Book Review

Holton, Woody. Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

In his new book Liberty is Sweet, University of South Carolina Professor Woody Holton conveys a purportedly radical new American founding story highlighting the oft-neglected participation and contributions of Native Americans, Blacks, and women. Twelve- and a half years in the making, Holton highlights the activities of underrecognized rebels and loyalists during the Revolutionary Era. Holton’s five-hundred-and-seventy-page account is a whirlwind survey starting with the 1755 Battle of Monongahela in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) and concluding forty years later with the Treaty of Greenville ending Euro-American and Indian hostilities in the Great Lakes region.

Holton’s principal objectives are to highlight fascinating stories recounting neglected participants in a new general survey of the Revolutionary era and demonstrate that preserving slavery was central to the elite white Americans’ rebellion. The strongest aspects of Holton’s monograph are the addition of Black, Native American, and female voices to the Revolutionary era events. While the scholarship is not new, Holton weaves the stories of Lemuel Haynes, a black, the first to quote the Declaration (248), Hermon Husband (radical preacher), Mary Willing Byrd (disenfranchised widow), and many members of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Further, he corrects a common historians’ oversight by not identifying African-American participants. For example, he recognizes Quamino Dolly as leading the British through the swamps outside of Savannah to outflank the Continental forces versus previous historians who merely cite an unnamed slave. Unfortunately, Holton gives the impression that all actions by these underrepresented groups are positive by omitting the fact that the prominently mentioned Mary Fish Noyes Silliman owned and sold enslaved people.[1] While Holton’s emphasis on identifying people adds realism, he also delivers informative statistical data, including an comprehensive compilation and analysis of colonial and Native American populations estimates (20-21) and an excellent North American map.

At times, Holton focuses too much on the Revolution’s overlooked contributors and neglects to describe key controversies among the rebellious white leaders, limiting readers’ understanding of important events and people. For example, Holton does not generally portray important debates in the Continental Congress over military strategy and general officer promotions. For example, after 1775, Canada drops out of Holton’s account, and he does not discuss Congressional and high-ranking generals’ desires and planning for a second Quebec invasion in 1778. Another example is not describing Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s alternative strategy for winning the war and that Washington fought so vociferously against its many adherents to dispel. Ironically, for Holton’s emphasis on southern issues, it would be Southern Commander Nathanael Greene who would successfully employ Lee’s strategy to defeat the British in the Carolinas. Lastly, while appropriately dismissing the Conway Cabal as more fiction than fact, he omits describing the intense leadership contest for supreme military command between the New Englanders who supported Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates and others who backed Washington. Although it can be easy to criticize survey books for excluding topics, readers will want to supplement Holton’s book to understand better British and allied military strategy and civil government policy issues with American and non-American sources.

On the positive side, Holton’s book is highly approachable to the general history reader. He writes in easy to read, folksy prose, which often presciently gets to the “nub of the issue.” For example, unlike many other historians, he correctly concludes that Benedict Arnold repelled the 1776 British invaders on Lake Champlain with shipwrights and not sailors, not by fighting the Battle of Valcour Bay (275). Unfortunately, however, this strength is periodically overdone. For example, he repeats worn-out tropes such as a bellicose Ethan Allen demanding the 1775 surrender of Ft. Ticonderoga “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress” (179). Unfortunately, Holton cites Michael Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaw, who also repeats the dubious Allen boast which recent scholars have debunked. [2] Another example is Holton re-telling the story of Mary Lindley Murray offering cake to General Clinton to slow down the British assault and allowing the Americans to escape Manhattan, which has been disproven and gives the impression of unnaturally forcing women into the story (265-6).[3]

The book relies primarily on secondary sources, mainly representing authoritative, recent scholarship. However, it is impossible not to repeat past historians’ errors in a book of this magnitude and introduce new ones. For example, Col. Daniel Morgan did not replace the mortally wounded Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery in command during the December 31, 1775 Battle of Quebec. Montgomery led an attacking force from a different direction (198).[4] Additionally, it is more accurate to characterize men who sailed with Lafayette to America as French military officers than noblemen (165). Lafayette’s comrades were principally recruited from the ranks of the French military by the ‘fake’ Baron von Steuben and American envoy Silas Deane with less than ten percent minor titled nobility. [5] While offering an extensive primary source bibliography, the book relies too heavily on secondary sources, as evidenced in the footnotes and minor errors.

Consistent with his populist appeal to a general audience, Holton asks and answers counterfactual questions about what might have happened if people’s actions were different. Counterfactuals are fun to contemplate but are not appropriate in scholarly studies nor helpful in educating the public. For example, Holton muses that immediate tobacco non-exportation by Virginians in 1774 would have forced Parliament to concede to the colonialists’ demands and avoided the war (152). Additionally, Holton ponders that if Americans did not covet Indian lands, ten thousand troops would have been not required to enforce the 1763 Proclamation line and the metropole’s need for colonial taxes (160). Finally, even unplausible as a counterfactual, Holton avers that if Washington contested the conflict as a series of Bunker Hills, the war would have been shorter (270). In reality, a quick learner, Howe proved this “fort up” strategy impractical with his right and left hooks at the Battles of Brooklyn and Brandywine.

While historians may wince, general readers of similar political persuasions as Holton will enjoy his periodic anachronistic comparisons to recent events. For example, he compares the intent of the original tea party to the twenty-first-century namesake and their opposition to Obama-era policies and describes why the newer version is misguided (130). While these current period associations make his book more approachable and thought-provoking for casual readers, they do not advance our understanding of the Revolutionary Era. Further, wading into current period issues turns off readers of different political views as Holton, the very audience he is seeking to influence.

Lastly, Holton builds off his Forced Founders book and presents a similar thesis to the New York Times’ 1619 Project that one of the primary causes of the Revolution was the colonists’ fear that the British would end slavery in the Americas.[6] Holton’s passionate advocacy for this thesis is evident in both the book and subsequent public book talks. Holton tweeted seventy-six examples of slaveholders deciding to rebel to preserve their enslaved populations to buttress his position further. Inviting controversy, following the book’s publication this fall, Holton engaged in a high-profile debate with Gordon Wood, who asserts an ideological, not a slavery preservation origin. Historian Jack Rakove and other scholars who dispute the Project 1619 findings have written scathing reviews of Holton’s theses. Given Holton’s zealous interest in this topic, he could have focused his efforts on this issue and not written another secondary source-heavy overview of the revolution. In contrast to Gordon Wood’s mentor Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Holton could have written a dedicated geneses book entitled the “Racial Origins of the American Revolution.”[7]

Despite my well-intentioned criticisms and suggestions, Liberty is Sweet is captivating and thought-provoking. Provocatively, Holton suggests that the American Revolution did not help most people and, in retrospect, may have been a mistake.[8] However, in the book’s last sentence, Holton walks back from this extreme position by supposing, “Many Americans brandish the Declaration as a trophy, but it owes its continuing relevance to those who take it as a challenge” (554). I encourage reading Holton’s book with an open, skeptical mind, grounded in eighteenth-century culture, and then reflecting on how best to interpret the American Revolutionary Era. As a result, we all can improve our understanding of America’s foundation.

[1] Sarah F. McMahon, “Mary Silliman’s War: A Convincing Social Portrait,” American Historical Association, Perspectives on History (blog), April 1, 1995,

[2] John J. Duffy, H. Nicholas Muller, and Gary G. Shattuck, The Rebel and the Tory: Ethan Allen, Philip Skene, and the Dawn of Vermont, First edition (Barre, Vermont: Vermont Historical Society, 2020).

[3] Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution (New York: Walker & Co, 2002), 189–90.

[4] Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 43–46.

[5] For a listing of the Victoire passengers see Elizabeth S. Kite, “Lafayette and His Companions on the ‘Victoire,’” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 45, no. 1 (1934): 24-25.

[6] Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[7] For those interested in a more focused work on racism and the Revolution see, Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[8] For those interested in the thesis that the American Revolution was a mistake see, Leland G. Stauber, The American Revolution: A Grand Mistake (Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2010).