Unsung Heroes : ‘Liberty is Sweet’ Review

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A focus on unhappy farmers and Native Americans, not the ‘maudlin musings’ of the Founders.

When the American Revolution ended, John Adams despaired that an accurate history of it would ever be written. “The Essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington,” he wrote in 1790, “. . . and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.”

Woody Holton’s “Liberty Is Sweet” is the opposite of the narrow caricature Adams imagined. It is a sweeping narrative history of the Revolution that attempts to include everyone—slave and free, men and women, prosperous businessmen and indebted farmers, immigrants and Native Americans—into a single story of different people struggling for freedom.

Though the book’s subtitle advertises it as “the hidden history” of the American Revolution, much of the narrative is surprisingly traditional, focusing on the events and controversies that have been standard in histories for generations: the escalating pattern of imperial coercion and colonial resistance; the major battles and campaigns of the war itself; the failures of the Articles of Confederation and the ratification of the Constitution.

But the struggle for “home rule,” Mr. Holton writes, quoting the historian Carl Becker, also occasioned internal battles over “who should rule at home.” Accordingly, Mr. Holton emphasizes the stories of obscure individuals whom the new nation excluded, disappointed or dispossessed. He shows how Native American leaders like the Delaware sachem Shingas struggled to preserve their lands against the demographic swell of European settlement. He relates how the religious teaching of Sarah Osborn blurred gender and racial categories and stirred radical aspirations that the Revolution itself failed to deliver. And his account of Virginia’s reaction to the Stamp Act focuses on three nameless slaves, convicted of theft, whose “corpses . . . hung from the nearby gallows” even as Patrick Henry denounced the tyranny of King George in what Thomas Jefferson described as “torrents of sublime eloquence.”

In bringing many obscure sources to light, Mr. Holton, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the author of an acclaimed biography of Abigail Adams, demonstrates an impressive range of erudition. But his imaginative sympathies don’t extend to the primary subject of his narrative, the political and military struggle for independence. Mr. Holton adopts a conspicuously listless attitude toward this epochal event, describing the pivotal moments and the key figures as if fulfilling a contractual obligation. The result is a bit like reading a steamy romance as retold by a Victorian moralist: The basic story is the same, but most of the enthralling details are suppressed.

His account of the Declaration of Independence, for example, is preoccupied with dismissing its historical significance and disparaging its primary author. In his denunciation of King George, Jefferson fell back “on that ultimate expedient of the rookie writer, ALL CAPS.” And Jefferson’s “maudlin musings” on the shared national destiny that the king’s tyranny had foreclosed come across, Mr. Holton says, as “the snufflings of a jilted lover.”

George Washington fares little better. His occasional acts of selfless leadership suggest that he might have “become a very different person from the glory hound of the 1750s and land speculator of the 1760s.” A bit later, Mr. Holton observes that the “best explanation for Washington’s metamorphosis” from greedy scoundrel to decent (albeit, as presented here, inept) leader was that he finally came “to terms with his apparent infertility.”

Mr. Holton’s sympathies are entirely with those on the margins of his story—women, slaves and Native Americans in particular. Almost every military expedition in this era included women, and Mr. Holton neatly recounts their contributions. Jemima Warner, for example, accompanied her husband on the Americans’ doomed campaign to capture Quebec in 1775. When her husband became too ill to continue, Mr. Holton writes, “she sat with him, hugging him and crying with him until he died.” Then she covered his body with leaves and took his musket. “Twenty miles on, she caught up with the army.”

Mr. Holton’s concern for the obscure and downtrodden enriches his portrait of the Revolution, but he often undermines his purpose with interpretive claims that are exaggerated or downright fanciful. That there were important trade connections between New England colonies and Caribbean sugar plantations is indisputable, but Mr. Holton insists, absurdly, that New England was “as dependent on the work of African Americans as Virginia and South Carolina.” The farmers who revolted in what became Shays’ Rebellion certainly added to the sense of crisis that inspired the framers of the Constitution, but Mr. Holton says these unruly farmers “merit recognition as inadvertent coauthors of the Constitution.” Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation in 1775, offering freedom to slaves and servants who enlisted to fight for the British in Virginia, further antagonized a society already in open rebellion. But Mr. Holton observes without evidence that the proclamation did more than any other document, including Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the Declaration, to convert Virginians “to the cause of independence.”

Mr. Holton sympathetically describes the many challenges that African-Americans faced throughout this era, presenting individual stories of men and women braving desperate odds. A more expansive commitment to universal freedom began to emerge during the war, including the first steps toward emancipation in the North and the growth of abolitionist sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic—though both sides, Patriot and British, only acknowledged this budding moral advancement partially and self-servingly.

But Mr. Holton also attempts to elevate African-Americans, collectively, into the primary actors in the decision to seek independence. In an endnote engaging with the so-called 1619 Project—the New York Times-originated assertion that America’s founding should be shifted to the first arrival of African slaves—he flatly dismisses the claim that white Southerners supported independence because they feared the growth of antislavery sentiment in Britain. Indeed, as he points out, “white leaders in British provinces with lopsided black majorities prudently stayed out of the American Revolution.” In short, those most exposed to the threat of slave insurrection were not about to risk the chaos involved in overthrowing their own government.

And yet, without recognizing the contradiction, Mr. Holton also insists in his text that the unrest among slaves—including real or imagined conspiracies that slaveholders suppressed—was a vital factor that “helped transform . . . resistance to imperial reform into a demand for revolution.” The logic, supposedly, is that black agitation raised the stakes of political turmoil, leaving white Southerners no choice but to press forward and declare their independence. But surely fear of their slaves would have had a restraining influence on white Southerners contemplating revolution—after all, the British didn’t threaten loyal slaveholders. Still, Mr. Holton declares that his insight moves black history “from the back of the bus to the driver’s seat.”

The problem with this kind of argument is not just that it’s wildly implausible. The implication, however unintended, is that the struggles of slaves only matter insofar as they influenced the decisions of those in power. Instead of reckoning with the reality of slavery and honestly celebrating the resilience of its victims, Mr. Holton offers a fantasy of power wielded by the powerless. This is a very different caricature than the one John Adams imagined, of a Revolution that began with Dr. Franklin’s electric rod, but it is a caricature nevertheless.

Courtesy : Wall Street Journal

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