Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Woody Holton's "Liberty is Sweet"

Woody Holton is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches and researches Early American history, especially the American Revolution, with a focus on economic history and on African Americans, Native Americans, and women. His books include Abigail Adams, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize, and Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, a finalist for the National Book Award.

Holton applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Liberty is Sweet describes boycott movements in Virginia and South Carolina. It opens in January 1769, when the Duke of Bedford, outraged at American colonists’ refusal to punish their neighbors for rioting against customs agents, proposed to send rioting Bostonians to England for trial. When Virginia’s House of Burgesses denounced Bedford’s plan, Governor Botetourt dissolved the assembly. The representatives gathered in nearby Raleigh’s Tavern to sign a non-importation agreement. It resembled northern colonists’ boycotts in some ways, but the Virginians also agreed to stop bringing in enslaved Africans.

South Carolina’s wealthy merchants balked at the boycott, which would cost them business. But Charleston had a powerful community of artisans, who, on their own, pledged to stop purchasing British luxuries—and also Africans. Men could not enforce non-importation alone. They relied upon women to replace boycotted imports with domestic products like homespun fabric.

This page introduces readers to a main theme in Liberty is Sweet: overlooked actors played key roles in the American Revolution. Women signed non-importation agreements and rioted for food. Enslaved people demanded freedom in exchange for serving in the British army. Most Native Americans who participated in the war fought on the British side, attacking not only U.S. forts and settlements but also those of the Patriots’ allies, both formal (including many Native nations) and informal (especially the Spanish), from Pennsylvania to St. Louis. Colonists resisted the rebels’ military draft, and evangelicals demanded freedom of worship. The Revolution was not just a War for Independence but also a multi-faceted struggle for local power.

This page also reminds readers that the American rebels were not always ideologically-driven and often pursued their economic self-interest. For example, artisans promoted nonimportation (which would increase their business), while merchants resisted it. Washington considered attacking British-held Philadelphia to shore up Continental currency. After the war, such issues as whether the states should levy onerous taxes on farmers like Daniel Shays to pay off the war bonds (most of which had been bought up by wealthy bond speculators) set the stage for the Constitutional Convention.

But page 99 fails to introduce readers to other crucial themes in Liberty is Sweet. For example, I join other recent scholars in challenging the traditional geographic boundaries of the American Revolution. Britain actually had twenty-six American colonies, including many in the Caribbean. By placing the Battles of Bunker Hill and Yorktown alongside conflicts in Florida, the Caribbean, and India, my book considers the American Revolution as an international conflict. Page 99 also fails to reveal my attention to non-human actors, including weather, geography, and especially disease. Liberty is Sweet also offers several features that page 99 doesn’t hint at, including the first map of the eastern North America to include both colonial and Indigenous towns and major boundaries and the first population table to include not only all of the Caribbean colonies but also every European colony and every Indigenous nation in North America east of the Mississippi River.

I submitted one of my previous books to this test and was surprised to see how many of its themes were hinted at on that one page. But page 99 reflects only some of the major themes of Liberty is Sweet.
The Page 69 Test: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

Follow Woody Holton on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue