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Forced Founders – Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia

Forced Founders Indians Debtors Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture




In this provocative reinterpretation of one of the best-known events in American history, Woody Holton shows that when Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other elite Virginians joined their peers from other colonies in declaring independence from Britain, they acted partly in response to grassroots rebellions against their own rule.

The Virginia gentry's efforts to shape London's imperial policy were thwarted by British merchants and by a coalition of Indian nations. In 1774, elite Virginians suspended trade with Britain in order to pressure Parliament and, at the same time, to save restive Virginia debtors from a terrible recession. The boycott and the growing imperial conflict led to rebellions by enslaved Virginians, Indians, and tobacco farmers. By the spring of 1776 the gentry believed the only way to regain control of the common people was to take Virginia out of the British Empire.

Forced Founders uses the new social history to shed light on a classic political question: why did the owners of vast plantations, viewed by many of their contemporaries as aristocrats, start a revolution? As Holton's fast-paced narrative unfolds, the old story of patriot versus loyalist becomes decidedly more complex.

User Ratings and Reviews

3 Stars Forced Founders review
Woody Holton, in his book Forced Founders Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia argues that Americans weaned on the stories of the Virginia elite, who for ideological purposes decided a revolution was needed, are misinformed. Desperation was the true reason that Virginia, and the likes of Jefferson and Washington and the other privileged gentry, moved towards declaring independence from British rule. Their desperation was in response to growing pressures placed on the gentry class by other segments of society. Forced Founders is divided into four parts covering three time periods. The first two parts cover the time period that is essentially the decade after the Great War for Empire, from 1763-1774. The third part covers the years 1774-1775. The fourth and final part covers the year of 1776. In all four parts Holton looks at the Virginia elite and their relations to various parties during that time period. The two parts Holton breaks the first time period down into are the problems that the gentry faced, and the solutions they came up with for those problems.

In Holton's thesis, he states "that the Independence movement was powerfully influenced by British merchants and three groups…Indians, farmers and slaves." (206) Holton uses letters and papers from contemporaries of the time. He also uses secondary sources to fill in the gaps. These sources he uses to good effect. Unfortunately, he only scratches the surface of the pressure these groups placed on the gentry class. One weakness of his research is that he has not found new sources,

but uses existing sources of the gentry class, to explain their relation to the other classes. Even though Holton acknowledges the bias of the elite, he says he was able to get the other groups' perspective. (xxi) While Holton's goal is to show that the revolution was not just a tax revolt, but also a class conflict (206), the book focuses mainly on the economic reasons that these groups were able to affect Virginia's elite society. This focus changes the typical perception that most Americans have of the founding fathers; it makes them seem less principled and god like. They are more identifiably human, as they are shown to be looking out for themselves. The examples that Holton uses are supportive of his thesis, but due to the breadth of the issues associated with these groups, his examples only scratch the surface of the importance these groups played. A second problem is that the Virginia gentry are still the primary focus of the book. Those groups that exert pressure on the founding fathers continue to be relegated to the second tier in importance. A better title might have been Virginia's Founding Fathers: The Economic Pressures That Drove Them to Revolution since most parts of the book deal with the economic effects each of the groups had on the Virginia founding fathers. Besides economic concerns, Holton alludes that another reason for the drive to independence was the founding fathers fear of losing their preferred position in society.

I felt that Forced Founders was a good read though it suffered from its brevity. A more in depth look at other pressures besides economic ones placed by these groups on the gentry would have strengthened his thesis. In addition, despite offering a slightly different perspective on the social elite of Virginia, Forced Founders still has them as the primary focus, continuing to foster the second-class status of other groups, thus perpetuating historians' tendency to consign them to its back page.

5 Stars great read
Ours is an age when we worry about consumer debt (and consumer confidence), terrorists, and an energy crisis. In other words, when we feel our society a little wobbly it is great to read Woody Holton's book and find similar concerns in pre-revolutionary Virginia. Virginians were caught up in a "web" that included a debt crisis, fear of indian raids, slave uprisings, and class struggle. "Although no one can deny their importance [great leaders], the thesis of this book has been that the Independence movement was also powerfully influenced by British merchants and by three groups that today would be called grassroots: Indians, farmers, and slaves." (p. 206)How we relate to Holton's thesis probably depends on how we feel present day worries influence voting (thinking) patterns.
While the specific subject of this book is pressures that resulted in revolution, the facts presented here could be used to make a wider case about the "web" that every generation finds itself in. What will our consumer crisis, energy shortage, fear of terrorists lead to?
Holton writes well and is to be commended for his presentation.

2 Stars FORCED ARGUMENTS
While the book is a "good read" and "thought provoking," I have serious contentions with Holton's interpretation and analysis on many levels, not the least of which center on his lack of understanding and/or misinterpretation of the military and Indian issues which he attempts to cite as supporting his thesis, and which in turn causes me to question his other conclusions in "Forced Founders."

First, he apparently does not know the difference between the provincial militia of the royal colony, the independent militia formed at the resolution of the First Virginia Convention (and Continental Association after the First Continental Congress), or the Virginia militia as constituted by Virginia's revolutionary government, the Virginia Minutemen (as different from common militia) formed by the state in response to a resolution by the Second Continental Congress, the formation of Virginia State Troops or the establishment of the Virginia Continentals. To him, all those organizational concepts seem to be interchangeable.

Second, it is true that Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore, formed his "Ethiopian Regiment" by offering freedom to the military age male slaves of rebel masters (not all slaves), but Holton's explanation leads the reader to believe that the project was an overwhelming success. The primary source documents show that it was never accepted into Provincial service, and with less than 100 "effective" men present for duty, and about 60 sick on board hospital ships in May 1776, the regiment was disbanded. Furthermore, they were not Dunmore's only available troops. So how their presence forced slaveholders to support the revolution is questionable.

Holton also neglects to mention Dunmore's raising of the Queen's Own Loyal Regiment of Virginia, which was composed of white Loyalists. It too, like the Ethiopian Regiment, never amounted to much and was disbanded in 1776. But Holton doesn't mention them at all!

Third he mentions the battle of Kemp's Landing (a skirmish, actually) in November 1775, in which Dunmore's "army" (not just the black troops) drove Virginia militia from the field. He says nothing about the December 1775 battle (actually a larger skirmish) of Great Bridge that was a decisive American victory and forced the British to evacuate Norfolk (and Virginia until 1780).

Furthermore, Dunmore's army was about 600 strong, including the white Loyalist regiment, all the Loyalist militia he could muster, plus British sailors and marines, as well as the Ethiopian Regiment. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Ethiopian Regiment ever neared full "establishment" strength of 800 men, so I believe Holton overstates their influence. Also, the American force included Continentals, State troops, minutemen from Fauquier, Augusta and Culpepper Counties (from the western part of the Colony), as well as volunteers from Princess Anne and Norfolk Counties, including one company of "gentleman volunteers," and 250 North Carolina men.

Nor does Holton say much about those slaves who chose to stay with their masters, and how their action influenced decisions to support independence.

As for the founder's being forced by fear of the Indians, his argument on that score is also weak.

First, does he consider the Treaty of Camp Charlotte, which Dunmore negotiated with the Shawnee, Mingo and western Delaware nations in October 1774, when they conceded defeat in "Dunmore's War"? After his flight from Williamsburg in June 1775, the terms of that treaty were finalized between Continental and (Revolutionary) Virginia Indian Commissioners and the same Indian nations in the Treaty of Fort Pitt in October 1775. The two treaties essentially kept the peace on Virginia's frontier (including in Kentucky) from 1774 until 1777 (after independence was declared!). So, Holton's claim that fear of the Indians forced the founders into supporting independence seems to be a weak one to me.

Second, Dunmore did plot to solicit the Ohio Indian nations to attack settlements on the Virginia frontier, unless its inhabitants affirmed their loyalty. However, the party of three Provincial officers he dispatched to put the plan into action (led by John Connolly), were captured by Maryland minutemen in the town of Hagers Town (Hagerstown) in November 1775, and Connolly was subsequently imprisoned in Philadelphia. The abortive plot was discovered when incriminating papers were found in Connolly's baggage, which was the source of Jefferson's indictment in the Declaration of Independence that king was "inciting the savages."

Third, Holton apparently also does not understand the operation of the Indian polities. He fails to mention that the Six Nations of Iroquois, who considered the nations in the Ohio country their "dependents" by right of conquest and "spoke for" them, were trying to maintain their neutrality early in the war. After being convinced by the officers of the British Indian Department (operating from Fort Niagara and Fort Detroit, not Virginia) that it was in their best interest to support the king against "the Bostonians," most of the Six Nations (the Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk and Seneca) and their "dependents," (Wyandot, western Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo and others) did finally come into the war in early 1777, when they struck backcountry settlements, according to British Indian Department officers, "from Fort Stanwix (at the head of the Mohawk Valley in New York) to the Ohio" and that the American backcountry "From the Susquehanna to the Kiskismenitas Creek upon the Ohio, and from thence down to the Kankawa [Kanawha] River is now nothing but an heap of ashes."

Finally, I don't believe Holton ever makes a convincing argument that tenants exerted influence to force their aristocratic landlords into supporting independence, and his argument about debtors falls short of being conclusive.

4 Stars Who Were America's First Freedom Fighters?
In Forced Founders, Woody Holton writes about five non-elite groups in pre-Revolutionary America who struggled for relief from a long list of economic and political imperial burdens. Small landholders, merchants, debtors and even Native Americans and slaves in Virginia were affected by a global depression in which the price of tobacco had fallen close to its lowest historical levels, prices of other commodities had plummeted and the credit market had collapsed. Elite, wealthy Virginia gentlemen farmers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry felt the squeeze but for Virginia's non-elites, the confluence of adverse economic factors became an overwhelming millstone. Everyone in Virginia suffered the effects of the Navigation Acts that restricted colonial trade only to Britain. Everyone was forced to adjust to the boycott of Britain passed by the Continental Congress. Virginia's economy staggered when small businesses and landowners defaulted on their debt, faced foreclosure of their assets and sunk into economic ruin. Holton's thesis is that well-to-do colonial Virginia leaders were pushed to choose rebellion against Britain by these non-elite groups whose meager resources made them defenseless against this toxic brew of imperial oppression and negative global economic conditions.

Perhaps the most powerful force behind the fight for independence was the paralyzing debt incurred by Virginia's growers. It was held primarily by their British merchant counterparts who bought their tobacco, sold them supplies and lent them money. The Virginians' debt was even more overwhelming because it landed on their balance sheets during one of the worst recessions of the colonial era. Virginian Arthur Lee wrote in 1764 that American colonists owed British merchants â–š¤6 million and British mercantilist policies drained an additional â–š¤500,000 a year from the tobacco colonies. Virginia's small landholders and business people – and no doubt, their counterparts in other colonies – realized British commercial, monetary and immigration policies favored the mercantilist-creditors back in London. Thus it was that debtors in Virginia became unrelenting critics of British policy, making them a persistent political force in favor of independence.

Virginia land speculators thwarted by British governance were another perpetual burr under the saddles of the colony's leadership, not least because of the unrest and threat of attack they created among Native Americans. Although the Indians ultimately lost the commercial, legal and military battles they fought in defense of their land, their efforts through tribal coalitions to enlist British support were irritatingly effective. One of the unintentional results of the Indians' occasional success against the white land speculators was pressure from them on Virginia's leadership. Independence from Britain would permit Virginia land speculators to move against the Indians, unimpeded by imperial interference.

Like all whites in pre-Emancipation America, colonial Virginians considered black Africans a serious threat to their security. Their fear boiled over when Virginia slaves began to negotiate in 1775 for their freedom with British Governor Dunmore in exchange for military assistance to help control civil unrest. White Virginians who'd been independence-neutral or British loyalists became overnight patriots. For them, the only way to restore order, preserve ownership and protect property was to escape British governance and begin a new governmental regime. It was ironic the slaves' ploy for personal freedom frightened Virginia's elites to support the fight for American independence.

Holton guides readers of Forced Founders through an intriguing but occasionally awkward review of the influence of non-elite groups on Virginia's road to Revolution. Its virtue is its point-of-view; its burden is its less-than-focused scope. In the end, it appears he does too little with too much.

However Holton is to be commended for thinking outside the box. He uses primary sources from the gentry to study Virginia's economically and politically important "non-gentlemen" because, says Holton, their records reveal the gentlemen as powerfully influenced by the actions of smallholders, slaves and Native Americans. Working top down and one class removed, he shows the American Revolution was not just a rich man's war. Historians are well-advised to incorporate such 360-degree-point-of-view thinking in all their examination of primary sources. As they pursue this method, however, they must focus their theses and remain alert to the dangers of scope creep.

5 Stars A must read for anyone even attempting to study the era.
One of the most common misconceptions of Americans today centers around the revolutionary war, specifically the fact that this war was caused by colonist unrest due to excessive taxation, chiefly in Massachusetts. Fortunately, Holton is able to modify this fallacy, as he presents towards massive strife in the Virginia colony that can be linked as a direct cause of the revolutionary war.
By presenting tension between everyone from debtors and creditors to oppressed minorities (slaves and Native Americans) and the Anglo Saxon majority, Holton is able to paint a much more realistic picture of the times. Readers will be shocked by evidence presented; especially notable is the substantiation of rich landowners actually wanting to exterminate the slave trade prior to the war, almost akin to a sumptuary law, to preserve social boundaries. Also notable is the documentation of how close battle came to breaking out in Virginia as a result of Dunmore's actions, far prior to any serious action in Lexington, Concord, or even Boston.
Although this book makes an interesting read in correcting some of the misunderstandings more than two centuries of time have created, it also works well in conjunction with a study of the rest of the war. When Dunmore's actions are viewed as a precursor to those of Cornwallis, Tarleton, and Clinton, an even more worthwhile and in depth study of the era can be begun.
Thus, whether the reader is just has an interest in the time period or is a scholar striving to make connections, Holton's work is an excellent read. One can only hope that Holton or others can help paint a more realistic picture for the other twelve colonies.

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