The scuffle over the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project—which has seen several eminent historians publicly pit themselves against the magazine issue and its editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, over some of the most fundamental issues in United States history—seemed like it might just be beginning to die down in the second half of 2021. That’s when Woody Holton, the Peter and Bonnie McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, launched himself into the fray. On his new Twitter account, and in a series of interviews and public appearances, Holton lent his support to one of Hannah-Jones’ most controversial claims: that the American Revolution was caused, to a significant degree, by slave-holders worried about threats to their human property.
Holton’s book, Liberty is Sweet, goes far beyond that particular point of debate. It’s a remarkably capacious and richly populated narrative history of the entire revolutionary period, full of lesser-known personalities, battle scenes, and sweeping synthesis. But it also shares the irrepressible, mischievous provocativeness that marks Holton’s persona as a scholar. In this conversation, we discussed the book’s aims, and the state of the field in the study of the American Revolution, as the countdown to the semiquincentennial begins.
Tom Cutterham (TC): Liberty is Sweet is a “hidden history” of the American Revolution, meaning the story you tell isn’t the one your ideal reader was taught in school or has heard much of before. Can you say a bit more about who that reader is, and what you hope the book will do for them?
Woody Holton (WH): My ideal reader was never an academic, since Gary Nash, Alan Taylor, and others had already introduced scholars to many of the same themes and even some of the same characters I highlight in Liberty is Sweet. I really wanted to reach people who love history but don’t realize that what they have seen so far—mostly wealthy white men—is only the tip of the iceberg. My pitch to American Revolution lovers is that their favorite topic becomes even more exciting when you fully engage with its ambiguity and kaleidoscopic diversity.
My focus on non-scholars shaped the book in two ways, only the first of which I anticipated. I knew history buffs would want a narrative, and I was happy to provide one, since one of my main points is that women’s, Indigenous, military, and all the other histories transpired on the same timeline, constantly influencing each other, and we miss a lot when we devote one chapter to African Americans, one to diplomacy, one to the economy, and so on. But going chronological does not have to mean merely telling stories. I tried to use events like the boughs of a Christmas tree, with the ornaments being placed where I paused the narrative to share various social historians’ insights as well as my own.
The unintended consequence of my determination to reach beyond college towns was that I became a military historian! My initial attitude toward the battles was cynical: amateur historians demand them, so I had to write them up. But as I began that research, I overcame the conventional academic prejudice that military history is mere storytelling, and I ended up offering what I consider some fairly new interpretations of the war. Here’s one: the British realized early on that they could not win, since whenever they captured a hill—starting with Breed’s/Bunker—at the cost of 50 percent casualties, all the rebels had to do was drop back to the next hill and start the process over again. So all the Whigs (I found Patriots too partisan) had to do was stay on defense. But George Washington was initially bent on going on offense, and his classic elite-British-empire-masculine aggressiveness several times nearly ended in disaster. But he learned from his mistakes, and while he devised nearly a dozen plans to drive the British from their headquarters in Manhattan, he never actually executed even one of them. Ultimately Washington’s greatest contribution to the war effort was restraining his own aggressive instincts.