Woody Holton: Explains his evolution from activist to historian

Historians in the News

Bob Gross, the new editor of Ask the Author, asked me to write about how my recent book, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the American Revolution, was affected by the nearly ten years I spent as an environmental activist.

I had actually been a conservative when I entered the University of Virginia in 1977—the first club I joined was the College Republicans—but exposure to that right-wing student body pushed me far to the left. After graduation, I went to work for Congress Watch and the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs)—environmental and consumer groups founded by Ralph Nader—and in 1990 I founded Clean Up Congress to try to defeat anti-environmental congressmen. It is perhaps not terribly surprising that this work had unintended ideological consequences. Not that my left-wing activism sent me back toward conservatism. But it did kill off some of my liberal illusions.

One of these was the notion of a beneficent government, a natural outgrowth of my having been educated by the state until the age of twenty-one (not to mention my having spent adolescence in a state-owned mansion during my father’s governorship of Virginia!). At Congress Watch, where one of my principal duties was to monitor congressional hearings, I was astonished—go ahead and call me naïve—to discover how much less welfare the government distributed to the poor than to giant corporations. (If you think the government robs the rich and gives to the poor, a single session of the Agriculture Committee will set you straight.)

I treasure many of the conversations I had with my fellow citizens at their doorsteps, and I think if I had been blessed with musical talent, I could have waxed as lyrical about suburbanites as another Woody did about hoboes and Okies.

That lesson was reinforced during the much longer periods I spent with the PIRGs and Clean Up Congress, and the suspicion of government I picked up as an activist carried over into my work on Unruly Americans. Most (though not all) scholars who had previously studied the angry farmers of the 1780s (the likes of Daniel Shays) had focused on farmers’ struggles against creditors. I, on the other hand, was especially (perhaps excessively) sensitive to the farmers’ complaint that "our misfortune proceeds from the hands of government." So I devoted less of my book to the struggle pitting debtors against creditors than to the overlapping battle between taxpayers and the primary beneficiaries of the unprecedented taxes of the 1780s, the people who had speculated in depreciated government bonds. (My discovery that those speculators included Abigail Adams was, as the expression goes, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.)...
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