Woody Holton wants you to rethink the founding of the United States.
His new book, Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, is 600 pages of stories that revisit major moments throughout the country’s war for independence. Holton says it leaves the Founding Fathers on the stage, but it brings more people ― including Native Americans, Africans, women and religious dissenters ― into the spotlight.
Without this full picture, Holton says, “We're depicting a one-man play when this is actually a giant ensemble production with a cast of thousands.”
Holton, the Peter and Bonnie McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina, started working on Liberty Is Sweet nearly a decade ago.
“It really grew out of my teaching," he says. "I thought that over the years I had come up with something new to say about just about every incident of the revolution, so I wanted to share that with people.”
The book, published by Simon & Schuster, offers many familiar tales from the revolution, plus new takes.
“I’ve got all of the traditional stuff, but the traditional history of the revolution becomes that much more interesting when you put it in the context of the things we didn’t know,” Holton says.
Our founders were actually pretty darn diverse when you include everybody.
― Woody Holton
Native Americans in the revolution
The Stamp Act of 1765, which required colonists to use stamped British paper for printed materials, was one grievance that led to the revolution. But the Stamp Act would not have been passed except for a British interest in defending Native American territory, Holton says.
Not that the crown cared about the Native Americans’ land rights. But the French and Indian War had doubled the British national debt, so Parliament wanted to avoid any future conflict with the Native Americans, Holton says. The Stamp Act paid for troops who would keep colonists from infringing farther west on Native American territory.
Holton puts it into wording familiar to modern ears: “The British decided to build a human wall on the western border of its colonies in America and to make the colonists pay for it.”
No Native Americans, no Stamp Act, Holton says. And no Stamp Act, no revolution.
African Americans in the revolution
Holton documented numerous stories of African Americans — enslaved and free — who played a role in the revolution. Some were soldiers, and some were spies or double agents.
“There are very few battles where African Americans didn’t play some crucial role,” Holton says. “They fought on both sides and died on both sides. Thousands were freed by fighting on both sides of the Revolutionary War.”
One of Holton’s favorite stories took place in 1781 near Williamsburg, Virginia. Colonial scouts met two Black men who gave conflicting information. One said that the British general Charles Cornwallis was ferrying his troops across the James River, leaving the army split and vulnerable. The second man said that the news of ferrying soldiers was a ruse.
Ultimately, Continental Army leader Marquis de Lafayette chose to trust the first man, falling into a trap laid by Cornwallis. The resulting Battle of Green Spring left 150 Continental soldiers dead or wounded.
“For Lafayette, deciding whether to go into the Battle of Green Spring came down to which African American man to believe,” Holton says. “That, to me, encapsulates their omnipresence in the Revolutionary War.”
Women in the Revolution
Holton has a slogan he’d like to see on a bumper sticker: “Laundresses save lives.”
Disease was the top killer in the American Revolution. After a mass inoculation staved off a smallpox epidemic among the Continental Army, the next troublesome disease was typhus, carried by lice. The women who washed uniforms reduced the spread of lice and, therefore, typhus, Holton says.
“Women sacrificed a lot in the war and contributed massively to the war,” he says. “That would include enslaved women on both sides, and white women as well.”
Holton is especially impressed with Esther De Berdt Reed, a Pennsylvania woman who spearheaded a fundraiser among women for colonial troops. At one point, Reed stood up to George Washington when Washington wanted to keep the funds in a struggling bank run by political enemies of Reed’s husband.
One of the pamphlets Reed wrote to advertise the fundraising effort used the phrase “empire of liberty.” Six months later, Thomas Jefferson used the same phrase in a letter. The widely quoted phrase is attributed to Jefferson, but Holton thinks Reed was Jefferson’s source.
Religious dissenters in the Revolution
Holton says the Great Awakening, a religious revival that took place decades before the Revolutionary War, set the stage for independence. For many colonists, it was the first time they had a choice in their place or manner of worship.
“Once you could choose your minister, you started to think about choosing your prime minister," Holton says. “Choice in religion gets people thinking about choice in political structures.”
As the leaders of the Revolution tried to attract more followers to the cause of independence, religious minorities used their newfound religions as a bargaining chip, Holton says. They would fight for independence if the new country respected religious freedom. That insistence laid the groundwork for religious freedom in the First Amendment.
The traditional history of the revolution becomes that much more interesting when you put it in the context of the things we didn’t know.
― Woody Holton
A national conversation
Liberty Is Sweet hit bookshelves just weeks before another book that takes a new look at America’s founding: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. When it first appeared in The New York Times, The 1619 Project ignited controversy about the role of slavery in the Founding Fathers’ lives and the motivations for the Revolutionary War. That controversy has historians and politicians sparring over how slavery and other abhorrent parts of U.S. history should be considered and how they should be taught in schools.
Holton says he sees some flaws in The 1619 Project, but he defends its main tenets. He also defends the Founding Fathers when he thinks that critics offer rhetoric instead of evidence. Scholars may disagree over how some historical facts should be interpreted and emphasized, but Holton thinks it’s vital to expand the picture of American history.
He says it’s possible to condemn the shortcomings of Founding Fathers while celebrating their strengths ― and the strengths of other forgotten heroes.
That’s what Holton does in Liberty Is Sweet.
“I would like to let go of the hero worshipping and replace it with reverence for heroic acts and reverence for the principles,” he says. “Let’s not unite in spite of diversity. Let’s unite around our diversity, because our founders were actually pretty darn diverse when you include everybody.”