The battles over American history provoked during the latest national reckoning on race have focused heavily on the Revolution and the Civil War. As David A. Bell recently observed in these pages, descriptions of America’s egalitarian founding principles as covers for white supremacy—“formulated to promote exclusion and oppression”—have gained a sudden currency.1 By these lights, the Revolution was in large measure a proslavery secession sparked by American fears of British threats to slavery. The Civil War supposedly originated as a clash between contending white supremacists over the spread of slavery, which ended by replacing chattel bondage with a new regime of black subjugation.

Two ambitious new studies, Liberty Is Sweet by Woody Holton on the Revolution and American Republics by Alan Taylor on the decades that led to the Civil War, examine far more than the history of American slavery and racism. Both take up the array of political and social transformations that shaped the nation’s growth from an aspiring republic hugging the eastern seaboard to a boisterous, even bellicose capitalist democracy that spanned the North American continent. Yet both books advance claims in accord with interpretations of white supremacy as the driving force of American history. Holton and Taylor are serious scholars, and given the larger stakes involved, the reliability of their conclusions on these matters assumes importance in debates that go far beyond the academy.

Woody Holton is the McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, the author of four previous books, and the recipient of many honors, including the Bancroft Prize for his biography of Abigail Adams. That book aside, his scholarship has chiefly concerned relatively obscure Americans—enslaved men and women, Native Americans, indebted small farmers. While building on the work of recent historians including Gary B. Nash and Peter H. Wood, Holton has also sought to establish how the Revolution was, in the formulation of the Progressive historian Carl Becker more than a century ago, a battle not simply over American home rule but over which Americans should rule at home. Thus, he has argued, turmoil among ordinary Virginians in 1775 persuaded the colony’s gentry to declare independence from Britain lest they lose their own local control. And he has asserted, in an updating of a famous interpretation by Becker’s contemporary Charles A. Beard, that the framers of the Constitution, unnerved by popular uprisings like Shays’s Rebellion, designed a strong national government responsive to the interests of economic elites, at the expense of the great majority of small farmers.

Very much in that vein, Liberty Is Sweet offers what its subtitle proclaims is the Revolution’s “hidden history,” as made by enslaved workers, contrary women, prophetic small farmers, and resistant Native Americans, among others. After what Holton acknowledges as more than a half-century of research on the Revolution from the bottom up—including work on black history that, he writes, “has…fought its way from the back of the bus to the driver’s seat”—a great deal of that history is, in fact, no longer so hidden. Nor, with all of its unfamiliar stories, does Liberty Is Sweet venture a major new interpretation of the Revolution. Still, Holton is a proficient and tireless researcher who, using his own findings and those of others, presents fresh appraisals of important developments based on lives and events long condemned to obscurity.

He explores, for example, the connections between the evangelical Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century and the Revolution, long a matter of intense academic dispute. His discussions, though, center not on well-known religious thinkers like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield but on Sarah Osborn, a remarkable teacher and spiritual leader in Newport, Rhode Island. Osborn, in defiance of prevailing patriarchal norms, gathered her own weekly meetings of the faithful, including black converts as well as white. By telling her story, Holton presents the Awakening as an outburst of religious intensity that helped generate the revolutionary era’s powerful democratic currents.

Readers of Holton’s earlier work will find more surprising his copious treatment, making up nearly half of Liberty Is Sweet, of the Revolution’s military history, a subject less prominent in recent decades as historians have focused on politics, ideas, and culture.2 He highlights the military importance of unfamiliar individuals as distant geographically and socially as Haidar Ali, the sultan of Mysore, who, half a world away, was involved in both starting the war and ending it. Holton emphasizes the participation of Native American warriors on both sides of the fighting, as well as the military exploits of African Americans, especially those who joined the British.

He is just as perceptive, however, when he assesses the strategy, tactics, and leadership of George Washington, as well as Washington’s fellow American and allied French officers and their British adversaries. His writing sparkles in these chapters, in crisp, assured expositions. While attentive to the cold logic of command, Holton never minimizes warfare’s grotesque inhumanity. His book’s real achievement may be to redirect academic historians’ attention to the battlefields and to appreciating anew some of the least hidden aspects of the Revolution.


Other of the book’s central interpretations are less convincing. Following the earlier Progressive historians, Holton describes the colonial leaders’ grievances as mostly economic and self-interested: they aimed at enriching themselves by removing Native Americans and speculating in western lands; trading freely in commodities that were, as often as not, produced by slaves; and avoiding taxes imposed to support the British Empire. From this perspective, the ideology shaped by Americans’ political complaints about taxation without representation, ministerial corruption, and arbitrary, unconstitutional government can appear like lofty rhetoric meant to ennoble unlofty purposes.

The crass aims and activities Holton describes were real enough, but as the record shows, the colonists were also inflamed by material issues that were inseparable from constitutional matters and political ideals. Opposition, for example, to the Stamp Act in 1765—the movement that initiated the colonists’ resistance—arose from genuine anger at a British tax that Americans of all classes truly could not afford to pay, which reasonably led to charges that the king’s ministers and Parliament had become tyrannical. Nine years later, when Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 by punishing the city with the ham-fisted Coercive Acts, political issues beyond narrow self-interest pushed the colonies rapidly toward independence. As the best recent study of the Stamp Act crisis notes, “constitutional and commercial considerations were difficult to distinguish in a mercantile empire such as Britain’s, where both were stretched and folded into a system of imperial governance.”3 By slighting the first consideration in favor of the second, Holton elides how the relationship between them helped produce the revolutionary movement.

Holton goes on to assert that despite the furious immediate response to the Coercive Acts that led a year later to the bloody engagements at Lexington and Concord, colonial leaders remained skittish about independence until popular turmoil finally pushed them to abandon efforts to reconcile with the Crown. The argument is overstated. Well before the outbreak of armed hostilities, writings like Thomas Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America, published in Virginia in 1774, denied the Crown’s authority over the colonies and strongly augured revolution unless Britain immediately changed course. By mid-1775 the Continental Congress, although still willing to communicate politely with London via petition, firmly refused to yield, while the British government responded by proclaiming the colonists in open rebellion and preparing to crush them violently. Royal authority had broken down in most of the colonies, rendering them virtually independent.4

Holton concedes that for “many Americans,” from New Hampshire to North Carolina, the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 was “the final argument for independence.” Yet he also contends that for many others, especially in Virginia, the question remained open until much later, and that the decision for independence was “heavily influenced by the 40 percent of the [southern] population that was enslaved.” He points in particular to a panic late in 1775 over a supposed incipient uprising of the enslaved in coordination with the British—and here his book leaps into the current history wars.

Three months prior to the publication of Liberty Is Sweet, Holton captured attention with an op-ed for The Washington Post that strongly appeared to endorse race-centered interpretations of the Revolution’s supposed proslavery origins. According to the op-ed, a November 1775 proclamation by the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that offered freedom to slaves who would join him and take up arms against their patriot masters was a crucial turning point in the run-up to the Revolution. Dunmore’s proclamation, according to Holton, aroused hysteria about what he called an Anglo-African alliance that finally convinced white Americans to separate. The Revolution was thus in fundamental ways a racist, proslavery “secession from Britain.”5

Liberty Is Sweet presents a more measured view of slavery and the Revolution. In the book, for example, Holton takes pains to dismiss the race-centered assertion that fears of growing abolitionist political influence in Britain helped convince American slaveholders to favor independence in 1776.6 The book also makes clear, as the op-ed did not, that Holton thinks Dunmore’s policy mainly disturbed white Virginians, not white Americans in general. Yet the book does insist that it was a fateful episode, and that “no other document…did more than Dunmore’s proclamation to convert white residents of Britain’s most populous American colony to the cause of independence.”

Even this carefully framed assertion, however, is highly misleading. Well before Dunmore announced his policy, royal authority had almost completely collapsed in Virginia, where Loyalists were relatively scarce. Having fled Williamsburg, the colony’s capital, in June, Dunmore holed up with a token force on a man-of-war offshore. In desperation, acting on his own initiative and with no intention of organizing a slave insurrection, he took what he called “this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary step”—expanding upon a military tactic that British enslavers had found essential for decades in the Caribbean: arming slaves to do their bidding, in this case in exchange for a promise of freedom.7


Besides augmenting his tiny army, Dunmore hoped to turn the tide by terrorizing the patriots, whose investment in slavery and fear of slave rebellion would presumably outweigh their complaints against the British Empire. Up to a point, he succeeded. Unsettling reports that slaves were preparing to take up arms and fight alongside the British had been circulating in Virginia and elsewhere for at least a year; Dunmore himself had fed those fears months earlier by briefly threatening to turn the enslaved against their masters. His proclamation in November unleashed a torrent of anger and dread. “Tidewater Virginia took alarm,” the historian Benjamin Quarles observed in his standard account, “as rumors spread that slaves were stampeding to the British.”8 Washington, having assumed command of the Continental Army in Cambridge five months earlier, projected that, were Dunmore not crushed, his strength was bound to increase “as a Snow ball by Rolling; and faster.”

But Dunmore’s despairing strategy backfired. “The stampede [of slaves], if it occurred, did not go very far,” Quarles concluded. Above all, Dunmore’s gambit, instead of breaking the patriots’ will, only reinforced their allegiance to the independence cause, based on their conviction, built up for a decade, that British authorities would use any tactic to enforce their iron rule. Dunmore did organize and outfit what he called his Ethiopian Regiment, consisting of some three hundred black men, then led them, after an initial victorious skirmish, to a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775. Barely a month after releasing his proclamation, having failed to staunch the patriot tide, Dunmore retreated to his ship and never again gained a foothold on the Virginia mainland. He eventually sailed to New York with about five hundred newly freed blacks but abandoned one thousand others to die on Gwynn’s Island, stricken by a smallpox outbreak after he neglected to inoculate them.

It would take a few more months for the American patriot leaders, North and South, after more than a year of revolutionary mobilization, combat, and self-government—and squabbling among themselves—to finally agree that the time was ripe to declare formally the united colonies’ independence. They duly included in their long list of grievances against the Crown the inciting of slave insurrections, an outrage that the antislavery patriot Thomas Paine denounced, weeks after the Dunmore incident, as a cynical military tactic undertaken by “a barbarous and hellish power” that dealt “brutally” with the colonists and “treacherously” with the blacks.9 Some of the relatively small number of prominent Virginia Loyalists, including the planter William Byrd III, did switch sides after November 1775, and some cautious patriots may have become more determined, but they hardly represented a mass of white Virginians. None of this validates viewing the Dunmore incident as a major turning point in the drive to independence.

Nevertheless, Holton has recently made an aggressive public show of evidence about contacts and rumored contacts between enslaved blacks and the British, and about how Dunmore’s proclamation infuriated and unified white Virginians.10 There were certainly, as Quarles demonstrated decades ago, untold numbers of restive slaves ready and eager to flee to and fight for anyone who would offer them freedom, and tens of thousands of them would escape to British lines during the Revolutionary War. But historians have known about all of this for a very long time, and Holton’s blitz of documents is mostly noisy obfuscation. What Liberty Is Sweet fails to offer is a single piece of evidence—a letter or diary entry or newspaper article or pamphlet—in which any patriot states that Dunmore’s proclamation converted him or anyone else to support independence.11 Without that evidence, Holton’s argument collapses.

The coverage of slavery and the Revolution elsewhere in Liberty Is Sweet is similarly skewed and questionable. The book is especially weak on the Revolution’s antislavery impulses. Holton does allow that its ideals could take on antislavery meanings, to the point of helping to inspire the revolution in Haiti in 1791. He includes a few paragraphs noting the passage of Pennsylvania’s unprecedented gradual emancipation law in 1780 and the freedom suits and petitions by enslaved men and women that led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts three years later. Otherwise, though, he says virtually nothing about the pioneering American antislavery politics that grew alongside the revolutionary movement outside the lower South—the most advanced and effective antislavery upsurge of its kind in the Atlantic world before 1787.

Elsewhere, Holton goes overboard in his indictments. Historians have lately been arguing over how much the Constitution enshrined slavery, and he unsurprisingly sides with those who call its framing and ratification a complete proslavery victory. The Constitution, he writes, “facilitated a postwar boom in the forced transportation of Africans to the Americas: nearly a million souls between 1783 and 1792.” In fact, the Constitution’s facilitation of the Atlantic slave trade amounted to authorizing Congress to abolish US involvement in 1808, a step that all but two of the states, North Carolina and Georgia, had already taken on their own before the framers assembled in Philadelphia. It did permit US ships to carry slaves to the rest of the Americas before 1808—about 2.4 percent of the total for the decade beginning in 1783—but it neither facilitated nor protected anything at all before its ratification in 1788, halfway into the period Holton specifies. (Between 1786 and 1795, years more in line with the Constitution’s framing, an estimated 10,006 enslaved Africans disembarked in what had been British mainland North America, which represented an enormous decline from before the Revolution.) Tying the Constitution to “nearly a million souls” transported to the Americas over a single decade after 1783 is highly deceptive. The story of the Constitution’s concessions to slavery is sobering enough without exaggeration.12

Overall, Holton is divided about the Revolution. At one level, he writes, it demonstrated “the desire of Americans—of every race, rank, and gender—to breathe free.” At the same time, he thinks that the revolutionary elite frustrated those desires among the less privileged, making the vast majority of Americans victims as much as victors. “For the founding generation,” he concludes, “the American Revolution produced more misery than freedom,” in large part because that generation failed to abolish slavery outright. Put aside, though, the fact that the Revolution produced a society and polity that, with all of its horrific contradictions and oppression, was more democratic and inclusive—and, in the North, more actively antislavery—than any other in the world as of 1787. Put aside, as well, whether the success of any of the great modern revolutions ought to be judged on its immediate effects or on what it helped achieve (or destroy) over time. Holton’s conclusion still begs a basic question, particularly concerning slavery: What might have happened had the British won the Revolutionary War, or had the Revolution never happened at all?

One powerful interpretation holds that the loss of the American colonies, as well as the rise of antislavery politics in America, stimulated the emergence of an authentic abolitionist movement in Britain.13 Equally important, it is virtually inconceivable that had Britain, with its domination of the Atlantic slave trade, its lucrative sugar colonies in the Caribbean, and its cotton factories at home, retained the colonies that became the United States—soon to become home to the slavery-driven cotton kingdom—it would not have become a slaveholding leviathan. Had that happened, the antislavery cause would have been set back indefinitely.

In short, although slavery became more entrenched and the slaveholders more powerful in the new United States after the Revolution, the success of the Revolution greatly hastened, directly and indirectly, the overthrow of slavery in the Anglo-American world. Holton’s hidden history of the Revolution, with all of its richness of detail on popular egalitarian politics, does not admit of that paradox. To understand the paradox fully, though, requires a closer examination of the decades that led to the Civil War.

Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is a preeminent historian of early America, the author of ten books, and the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes. His new book, American Republics, is the final installment of an impressive trilogy that began in 2001 with a sweeping survey of colonial America and was followed fifteen years later by a sequel on the Revolution. Now comes his volume covering the era from the Revolution to 1850.

All three books display Taylor’s talents for writing engaging, sprawling narratives that greatly expand early American history beyond its conventional Anglocentric boundaries. The first, American Colonies, embraced Africans and Native Americans as well as the Spanish, French, and Dutch as important participants in settling America. The second, American Revolutions, presented the Revolution as a product of numerous imperial struggles in the New World, not least important the colonists’ conflicts with Native Americans and enslaved Africans. (It also offered, as did one of his other books, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832, an account of the Dunmore incident that is similar to Holton’s and equally unpersuasive.) By design, evidently, American Republics is a less ambitious and comprehensive work, described by Taylor simply as “a concise introduction” that offers “basic coverage of some conventional topics” combined with less familiar excursions into the country’s difficult relations with the British and Spanish Empires, numerous Indian nations, and the two other independent republics in the Americas, Mexico and Haiti. Yet his description is too modest, as the book emphatically develops two important arguments about postrevolutionary America.

The first argument, broadly accepted by professional historians, is less familiar to the wider audience Taylor addresses. “The United States,” he writes, “was far from united before 1850.” Despite the framers’ efforts to create a national government that would, as James Madison envisaged, check divisive parochial interests, Americans remained firmly, even passionately tied to their state and local allegiances. Rent internally by mutual suspicion, exposed to interference by external forces (including Native Americans and, long after the Revolution, the British Empire), and haunted, at least in the South, by the specter of slave insurrection, the United States was less a nation and more like a league of autonomous states periodically on the verge of disunion. The Confederate secession in 1860–1861 marked not a wrenching break from a settled American nationalism but a continuation and culmination of the country’s essential fractiousness, turning on slavery, which had from the start been (as Taylor quotes one newspaper editor) “the weak point of our Union.”

The second argument, more contested among historians, holds that the primary force uniting the majority of the citizenry was a belligerent expansionism based on deeply engrained presumptions of white supremacy. Taylor by no means presents America’s empire building as single-minded and purposeful. “By 1850,” he contends, “the United States had swept its claims across the continent to the Pacific coast—but it did so with far less confidence than we usually recognize.” Truculent assertions of America’s Manifest Destiny to invade other countries like Mexico and other countries’ possessions like Florida stemmed less from confidence than from anxiety, covering what Taylor calls a “pervasive, driving fear of dissolution” and a search for “elusive security against the internal divisions of an unstable union.” Still, white supremacy prevailed throughout the country in his account; it is an unrelieved story of acts of brutality by white men against Natives and African Americans, from the dispossession of indigenous people whom whites regarded as savages to deadly mob assaults on free blacks in northern cities.

This evaluation represents not so much a modification or even rejection of earlier scholarly arguments as an inversion of them. One influential line of interpretation of the period, for example, emphasizes how emerging class divisions among white men aroused small farmers and hard-pressed workingmen to rally to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. The centerpiece in these accounts is Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States—an enormous private institution with extraordinary public power. Jackson denounced its corporate monopoly and decried how “the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Political struggles over slavery figure in, exposing deep contradictions in the egalitarianism of the slaveholder Jackson and his party. But by focusing on class divisions, many of these historians minimized or even completely overlooked the racial divisions deepened by Jacksonian Democrats, not least Jackson’s notorious Indian removal policies, as well as the imperial dimensions of American expansionism.

Taylor turns that view inside out. He writes early on that “while denying the power of class in public life, Americans practiced it with a vengeance in private circles.” That perception fades, however, through the rest of the book, apart from a brief section covering the Lowell factory girls, exploited big-city wage earners, and early trade unions. Taylor has little to say about the travails of ordinary rural white households struggling to make ends meet while beset by periodic financial panics and economic depressions. He notes in passing that, by the 1840s, the wealthiest 5 percent of free men owned 70 percent of the wealth in the nation’s major cities but does not explore how those glaring inequalities fed the era’s turmoil, including racial turmoil. Disregarding the question of the Second Bank’s concentration of wealth and power as a genuine threat to democracy, he dismisses Jackson’s war against it as conspiracy-minded demagogy—playing “the class card”—in order to whip up votes for a party devoted chiefly to eradicating Indians, expanding racial slavery, and otherwise fortifying white supremacy. While Taylor’s reversal rightly corrects other historians’ omissions and distortions, it ends up presenting a caricature of history reduced to a chronicle of racial oppression and imperial conquest.

Taylor’s fixation on white supremacy enfeebles his treatment of abolitionism and the antislavery movement. Like Holton, he has little to say about the antislavery currents that flowed out of the Revolution except to scoff at the gradual emancipation laws passed in the northern states for not securing freedom for those already enslaved. He thereby omits that these laws, with all of their limitations, were of world-historical importance, the first legislative emancipations of their kind enacted by any slaveholding government in human history; he also omits that they were instigated by the first antislavery activities of their kind in the world and achieved with difficulty.

Taylor devotes a meager if admiring section of just over four pages to the radical abolitionist movement of the 1830s, which was, he allows, antiracist as well as antislavery. Yet precisely because of their radicalism, he suggests, these abolitionists succeeded chiefly in inflaming northern racists and provoking southern leaders, who banned their literature from the mails, blocked their petitions to Congress, and sharpened the defense of “the peculiar institution” as a positive good. Taylor misses how the movement, by standing defiantly for its right to be heard and by exposing the true horrors of southern slavery, began awakening the sympathies of northerners far beyond its actual membership.

How, then, in Taylor’s white supremacist America, did opposition to slavery eventually generate the world’s first mass antislavery political party, win a presidential election, and prompt southern secession? Because American Republics concludes in 1850, it does not cover the formation of the Republican Party, but it does discuss the developments in the 1840s that prepared the way by forcing the issue of slavery’s expansion to the center of national debates. In what Taylor correctly views as an enormous paradox, America’s imperial drive to annex Texas, invade Mexico, and annex Mexican land north of the Rio Grande opened up the question of whether slavery ought to be allowed to expand into the newly acquired territory. The controversy battered the two major parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, and bolstered the rise of national antislavery politics, leading in 1848 to the creation of the Free Soil Party, a successor to the smaller Liberty Party and the Republican Party’s forerunner.

The Free Soilers only managed to win 10 percent of the total presidential tally in 1848 and collapsed into a remnant in 1852 before dissolving, but according to Taylor, this hardly meant that the party was not also white supremacist. Rather, he writes, white America had divided into two camps of what he calls “white nationalism”: northern racist Free Soilers who wanted to halt slavery’s expansion in order to prevent the migration of blacks and the degradation of white free labor, and southern racists who asserted that slavery enabled white men to achieve their ambitions. It would take another dozen years before Americans went to war with each other, but by 1850, in Taylor’s account, a good deal of the political ground had been cleared, with white supremacy uniting the white male citizenry, no matter their views on slavery.

This is another caricature. To be sure, particularly in the western states, antislavery could go hand in hand with Negrophobia, and the Free Soilers in those areas, seeking the largest possible coalition, appealed for those votes. But the Free Soilers were hardly proponents of “white nationalism.” Having ignored the larger history of abolitionism and antislavery politics, Taylor disregards the fact that the figures who guided the party’s rise and progress and defined its political program—including Salmon P. Chase, Joshua Leavitt, John P. Hale, and Charles Sumner—were veteran political abolitionists who devoted their careers to opposing racial inequality as well as slavery.

Because he erases the history of antislavery constitutionalism dating back to the founding, Taylor fails to see that barring slavery’s expansion was a means to hasten its destruction throughout the United States, not just to keep slavery (and thus blacks) out of the territories, which antislavery proponents well understood—slavery’s “ultimate extinction,” as Abraham Lincoln later called it. He certainly cannot explain how and why Frederick Douglass and other militant black abolitionists supported the Free Soilers in 1848 and even attended the party’s founding convention—presaging Douglass’s support of the Republican Party and Lincoln’s election.

Holton’s and Taylor’s books are indicative of several current trends in the writing of American history. Both continue the long-standing emphasis on the lives and impact of Americans whom historians overlooked sixty years ago. Both sustain an enduring skepticism about America’s professed egalitarian ideals, portraying them as, at best, unfulfilled platitudes and, at worst, camouflage for greed and brutality. Both advance a more recent turn toward placing early American history in a larger Atlantic and global setting. Yet both books also offer fresh perspectives, Holton’s by linking history from below with more traditional military history, Taylor’s by exploring how anxiety and fear of disunion lay at the heart of American expansionism. These arguments are certainly open to debate at every step, much like the work of the historians that Holton and Taylor build on.

Less open to debate, though, are weak but attention-getting arguments based on glaring inaccuracies or gross distortion, as when Holton suggests that slaveholder hysteria helped cause the American Revolution or when Taylor presents the pre–Civil War clash over slavery as a battle between white nationalists. Those claims turn out to be no more credible coming from two distinguished historians than they are coming from less accomplished writers. Lacking stronger arguments and actual evidence, they amount to fables constructed in search of a past tailored to the issues and causes of the present.