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Review: 'Liberty Is Sweet,' by Woody Holton

Review: 'Liberty Is Sweet,' by Woody Holton

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"Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution," by Woody Holton.

"Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution," by Woody Holton. (Simon & Schuster/TNS)

A prize-winning historian broadens and enriches our understanding of the American Revolution.

"Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution" by Woody Holton; Simon & Schuster (800 pages, $37.50)


When The 1619 Project first appeared in the New York Times Magazine, it came under fire for journalistic whack-a-mole; contributors argued that the primary cause of the American Revolution was the preservation of slavery, as evidenced by Dunmore's 1775 Proclamation, in which the royal governor of Virginia promised freedom to escaped slaves if they joined the British Loyalists. In his meticulously researched, beautifully calibrated "Liberty Is Sweet," historian Woody Holton adds necessary nuance, building on Dunmore and other stories previously marginalized (or invisible) in our narrative of the nation's birth while illuminating a collective yearning to form a more perfect union.

The Proclamation doused fuel on the spontaneous uprisings in the Southern colonies, kindling fear among slaveholders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. But as Holton cautions with respect to the colonists' embargoes of British goods, "the boycotters' equal emphasis on economic and political concerns should warn us against any effort to explain the American Revolution in strictly ideological terms."

This underpins one of Holton's many critical insights: The colonies were diverse in their self-interests and diffuse in their alliances with one another. Trade agreements, land speculation (read: thievery of Native territories), slavery, taxation and the Intolerable Acts all fanned the military uprisings in 1775. Imports, in particular, tipped the scale. As Holton notes, "Years later, John Adams would write, 'I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.' "

Holton's painstaking yet vivid military coverage is one of the book's crowning achievements. Until now I'd not grasped the machinations of battles such as Breed's (also known as Bunker) Hill or Cowpens, or even Washington's iconic crossing of the Delaware River. The aspirations of liberty were rooted in troop movements and risky judgment calls, as in Washington's evacuation from New York City in 1776, realizing what the British general Howe already knew: The colonials were destined to win a defensive war. Holton also enriches "Liberty Is Sweet" with astute analysis of how the young states began to organize themselves in their grand experiment of self-government.

Against this backdrop he highlights women and people of color who played key roles in the creation of the nation. "The Continental Army had to take recruits where it could get them," he writes, "and by the 'Valley Forge' winter of 1777-1778, nearly half the enlisted men were immigrants and African-Americans." Lemuel Haynes, a free Black soldier, drafted "Liberty Further Extended," an essay that underscored freedom for enslaved peoples. Lucy Knox, the daughter of a Boston Loyalist whose husband supported independence, had a strong head for numbers, declaring herself "so good a whig that of Consequence I must be a little of a Politician."

Holton, then, threads the needle, expanding the spirit of the 1619 Project while bringing a granular scholarship and immersive storytelling in the mode of Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz. "Liberty Is Sweet" is a magnificent book, a vital account worthy of all the accolades that will come its way.


Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.


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