Thursday, October 21, 2021

Woody Holton on the American Revolution

I don't have a New York Times subscription and so I rarely click on linked articles, saving the few free ones allowed per month. This transcript of an Ezra Klein podcast (guest-hosted by Jamelle Bouie) is worth the click. It's an interview with University of South Carolina historian Woody Holton on rethinking the American Revolution from the ground up.

From it I learned:

  • The Stamp Act's purpose was to fund troops the British needed to separate the Indigenous people from British settlers. "Taxation without representation" paid to keep white settlers from stealing native land, and that saved the British Empire money by preventing war with the tribes.
  • The Constitution was written to correct what its writers saw as "an excess of democracy." I knew some of this, but not quite how much it changed the way things were under the Articles of Confederation. Holton wrote an earlier book called Unruly Americans and the Origin of the Constitution, in which he argued the economic crisis supposedly caused by those out-of-control "redneck farmers" was actually caused by the elites. (Elites owned the war debt and required it to be paid through tripled taxes, which caused the post-war recession, Holton's argues.)
  • The difficulty level of amending the Constitution was by Madison's design (and, I infer, in Holton's opinion, should itself be amended).

One of the major things they talk about is whether the idea of the Founding Fathers as heroes is needed to give us (us = people in this diverse and increasingly divided country) something to unite around. Other historians claim we need people like Jefferson and Washington to keep us from flying apart. Holton argues that if we do need central figures,

Why can't we share Martin Luther King? Why does it have to be slaveholders that we unite around?... if you really want people to unite... don't try to unite us around at tiny majority of us... when half of us are women, and a fifth of us then [were] African-American, and many more than a fifth [now] are people of color. It's folly to even think just as a practical standpoint.

Later they talk about the way we are all taught by mainstream history that people of the Revolutionary era were unified about how to proceed, when they clearly were not. I liked the way Holton put it, paraphrasing his off-the-cuff wording slightly: "The textbook authors' definition of patriotism is sweeping the dirt under the rug."

This relates directly to the idea that talking about disunity then will cause disunity now. If this sounds like today's "debate" about Critical Race Theory, don't be surprised.

Here's another quote of Holton's that I want to think about: "We've got to let go of the heroes and replace them with heroics." People did and can do heroic actions (or write inspiring words) and then soon turn around and do terrible things. Bouie describes this as "trying to identify principles and moments when those principles were really embodied and holding those as something to look up to, rather than uncritically hailing these guys as great men of history." He was thinking particularly of Thomas Jefferson's opening words of the Declaration of Independence, contrasted with his other writings affirming white supremacy and his personal actions.

The interview ends with Holton recommending three books not directly related to the topic of the conversation. One is A Midwife's Tale, the second is a 1961 history of Black men fighting in the American Revolution, particularly for the British (which I first learned about from the fiction book Octavian Nothing), and the third is called Rebecca's Revival, which sounds fascinating.


After writing this, I read Holton's Wikipedia page and learned his full name is Abner Linwood Holton III. His father was governor of Virginia and his sister Anne (who is a former judge and and former Virginia secretary of education) is married to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

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