. After finding out that these efforts were successful at allying nations north and south of the Ohio River, the British government, realizing that the last thing it wanted was to fight such a coalition, rejected the Assembly’s petition. As Prof. Holton noted, without Indigenous peoples, there would have been no Stamp Act; and without the Stamp Act, there would have been one less primary point of colonial dissatisfaction with Parliament in the decades leading up to the war.

In turning his attention to unpacking African Americans’ role in alienating white colonists against the British government, Prof. Holton underscored how important it is to remember that, at least for the first twelve years of resistance (1763-1774), these colonists’ contention was with Parliament, not the crown: for restricting westward expansion; for making the colonies foot the bill for this restriction; and additionally, for cracking down on such practices as molasses smuggling. In other words, it wasn’t independence the colonists sought during this period, but only the rolling back of changes in policies related to the “Big Three T’s”: territory, taxes, and trade.

Why does 1774 mark such a touchstone when it comes to dating the transition of colonial sentiment from a desire to restore “the good old days of 1762” to a desire to exit the British empire? Because it was at this point that reports began to arise—from Abigail Adams in Massachusetts, for example, and later that year from James Madison in Virginia—that an informal alliance was coalescing between freedom-seeking African Americans and a British government desperate for soldiers. Rumors that colonial governors up and down the seaboard were taking seriously the proposition of arming, training, and eventually liberating enslaved persons would grow louder throughout 1774 and would become reality in 1775, with the passage of Lord Dunmore’s Emancipation Proclamation in Virginia and the emergence of similar, if also unofficial, agreements elsewhere. The significance of these agreements as instigators for the colonial push for independence can’t be overstated. Though merely a recruitment tool for the British, colonists repeatedly treated the crown’s offer of emancipation to the enslaved as tantamount to an appeal that they kill their enslavers. It was as if, many colonial accounts read, the British were “aiming a dagger at our throats through the hands of our slaves,” and it should thus come as no surprise, Prof. Holton offered, that the final grievance of the Declaration of Independence reads, “he [the King] has excited domestic insurrection [among the enslaved] against us.”

If, in this, African Americans played a sizable role in bringing about the Declaration, likewise did they have a huge hand in reshaping its meaning. More than anything, Prof. Holton explained, colonists initially saw abandoning affiliation with Great Britain as a way to draw the French Navy to their side. However, an alternate, far more aspirational vision for the Declaration would become clear almost immediately after it was reprinted in newspapers. In the epigraph of his 1776 “Liberty Further Extended,” Lemuel Haynes, a free African American who was serving in Washington’s Continental Army when he produced the anti-slavery pamphlet, quoted—for the first time in print—the document’s famous opening lines on self-evident truths. Such citation of “all men are created equal” would become a hallmark of the writings of African American and white abolitionists alike, a turn of rhetoric that transformed the Declaration from a mere document of secession into what Prof. Holton dubbed the world’s “finest statement of human rights.”

In regard to Liberty Is Sweet’s final hidden history, both as the colonies progressed toward Revolution and as the Revolution progressed, women’s roles in the war effort became increasingly pronounced. Take Hannah Griffitts’ 1768 poem “The Female Patriots,” in which she castigates Philadelphia merchants for their non-participation in tea boycotts. “If the Sons, so degenerate, the Blessings despise,” the poem reads, “Let the Daughters of Liberty nobly arise.” Simply put, the more the poem circulated, the more pressure that merchants in port towns all over the thirteen colonies felt to join the boycotts, and the more the boycotts succeeded. A similar lesson can be drawn from cloth boycotts of the era and the domestic cloth production they necessitated. Though perceived as disreputable—the domain of spinsters, poor women, and enslaved women—spinning cloth became a collective occasion in the northeast, and reports of the spinning bees that were taking place throughout the region emphasized the degree to which respectable women participated in them. And then, as the war reached its nadir for the colonies with the capture of Charleston, Esther Reed organized women in Philadelphia to knock on doors and raise money for the soldiers. Her May 1780 broadside, “Sentiments of an American Woman,” was published to preemptively push back against cultural norms which held that women should do no such thing by pointing to women in history—Queen Elizabeth, Catherine the Great—who acted boldly when the situation demanded it. Important on its own, to be sure, but doubly so when we acknowledge that it was through Reed’s broadside, and not Thomas Jefferson’s December 1780 letter to George Rogers Clark, that “empire of liberty” entered the American lexicon. (Though we can’t be sure that Jefferson stole the phrase from Reed, we can say for certain that Martha Jefferson received a copy of “Sentiments” and let our assumptions be guided from there)

There is, Prof. Holton pointed out in closing, much else about the Revolution’s history that’s hidden from public eye. Whereas national storytelling insists on positioning the colonists as underdogs in the war, for example, we would do well to at least take note of the fact that Howe declared the conflict unwinnable for the British as early as June 1775’s Battle of Bunker Hill. And while the heroism of George Washington is so often feted, we might also do well to remember that Washington’s greatest strategic victories arguably came when he listened to his officers and didn’t pursue the aggressive attacks on Boston and New York that he so desperately wanted to.

To complete the scheduled twin-bill, Prof. Holton returned to the Kinder Institute on Friday afternoon for a free-flowing panel discussion, entitled “Reconsidering the Founders,” with Kinder Institute Associate Director Jeff Pasley, Postdoctoral Fellow Erin Holmes, and Distinguished Faculty Fellow Alan Gibson. For more on everything from the decidedly non-adulatory, and at times dark, tone of CBS’ 1975-76 Bicentennial Minutes, to Charles Thomson’s destruction of his 1,000-page history of the Revolution on the grounds that “I shall not undeceive [the] future generations” who will “admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men,” visit the Kinder Institute YouTube page, where a recording of the panel is housed.