In his book Forced Founder: Indians, Debtors, Slaves & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia historian Woody Holton answers the question of why the Virginia gentry declared independence and challenges the notion that they sought to join the movement for independence from Britain in a confident act of defiance based on their control of the colony??™s affairs, leading the common man into the American Revolution. Holton argues that because the Virginia gentlemen doubted their ability to maintain firm control over the affairs of the colony, it was the actions and the desires of the common man and the dealings with the small farmers, the British merchants, the Indians, and the slaves in the Virginia colony that were influential in pressuring the Virginia gentry towards rebellion. In fact, the author infers that the steps that Virginia??™s founding fathers took that led Virginia into the American Revolution were not majority acts of confidence and optimism, but instead were better characterized as ???desperate measures??? that were more strongly influenced by social and economic conflict that was taking place in the Virginia colony between the elites (the gentry) and the non-elites (all others to include Indians and slaves).
Part One of Founding Fathers is titled ???Grievances??? and includes the first two chapters. In chapter one the author examines the effect that land grievances had in steering the Virginia gentry towards declaring Independence. Central to the argument are the reactions of the colonials and the Indians to Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act, which severely limited the access colonials had to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Holton points out that both acts of legislation by Parliament were in the interest of the colonies in that they would serve to protect the colonials from Indian aggression and to shorten the borders of the Virginia colony. Speculators and the gentry??™s major complaint concerning both acts of legislature was that by limiting the amount of land that the elites could obtain at a low price and then sell to the non-elites at a higher price, both had a negative impact on their financial standing and was akin to tyranny. The author explores the idea that the Indians in the lands that were denied to the colonials became united, in secret, in their efforts to frustrate British interests at encroachment. Holton surmises that the Indians wanted the British to know that they were banding together in order to cause more fear among them and to increase their standing at the bargaining table and, therefore, adding to the Indians??™ influence on the decision of the Virginia gentry to seek Independence in order to gain access to Indian lands. In chapter two, the author argues British trade regulations did more than just affect the gentry. Holton goes to great length in this chapter to describe the negative effect that British trade regulations had on the small tobacco growers that made up the strength of Virginia??™s economic base. Because of the price fixing effect that resulted from the British policies, the small growers in Virginia were pushed to the point of bankruptcy. This had a destabilizing effect on the entire colony, which the gentry were forced to deal with, on top of their own financial concerns. Virginians, both from the elite and non elite classes, knew that the only way that they could achieve true economic freedom and maximize their financial gain would be to achieve Independence from English rule.
In the next two chapters of Founding Fathers Holton explores the impact and consequences of the colonial leaderships??™ participation in boycotts of British manufactured goods and their hesitancy to export tobacco to the mother country in protest of the restrictive trade policies such as the Townshend Acts. Although the decision to boycott was made by the Virginia gentry in protest of Parliaments perceived disregard for the civil liberties of the colonials, the hardship placed on the non-elites that could not afford to not do business pushed them to the breaking point, financially. The small farmers could not afford to abstain from doing British merchants for the very real fear of losing everything. Though the gentry took steps to alleviate the resulting issue of debt by suspending debtor??™s courts, it did not do much to eliminate the fact that small planters were now broke because of the nonexportation edict, the recession, and the collapse of tobacco prices due to bumper crops in the years prior to 1770. The loss of cash from tobacco sales drove the small planters further into debt because they did not have the assets to purchase essential goods from merchants, forcing a deeper dependence on credit-buying out of desperation. The resulting dissent of the small farmers added to the explosive situation that was building in Virginia, further pushing the gentry towards rebellion. Inaction on the part of the Virginia colonial leadership could very well force a rebellion of the non-elites against the elite class within the colony, which would result in a greater loss of financial and political power to the gentry.
In the next two chapters Holton discusses the some of the unintended consequences that resulted from the continued strains on relations between the colonials and the mother country. One unexpected consequence of the growing friction between Virginia and Parliament was the rising importance that the large slave population in the colony played in the gentry??™s decision to push towards independence. The author points out that there had always been incidents where the slaves attempted to defy the slave owners, sometimes resulting in a loss of life. As the atmosphere of unrest in the colony grew and the colonials moved closer to rebellion, it appeared that the slave population took advantage of the situation and increased the frequency of acts of defiance against the whites. Because the larger proportion of the overall population in Virginia during the 1770??™s were slaves, the level of alarm that the whites showed at the increased amount of slave revolts and insurrections was understandable. To add to the impact that the slave population played in the gentry??™s push towards declaring Independence from Britain were the circulating rumors that British agents were encouraging slave insurrections in an attempt to check the colonial aspirations for Independence. Lord Dunmore heightened the slave issue by threatening the gentry that he would emancipate the slaves and arm them against the patriots, should there be continued unrest in the colonies due to patriot violence. This fear of slave insurrection, along with Lord Dunmore??™s threat to arm the slaves and use them against their former owners inadvertently made the slave population an important factor in the push towards Independence. Another unexpected consequence of the growing friction between the Virginia gentry and Parliament because of the economic battle being waged was the increasing animosity between the elite and non-elite classes in the colony. Parliament dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses in response to the challenges made to their authority in the colony, which resulted in disorder because the gentry no longer had a vehicle to lawfully control the lesser classes of Virginians. Also, the shortage of goods available to the lesser classes in the colony, as a result of the boycotts imposed by the gentry, led to lawlessness and riots. The only acceptable way for the gentry to reestablish government and to establish fair international trade, in order to restore their control over the smallholders and the poor, was to declare Independence. Horton also uses the military situation in the colony to further illustrate the importance that the smallholders and the poorer classes of Virginia played in pushing the gentry into a desperate situation. Prior to 1775 the independent companies of the Virginia colonial military arm were democratic organizations where the gentry and the non-elites served side-by-side, under the leadership of a popularly elected leader. As the independent companies began to become more ???independent??? and acted on their own, in defiance of the militia??™s orders, the gentry realized that they were going to lose control of their military arm. As a result, one of the primary goals of the third Virginia Convention during the summer of 1775 resulted in the disbandment of the popular independent companies and the restructuring of the colonial military into the militia and minuteman battalions that would be under the control of the gentry. This unpopular move further opened a fissure between he elite and non-elite classes in Virginia, which heightened the need of the gentry to declare Independence in order to regain control of the population. An additional complication that resulted in the economic and political troubles between the colonial leadership was the scarcity of arms and ammunition available to the colonial militia. The only way to establish trade with an outside nation to acquire arms, namely France, again was to declare Independence.
In the final chapter, Holton changes gears a little. In the previous six chapters, the reader is given examples of how the lesser classes of whites, the slaves and the Indians in the Virginia colony indirectly pushed the Virginia gentry into the Revolution. In this chapter, Holton describes how the smallholders and the non-elites in Virginia directly pushed the gentry into the Revolution by demanding Independence. The smallholders, according to Holton, had several motives for these demands. The first was that the smallholders and the poor whites demanded a new form of government in which they were directly represented, something akin to a republic. Another reason that the non-elites demanded that the gentry lead them to independence was to gain religious freedom, to no longer be associated with a government that had an official religion, such as the Church of England. The non-elite whites in the Virginia colony demanded that the Virginia gentlemen join the Revolution in order to give them greater opportunities for government participation and religious freedom.
In Forced Founders, Woody Holton answers the questions of why the Virginia gentlemen declared independence from Britain. In doing so, Holton argues that the non-elites, the slaves, and the Indians in Virginia played a much larger role in pressuring the gentry into joining the Revolution, both directly and indirectly. And finally, Holton paints the picture that the mounting pressure from the non-elites in Virginia backed the gentry into the position of joining the move for Independence more out of desperation than a confident act of defiance.
[ 1 ]. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 5, 8.
[ 2 ]. Ibid, 25.
[ 3 ]. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 49.
[ 4 ]. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 139-140.
[ 5 ]. Ibid, 140.
[ 6 ]. Ibid, 141.
[ 7 ]. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 165.
[ 8 ]. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 166-168.
[ 9 ]. Ibid, 195-197
[ 10 ]. Ibid, 198