BOOK REVIEW: Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution by Woody Holton (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2021)
Some historical narratives are plain and straight forward, almost like a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece. The Mona Lisa is very explicit: you know exactly what the painting is about because the image is directly in front of you. Woody Holton’s newest work, Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, is not set up quite the same way. There are so many people, places, and events examined, that one can imagine the narrative to be like a Jackson Pollock painting. It is easy to get confused with the shear amount of images, colors, and shapes. But Holton was able to keep everything within the framing of the Revolution. And so, it all makes sense.
The title of the book comes from the pen of Lund Washington, cousin of the commander-in-chief who was the also the manager of Mount Vernon during the general’s absence. Both men were concerned about the impact Governor Lord Dunmore’s proclamation would have on the Mount Vernon enslaved people (who would be liberated if they fought for the British). Lund Washington saw the danger of the proclamation and knew that enslaved people would run towards British lines because “Liberty is sweet.” Holton, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Abigail Adams, brings the marginalized into the narrative of the Revolution and has them attach their stories with the familiar ones of the Founders. His book is a bottom-to-top account of the years from 1760 to the mid-1790s, which he considers to be the true period of the American Revolution. The story would not be complete without enslaved and free African Americans, Native Americans (whose role was truly massive), and women.
Liberty Is Sweet is divided into three parts. The first, “The King’s Grievances,” covers the years from 1763 through 1775. The map that is included in the Introduction is of North America east of the Mississippi in 1776, showing not only the thirteen British colonies but also the territories of the Native Nations. The dissension of the colonists really began after the French and Indian War when Parliament proclaimed the land west of the Appalachians to be “off-limits” to the colonists, which did not sit well with land-hungry speculators such as George Washington. Parliament’s efforts to stop smuggling led to legislation that tried to control the actions of the colonists, such as the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties. Women were instrumental all throughout the colonies in organizing boycotts. Adding to the tension were plots concerning slave revolts. Familiar events are briefly examined, such as the Boston Massacre, the attack on the Gaspee, the North Carolina Regulators, the reaction to the destruction of the tea in Boston, the Quebec Act, and the creation of the Continental Congress.
The second part, “Push On,” goes from early 1775 to 1783. Holton brings in all the well-known figures (Lafayette, Arnold, Montgomery, Guyasuta, Joseph Brant, Cornwallis, the Howe Brothers, Burgoyne, etc.) and continues to connect them to each other and the events of the Revolution. Emphasis throughout is on issues surrounding money, such as paper money and debt. Washington’s army was involved with fighting not only the British and German mercenaries, but also the Native Americans, whose presence was always a threat throughout the war. The French get involved not to help the Americans maintain independence. Rather, declaring war against Great Britain meant going after the valuable sugar colonies in the Caribbean. The plight of fugitive enslaved people who fought for the British army is constantly touched upon. Holton continues to point out the many accomplishments of women throughout the Revolution. The end of the Revolution did not come after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Although the British were no longer actively fighting the Americans, the Native Americans kept up the pressure on the Continental Army. Between 1782-1783, the new nation had to deal with financial issues, Indian massacres, military conspiracies, and how to recover those enslaved people who were liberated by the British.
The final part, “Roads Opened, Roads Closed,” covers the years from 1783 through 1795. Holton considers the true end of the Revolution to be the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794) because the new federal government put down a rebellion brought on by what farmers considered to be unfair taxation. British restrictions on trade, Shays’ Rebellion, the Constitutional Convention, Native American resistance to white expansion, slavery, the impact of the French Revolution, and the impact of the Revolution on the rights of women are covered. The book comes full circle: the beginning of the narrative was about the incursions into Indian lands in 1763, and the final chapter (“Back to Braddock’s Field 1794-1795”) returns the reader to the lands west of the Appalachians and the conflicts with the Native Americans who were defending their homes once again.
Liberty Is Sweet is certainly an effort to get through simply because of the massive amount of information between the covers. Holton has an easy narrative style, which does make the book easier to read. What stands out for this reviewer is the fact that the Continental Army never stopped fighting, even after Yorktown. The threat throughout the book comes not from the British, but from the First Nations (one term Holton uses) who are desperately trying to defend their territory in the face of constant and often violent encroachment. The motives of some of the Founders (Washington, Jefferson, Madison) have more to do with economics and land attainment than values concerning liberty and equality. Kudos especially to Holton for emphasizing the role of women throughout the entire narrative. They are not singled out with one chapter. Instead, they figure prominently throughout the entire narrative. Holton’s work stands out for these reasons. Just like looking at a Pollock painting, all of it can be seen with one careful and rather intense look.