Skip to main content

Origins of the American Revolution


ISSUE:  Winter 2001
Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. By Woody Holton. Published for Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by University of North Carolina Press. $39.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

In mid-April 1775 British authorities determined to crack down, once and for all, on colonial resistance to imperial policies. The order went out to the King’s men: seize the weapons in American stockpiles and shatter the “rabble’s” capacity to defy the will of Parliament and Crown. On the night of April 18, some 700 to 800 Regulars based in Boston rowed across the Charles River to Cambridge and began their fateful march through Lexington to Concord, the seat of provincial military preparations, where local Minutemen, answering the alarm first sounded by Paul Revere, assembled at the North Bridge, confronted the invading Redcoats, and launched the Revolutionary War. Three days later, 600 miles to the south, a detachment of troops from the schooner H.M.S. Magdalen, moored on the James River, slipped quietly into the royal capital of Williamsburg just before dawn, snuck into the provincial powder magazine, and stole away with 15 half-barrels of powder. By the time the cry was raised, the squadron was gone, mission accomplished. In succeeding days, angry Virginians organized independent military companies throughout the countryside and threatened to march on Williamsburg with an ultimatum for Governor Dunmore: return the powder or face the consequences. Did the city fathers welcome the aid? Not at all. Fearful of the governor’s response, they negotiated frantically to stave off a confrontation. It was sufficient, in their view, that a supporter of the Crown promised to pay for the powder. The matter should be “as little Agitated as may be, lest difference of Sentiment should be wrought into dissentions, very injurious to the common Cause.” Had such leaders been in charge at Concord, the “shot heard round the world” might never have been fired.

Why the difference? From the protests against the Stamp Act in 1765 to the Declaration of Independence, Massachusetts and Virginia were staunch partners in resistance to British taxes and troops. Both colonies closed courts rather than comply with the stamp tax and forced the resignation of officials charged with implementing that law; they joined in the nonimportation campaign to win repeal of the Townshend Duties; the House of Burgesses proclaimed a fast day to support the Boston Tea Party and called for a continental congress after Parliament inflicted the Coercive Acts upon an insubordinate Bay Colony; and in the move toward independence, delegates from both colonies supplied the driving force, with Richard Henry Lee introducing John Adams’s resolution that “these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent States” and Adams stepping aside for Jefferson to draft the official “declaration” of that position. The descendants of Puritans and Cavaliers were seemingly united in a common cause. Yet, behind that apparent agreement lay divergent motives and interests that distinguish Virginia’s rebellion from that of New England.

Woody Holton’s Forced Founders spotlights those differences in an unsparing analysis of the Old Dominion’s rocky road to revolution. Gone from this account are the familiar scenes of an impassioned Patrick Henry declaiming to the House of Burgesses “Give me liberty, or give me death!” and of high-minded gentlemen from the colony’s first families resolutely plotting sedition in Raleigh Tavern. In Holton’s telling, the squirearchy that guided Virginia to independence was made up of “desperate” men beset by a host of challengers from within and without and gradually pushed into radical measures by forces beyond their control. Owing to the elite’s hesitations and fears, Virginia was unprepared to retaliate against Dunmore’s sudden raid on the Williamsburg magazine. While Minutemen advanced into battle at Concord to stop British forces from burning the town, the leaders of Virginia held fire, lest the capital be destroyed. “Violent measures,” cautioned Peyton Randolph, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, “may produce effects, which God only knows the consequences of.” His caution was due to the unique situation of the tobacco colony. In April 1775, the gentry was worried more about black rebellion than colonial rights. Before they could defend “American freedom,” white Virginians had to shore up “American slavery.” Only after Dunmore promised liberty to slaves who joined the King’s forces were anxious masters “forced” to admit the necessity of war.

The slaveholders’ dilemma is just one of the contradictions Holton obliges us to consider in “the making of the American Revolution in Virginia.” To this oft-told tale the University of Richmond historian brings a winning irreverence for conventional wisdom, a keen eye for the telling anecdote and revealing episode, a shrewd grasp of the play of interests and ambitions in the political arena, and a lively sympathy for the various groups whose influence on the course of events has been ignored or minimized in previous accounts. The version closest to Virginia hearts is encapsulated in the image of Benjamin Harrison, surrounded by “a number of respectable but uninformed inhabitants,” as he was about to depart for Philadelphia to represent the Old Dominion in the First Continental Congress. “You assert that there is a fixed intention to invade our rights and privileges,” Harrison’s constituents declared; “we own we do not see this clearly, but since you assure us that it is so, we believe it. We are about to take a very dangerous step, but we have confidence in you and will do anything you think proper.” On such evidence historians have pictured a virtuous gentry sacrificing interest to duty and leading a deferential people into a harmonious era of independence and republicanism.

That pleasing view not surprisingly has its skeptics. Back in the early 20th century, the so-called Progressive historians charged that the idealistic rhetoric of the Virginia patriots concealed a crass purpose: through independence the leading planters, heavily indebted to British creditors, found escape from impending bankruptcy. That argument foundered under criticism in the heyday of “consensus history,” when the neo-Whig interpretation polished the image of Virginia’s “brilliant assemblage of gifted politicians,” in the words of the historian Jack P. Greene, and attributed this “extraordinary flowering of talents” to the “harmonious political relationship between the gentry and the rest of society, the central feature of which was the willing acquiescence of the middle and lower ranks in gentry government.” Virginia’s elite was not trouble-free: it groaned under the mounting burden of debt, fretted about corruption and luxury in its ranks, and grew alarmed at the dangers posed by slavery. Even so, Greene and others suggested, the gentry retained confidence in its role as the stewards of society. But in recent scholarship, such sterling credentials have tarnished. The Carters, Lees, and Randolphs who ran the province, it appears, exploited power for private profit. They helped themselves to insider loans from the public treasury; they lined up for government grants of frontier lands wrested from the Indians. Their protests against British imperial policies, it is alleged, were spurred by resentment of the Proclamation of 1763, barring settlement west of the Alleghenies, and of the Navigation Acts that confined the tobacco trade to the mother country. Chafing under imperial restrictions, this aggressive, self-seeking elite supposedly seized on the Revolution to advance its expansive, material interests.

Whether high-minded patriots or selfish hypocrites, the Virginia gentry invariably occupies center stage, its words and actions dictating the course of events, with everybody else in the colony, some 90 percent of the population, given bit parts or simply ignored. Forced Founders overturns this scenario. Woody Holton retrieves forgotten figures from the wings, inserts new characters into the cast, and sets the plot in motion through their initiatives. In his design, the gentry takes its cues from once-marginal men. Holton has no more illusions about human nature, as it was revealed in colonial Virginia, than previous critical observers. Every group in his drama has its “dream of freedom”—land, trade, power, opportunity, liberty—to pursue through collective action. His innovation is to take the Progressive emphasis on economic interests, update its claims and adapt it to a multicultural age. In Forced Founders, Carl Becker, the Progressive who taught us that the American Revolution was not only a contest for “home rule” but also a struggle over “who should rule at home,” meets Ronald Takaki, a leading voice in the 1990’s for the study of U. S. history as the record of “multicultural America.” The result is a rendering of the Revolution in which the excluded (Indians in the Ohio Valley), the oppressed (enslaved blacks), the subordinate (white farmers and laborers), and the outsider (Scottish merchants, British officials) drive the events and define the terms on which the gentry acts.

Holton develops this interpretation in four interlocked sections. He explicates the “grievances” of the various parties (Part One), traces gentry strategies to resolve them (Part Two), then tracks the unanticipated consequences of these initiatives (Part Three), culminating in the forced march to independence (Part Four). The central props of gentry power, in this analysis, rested upon a solid material foundation: dominion over land, labor, and capital. The great planters had built their fortunes on tobacco and slaves, speculation in frontier land, and trade with their farming neighbors. Crucial to their command was control of the provincial government. Beginning in 1763, with the close of the Seven Years War, that power began to slip. The gentry had long counted on taking the Ohio country, including Kentucky, from the natives and apportioning it among themselves. Whitehall had different plans. Burdened with an enormous public debt, the British government was determined to avoid a costly Indian war, and so it closed the West to further English settlement. Its resolve was bolstered by the shrewd diplomacy of the Shawnee, Delaware, and Cherokee, who overcame ancient enmities to forge a united front against white encroachments. Wary of the growing pan-Indian alliance, the British government flatly turned down a 1769 petition from the House of Burgesses to annex Kentucky.

Deprived of accustomed income from land sales, the gentry also faced new competition in trade. Scottish agents for British mercantile houses set up shop throughout the countryside, where they offered small farmers better terms for the sale of tobacco and the purchase of imported goods. Under these circumstances, profits from tobacco and slaves became more critical than ever to sustaining the elite way of life. But tobacco prices slumped during the postwar depression of the 1760’s, even as the gentry continued its free-spending ways. The inevitable outcome was a deepening crisis of debt. In the quest for solutions, colonial leaders revived longstanding resentments against the Navigation Acts, especially the monopoly British merchants held over the tobacco trade, to no avail. It was politically futile to challenge mercantilist controls. Instead, the elite tried to ease its pains with measures for debt relief, every one of which was vetoed by imperial authorities. The Burgesses had no better luck in their bid to stem the flow of African slaves into the colony. That effort was prompted by growing fears of black rebellion, but it also served the interests of the Tidewater gentry, whose plantations were well-stocked with labor. If the “pernicious and inhuman” traffic in Africans were curbed, the great planters stood to gain from rising prices for surplus Virginia slaves. That was precisely why enterprising farmers in the Piedmont objected to restrictions. To the outrage of gentlemen, imperial authorities sided with British slave-traders and Virginia small-holders. And that decision further narrowed the ground on which the elite could maneuver. No longer did it control access to land and labor within the province. The gentry was increasingly constrained by a British government in league with its opponents.

The Revolutionary movement, Holton maintains, afforded convenient ways out of a “desperate” situation. To support their protests against British taxes, colonists joined in boycotts of trade with the mother country. Such measures suited the needs of debt-ridden planters, who embraced nonimportation in 1769 as a patriotic means to retrench. But conspicuous sacrifice went nowhere; gentlemen found it too hard to give up the habit of living “genteelly and hospitably.” Four years later, amidst a transatlantic recession, tobacco prices collapsed and credit dried up. Facing a huge glut in the market, growers launched an effort to withhold their crop from sale, only to find themselves vulnerable to suits for debt. Originally conceived by small farmers as an economic measure for hard times, tobacco withholding soon gained a wider purpose in the hands of the gentry. In the wake of the Coercive Acts, the tactic was incorporated into the continental boycott of all trade with Britain. Publicly, “non-exportation” was justified as a move to pressure Britain to repeal its punitive measures. But as gentlemen arranged things, it was also intended to jack up tobacco prices, cut off slave imports, and suspend court proceedings for debt. Seen this way, Virginia’s leaders were as motivated by economic interest as the Progressives had always claimed. Only in Helton’s version, the object was not to repudiate debts, but to pay them. For Virginians, the Continental Association constituted an 18th-century cartel—an Organization of Tobacco Exporting Countries—designed to improve their bargaining power, rescue their fortunes, and restore their honor.

If the gentry was hoping merely for a rise in tobacco prices, it badly miscalculated. “Gentlemen,” Holton judges, “did not know what they were getting into.” Britain replied to the Continental Association with its own brand of economic warfare. The colonies were declared off-limits to overseas trade. In the accelerating conflict, with whites distracted and divided amid talk of war, enslaved Virginians seized opportunities for themselves. On the eve of Dunmore’s seizure of the powder, black unrest was stirring in numerous places, encouraged by rumors that Britain planned to free the slaves. Even before the governor set about arming slaves against rebel masters, blacks were offering their services. This “freedom struggle” by the truly oppressed proved the decisive factor in the turn of events. Impressed by their military value, Dunmore issued his offer of freedom. That proclamation immediately drove fence-sitters and even loyalists into the Patriot camp. Set against the aspirations of black Virginians, the white struggle against British rule, Holton observes, “was not a revolution but a counterrevolution.” In this contest over who should rule at home, the Patriot elite gave its answer to Samuel Johnson’s famous query, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” The gentry way of life entailed dominion over slaves.

So, too, did the gentry mean to sustain power over other whites. That proved as difficult in the turbulent times as controlling blacks. Patriots expected to run the resistance to Britain in the usual manner: gentlemen would govern in line with their interests, while common folk would submit. Once again, Holton shows, the elite miscalculated. Mobilizing ordinary people to fight royal authority, Virginia’s leaders unwittingly unleashed a “spirit of Levelling.” Following Dunmore’s attack on the powder magazine, infuriated inhabitants streamed into independent military companies, which had previously operated as gentlemen’s clubs, and infused them with democratic principles, such as popular election of officers. Appalled at the “disorderly behavior,” the elite designed a new system for the common defense, based on strict hierarchy, unequal pay according to rank, and exemptions for wealthy slaveholders. The plan was still-born; ordinary whites flatly refused to join these units, which, in imitation of the Massachusetts model, were called “minutemen” companies, notwithstanding their departure from the populist practices of New Englanders. Likewise, common people bridled at the unequal sacrifices imposed upon them in the struggle against Britain. Incredibly, landlords in the northern Neck, such as the prominent Patriot Richard Henry Lee, demanded annual rents from tenants, payable in coin, at the very moment that markets were shut down by the boycott of trade. In this self-interested myopia, they provoked a rent strike in Loudon County. Elsewhere, farmers rioted over shortages of basic necessities like salt.

The white majority was not simply reacting to adversity. As royal government dissolved, it became evident that Virginia would have to form a new political system. In the absence of a royal family and a hereditary aristocracy, the regime would necessarily be a republic. Anticipating greater influence in a new order, ordinary whites began pressing for independence and self-rule.

What to do about such “plebeian infamy”? The Patriot elite, as Holton sets the scene, had painted itself into a corner. Denied accustomed resources (notably, Indian lands), eclipsed by new rivals (Scottish merchants), and faced with unprecedented demands (taxes and debt payments), gentlemen embarked on the opposition to Britain with the limited aim of improving their financial position. Through the boycott of trade, they hoped to raise tobacco prices, reduce household expenses, and save themselves from ruin. But the situation quickly spiraled out of control, with royal officials stirring up the gentry’s enemies (Indians and slaves) and ordinary whites demanding independence and popular government. But the elite proved pragmatic. The best hope for restoring order and retaining power was to placate the people, declare independence, and establish a constitution. “Government hath been necessarily taking,” Patrick Henry declared upon assuming the helm of the new state, “in Order to preserve this Commonwealth from Anarchy and is attendant Ruin.” It was thus out of desperation that the founding fathers of Virginia were driven to a decision they never sought. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” Thomas Paine had proclaimed in Common Sense. That was not the mood in which the gentry entered the future. In a revision of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous formula, they had everything to fear, including fear itself. “To a large extent,” Holton concludes, “it was angry British statesmen and rebellious slaves, smallholders, and tenants that created the gentleman revolutionary.”

Whatever his origins, the “gentleman revolutionary” still occupies center stage, the leading man in a crowded cast. Although Holton has expanded the participants in the story, he is no more successful than previous scholars in breaking the hold of the gentry. That limitation reflects both the character of the available sources and the enduring power of the elite. The principal documents regarding late colonial and Revolutionary Virginia were kept and preserved by the governing class. Holton is thus obliged to turn, like his predecessors, to the much-cited diaries and letters of the dyspeptic Landon Carter, the hyperactive Lee family, the cautious Peyton Randolph and Carter Braxton, the eminent Washington, Jefferson, and Henry, and numerous anonymous correspondents to the several Virginia Gazettes. It is through their eyes that he discerns the aspirations and actions of the subordinate classes. His version of the past is captive to the gentry gaze. Even so, it will hardly please admirers of that galaxy of talents. Forced Founders strips away the patriotic veneer that has long surrounded the leadership of Virginia and exposes a grasping elite, committed most of all to preserving its class interest. The “real” American Revolution in which we now take pride-—the movement for greater liberty, equality, and democracy—was carried as much by allies of the Crown, notably, slaves and Indians, as by the white farmers who pushed the gentry into declaring independence. Actually, the Virginia elite was under no illusions about its objectives. “It is not sufficient to say. . .that slaves and Indians were denied the fruits of Independence,” Holton observes. “To a large extent . . .slaves and Indians—or more precisely, the Indians’ land and the slaves’ labor—were the fruit of Independence.” The gentry never took its eyes off the prize: command over the state government. After making a few concessions to common folk, including religious liberty for all citizens, it defeated the “darling democracy” and retained power through a conservative constitution. Class rule remained an entrenched tradition.

Surely, Holton overreaches. The gentry, as he portrays them, is not only selfish but also shallow, driven mainly by short-term considerations of advantage. Its members possess interests, not ideas. Not a single ideal animates their actions. This is reality as seen by political operatives in our own time, construed by calculating the immediate desires of diverse constituencies. Where, then, did Thomas Jefferson derive the inspiration for the declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, two of the three achievements he had inscribed on his tombstone? In Holton’s volume, the gentleman from Monticello stands out as the land speculator and slave-holder who took the opportunity of his governorship to press a war of “extermination” or “removal” against the Ohio Indians. Yet, as Holton must know, politicians in the Old Dominion, even governors, do occasionally act out of principle. To ignore the larger culture of the gentry, so richly limned by such historians as Rhys Isaac and Jan Lewis, is to miss the fascinating drama in the decay, fragmentation, crisis, and ultimate reconstitution of a way of life. So, too, does Holton overlook the stirring of discontent among common whites well before the Revolution, visible in such episodes as the 1768 smallpox riot in Norfolk, when an angry mob ousted a group of genteel inhabitants from a pest house in the neighborhood, where they were undergoing inoculation, and forced them all—men, women, and children—to march five miles in a driving storm to another facility, just vacated by disease-ridden Africans fresh from the Middle Passage. In such outpourings of anti-elitist sentiment lie the origins of the populist upsurge Holton detects in 1774—76. How did common people break the spell of the gentry and assert their own demands? What ideas inspired them? Holton sidesteps these questions. But the Revolution in Virginia requires a cultural and social history as well as a political one.

Holton’s purpose is at once more limited and farther-reaching. His powerful exposé of gentry self-seeking will dismay remaining believers in the Great White Men of the Old Dominion. And his persuasive account of the “counterrevolution” of the elite against the “revolution” of the slaves will give pause to all who cherish the view that the movement for independence was a liberating event in human history. Even scholars who give pride of place to the Minutemen of New England have much to ponder. After Lexington and Concord, the Bay Colony could have been isolated and exposed to British vengeance. But Virginians took the lead in supporting Massachusetts at the Continental Congress. By that move, the “glorious cause” of liberty for which Northerners fought was indebted to the Southerners’ bid to preserve slavery. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “shot heard around the world” resonated with democratic hopes. But, as Woody Holton makes plain, it also echoed with the grim determination of slave patrols.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading