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Published by EH.NET (February 2001)

Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of

the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North

Carolina Press, 1999. xxi + 231 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2501-8;

$15.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-4784-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert E. Wright, Department of Economics, University

of Virginia.

Woody Holton uses social history to reinterpret a major topic in political

history, the causes of Virginia’s entry into the Revolutionary War. Eschewing

the traditional story that the great land-owning elite (e.g. George Washington

and Thomas Jefferson) led the revolutionary movement, Holton argues that

“Indians, merchants, slaves, and debtors helped propel free Virginians into

the Independence movement” (p. xviii). Holton’s analysis is Marxian, or, in

the lingo of historians, “neo-progressive.” For Holton, the Revolution was as

much about “who would rule at home” as “home rule” (p. 161). “Emerging class

conflict,” he argues, forced the elites to proclaim independence (p. 42).

Although thrust into the Revolution by the actions of nonelite groups, the

elites gained the most from the conflict. Indeed, Holton goes so far as to

argue that slaves and Indians were not just denied the benefits of the

Revolution, they “were the fruits of independence” (p. 211, original

emphasis). For Holton, the American Revolution was a thoroughly bourgeois

affair.

This book received several rave reviews, awards, and nominations because, like

many recent history monographs, it puts a new, politically correct spin on an

old subject. Unfortunately, the book has little to offer economic historians,

except to exemplify the chasm between the research methodologies of economic

and social historians. Holton readily admits that he has not discovered a new

set of primary sources to support his revisionist thesis. He uses the same set

of “top-down sources,” the letters of elites, that earlier historians had used

to come to almost opposite conclusions (p. xxi). This is standard operating

procedure for historians, who usually offer little to explain such

discrepancies. [Holton hints that he used the standard sources with more

“care” than previous authors (p. xxi) and that he paid more “attention” to

three specific “Revolution texts” (p. 206)].

Unfortunately, Holton displays little understanding of economic or business

issues. Clearly (e.g. p. 128 fn. 49), at least one astute economic historian,

probably Ronald Hoffman (p. viii), attempted to sharpen Holton’s economic

analyses, but to little avail. For example, although aware of Jacob Price’s

Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade: The View from the Chesapeake,

1700-1776 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), Holton completely

misrepresents the purpose and meaning of debt. For economic historians, firms

assume debt to finance projects thought to have a positive net present value.

For Holton, individuals have debts imposed upon them by hard economic times

and the social necessity to engage in “conspicuous consumption” (p. 81).

“Debtors,” therefore, were members of a “class,” likely to be “driven to early

graves by their debts” (pp. 44, 82). Holton claims that in the years leading

to the Revolution, many Virginians “had fallen deep into debt to British

merchants” (p. 50). Readers do not learn, however, whether debt-to-asset

ratios deteriorated or merely that nominal debt totals increased. Although

Holton knows that economists see debt as a sign of the borrower’s economic

strength (p. 81), he dismisses that view because he wants readers to believe

that Virginians hated the British for extending liberal trade credit to them

(p. 60).

Holton barely mentions the illiquid nature of most colonial assets and does

not make linkages between the money supply, interest rates, and asset values.

Indeed, his discussion of the colonists’ monetary woes is extremely limited

and often confusing; at one point he calls Virginia’s unit of account

“fictitious” while simultaneously claiming that it “traded at par with

Virginia paper money” (p. 176)! To be fair, some of Holton’s discussions of

economic issues are more cogent, but they are never original and rarely

penetrating.

Additionally, Holton’s grasp of political history and theory could be

stronger. For instance, he views elite politicos as an homogenous entity,

bound together by class interests, rather than as a disparate group that often

splintered into competing factions. He therefore treats the defeat of

conservative elites in the 1776 elections as a grassroots “voter revolt,”

rather than as a victory for radical elites who successfully garnered the

support of smallholders (p. 202).

The four parts (seven chapters total) of Forced Founders do show that

Virginia’s elite had to consider the existence of nonelite groups. But this is

not a revelation — to us or the Founders. Whether Holton proves his thesis

that nonelites “powerfully influenced” Revolutionary politics is unclear (pp.

xxi, 206). The thesis, as stated, is too vague to test in any meaningful way.

Given Holton’s imprecise parameters, one wonders if any group, or thing,

could have had less than powerful influence. Interestingly, Holton could have

presented his views with increased analytical clarity if he had followed the

lead of Virginia’s elite, who clearly looked upon the independence question as

a cost-benefit problem (pp. 44-59). Unfortunately, Holton did not exploit the

founders’ cogent cost-benefit analyses because that would have meant treating

the nonelite groups merely as variables or background noise.

Robert E. Wright is author of Origins of Commercial Banking in America,

1750-1800, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001 and The Wealth of

Nations Rediscovered: Revolution, Integration, and Expansion of the U.S.

Financial Sector, 1780-1850 (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).

He is editor of Development of Corporate Finance: Anglo-American

Securities Markets, Laws, and Financial Practices, 6 vols. (London:

Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 2002).