Must Read Book

Holton, Woody, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999).

This is a remarkable study that can change the way you think about history. Why did the wealthiest and most anglicized class of colonists among the first to embrace revolt? In Holton’s hands, the Virginia gentry are propelled into the patriot movement by the Natives, slaves, debtors, and merchants among them. It is a complicated story involving the scramble for land, resulting Indian wars, fears of taxation by an overextended gentry dependant on the tobacco crop, class conflict between large and small farmers, the vagaries of non-importation and non-exportation experiments, and finally the seizure by slaves of the opportunities created by divisions among whites. But Holton tells it in remarkably concise fashion.

What makes this book so special is the way it melds the social and political histories of the late colonial period, so that decisive events can be understood not just as the choices of leaders but as the options presented to them by the actions of various groups of people. The big guys are there – Washington, Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Lord Dunmore – but shown in a new light, one previously oblique to us because of our inability to see what frightened them and what they triumphed over. Much as Bernard Bailyn recovered the motivating fears of British conspiracy against liberty in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, this book recovers the material risks of debt, loss of the promising frontier, and the labor force as precipitants of the Revolution. With this book, social history of the Revolution has truly come into its own.

Holton writes well and without romanticizing or condemning his subjects. Slaves and their masters alike become more human. And they become more connected in history. “It is not sufficient to say… that slaves and Indians were denied the fruits of Independence,” Holton concludes. “To a large extent, in 1776 and 1861, slaves and Indians – or more precisely, the Indians’ land and the slaves’ labor – were the fruits of Independence.” This is an idea that has to be reckoned with, and it has never been presented more carefully.

Recommended by David Waldstreicher, University of Notre Dame

David Waldstreicher teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He has written In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 and most recently published The Struggle Against Slavery: A History in Documents, a book for young adults in Oxford’s Pages from History series. He is currently writing a book about Benjamin Franklin and slavery.