The Storm Over America’s Foundation: A Review of “Freedom Is Sweet: The Hidden Story of the American Revolution” by Woody Holton

This lesser-known story is a reminder that the War of Independence did not only pit loyalists against patriots. It was a world war, in which the involvement of several other powers proved crucial to the success of the Patriots. When the Patriotic rulers finally got help from France and Spain in 1778 and 1779 respectively, the British realized that their entire world empire, and not just the 13 colonies, was at stake. The British feared that the Spanish and the French would try to seize the territories lost by Great Britain in the previous wars of the century. In 1780, the British withdrew a third of their troops from the 13 colonies, repositioning many of them in the Caribbean to protect their most valuable colonial asset: their slave-based sugar colonies. Holton also reminds us that the last great battle of Yorktown, in 1781, was largely won by the French army, which was twice as numerous as the Patriot troops. In many ways, Holton suggests, the Patriots won their independence not because they were strong militarily or ideologically engaged, but because they were weak and unimportant.

Freedom is sweet takes us into the mid-1790s, but its final section reads more as an afterthought than a fully integrated part of the story. These 60 pages, out of a nearly 600-page book, cover the economic devastation that immediately followed the war; the Constitutional Convention, which largely sought to rectify this problem; and the final wars of the new federal government against its own rebellious citizens and the indigenous nations of the West, who had not given up on the fight. Rather than offering an original take on what the American Revolution ended up with, Holton sums up what is today for many academic historians a common position: not much change. For most Americans, whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female, their status has remained largely the same. Only for Native Americans, the Patriots’ victory was total disaster.

This does not mean that the egalitarian potential of the revolution has not been fully realized. Holton concedes this but points out that the most democratic reforms have taken place at the state level, not the federal level. Several state constitutions written during the war made it easier to vote for ordinary white men – and in New Jersey, wealthy white women – and most northern states began to phase out slavery. But the Federal Constitution has stifled all democratic impulses exploited by some state governments. He seized tremendous power from state governments. It allowed white male citizens to directly elect just one of the four main governing chambers (the House of Representatives). And it bolstered slavery across the country – through the three-fifths clause, which gave slave owners disproportionate representation in the House and Electoral College; the Fugitive Slave Clause, which allowed slave owners to recover slaves who fled to the northern states; by allowing the federal government to help suppress slave rebellions; and allowing the Atlantic slave trade to continue for at least 20 years.

By ending his story in 1795, Holton came full circle in his story. That year, the federal government found itself, Ironically, exactly where the British government had been 40 years earlier. Its own citizens had recently revolted against the federal whiskey tax; Meanwhile, George Washington was still engaged in a military battle for Indigenous lands, fighting an alliance of Indian nations in the Ohio River Valley, this time led by Shawnee Leader Weyapiersenwah (Blue Jacket) and Miami Leader Michikinikwa (Little Turtle). The only difference now was that Washington’s army had won, forcing several Indigenous nations to cede millions of acres to the United States and men like Washington, who ultimately held full possession of the 52,000 acres of Indigenous land they had left. ‘he had spent a lifetime pursuing.

Edward K. Thompson