Book Review: Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution by Woody Holton (three stars)
The Battle of the Monongahela was the first major engagement of the world’s first global war.
An excellent concept: explore the American War of Independence in the broader context of time, persons and motives. Largely works, but often bogs down in reminders of that broadness. Readability suffers. The book would have benefited by a ten per cent reduction. His economic take is stale.
The crucial fact about the emerging conflict between colonies and crown—so often missed by the mythmakers—was that British officials, not American colonists, were the ones demanding change.
For example, rather than starting with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, Holton delves into the impact of earlier actions on both sides of the Atlantic, including the 1651 and following Navigation Acts which created the imbalance between the colonies and mother country. Slavery, of course, impacted motives on both sides also. Holton’s investigation of relations with the Native Americans adds a dimension usually ignored. As are the actions and opinions of females on all sides.
[Phillis] Wheatley was willing to concede the morality of chattel slavery in order to upend racial prejudice—a painful choice but also logical, if you believe, as she did, that racism was the root and slavery only its venomous stem, incapable of living without it.
Holton makes no secret of his disdain for American exceptionalism and for the idea that the founders were larger than like. In case the reader misses his message, he often interrupts the text to explain himself. Again. Freely inserts snide irrelevancies.
The “desperate valor” exhibited by the Rhode Island 1st Regiment as it repelled three waves of onrushing Hessians impressed observers in other units—and also surprised them, for two reasons. The first was that most of them had never seen battle before; the second was that they were Black.
Unfortunately for students of history, Holton is forced to retell the entire war in order to fit it into his framing narrative. But then he can’t assume that modern readers know the chronology or major events. It allows him to re-spin everything.
[Carl von] Donop took a musket ball in the groin, was captured by the fort’s defenders, and succumbed seven days later, reportedly declaring, “I die the victim of my ambition and of the avarice of my sovereign.”
One group Holton ignores, other than as villains, are the conscripted Germans who fought and died in a country, a war, and for a king not their own.
By 1781, the British had helped the Indians assemble a confederacy powerful enough to survive even Britain’s betrayal the following year.
Adds depth to the background and evolution of independence, but if you plan to read only one history of the Revolution don’t make it this one.
The mythologization of the founding rebels has played out as a revolt against complexity. Flattering and flat celebrations of the Founders often proceed from a laudable desire to instill patriotism in the young (they also sell well), but they have always seemed more appropriate to authoritarian regimes, and they have slandered history by making it dull.