Book Review

The Revolutionaries That History Forgot?

Woody Holton’s Forced Founders

© 2014, Alex Colvin

Dr. James K. Martin, American Revolution

University of Houston

History 4304

Spring, 2014

When it comes to the American Revolution, Americans have a very selective memory. For many, George Washington, is seen not as a young Virginian frontier fighter who helped win the British victory in the French and Indian War, but rather as the hero of the American Revolution, immortalized in glorious images of his winter crossing of the Delaware. The words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” are enshrined in American culture; his brash Virginia Resolves – particularly the three rejected ones – less so. Similarly, most Americas probably know that Thomas Jefferson was the author and signer of the Declaration of Independence and who designed his own home, Monticello; few may know, however, that he eschewed publication, despite his polymathic intellect and cannon of written works.[1]  And while Americans likely know that Washington, Henry, and Jefferson were all Virginians, their ties to the land and to the competitive and risky colonial land speculation trade are less well known.  That real-estate dimension of their collective image gets eclipsed in our patriotic fervor and our collective gallant notion of the American Revolution which we prefer to envisage as a  tiny, ragtag army of  upstarts taking on and winning victoriously against the world’s eighteenth-century superpower known as Britton.

But what if we’ve managed to skip a few critical episodes in our analysis of the American road to Independence in Virginia? What if we’ve omitted some underlying motives or ignored major chords in the music of our memory? Have we overlooked a deeper understanding of the why question in our quest to understand the who and the what questions about  the Virginian participants in their service to liberty?  Addressing that omission, this collective gap in our memory, is the essential thesis to Forced Founders.[2]  Author, Woody Holton, wants us to reimagine a different why – something other than taxes and billeting troops or the standard bedrock causes of the American colonial rebellion against its mother country. Those new motives have to do with land. And among those participants — those from Virginia who were among the largest stakeholders in the massive land grab prior to the French and Indian war — Holton claims, were Washington, Jefferson, and Henry.[3]

Yet, despite what at first blush in his opening chapter appears a promising insight into an old intrigue, Holton serves up instead what is best described as conjecture based on heavily footnoted scholarship.

Holton makes clear in his opening volley that those landed gentry, (such as Washington,)  who had gotten involved with land speculation in the 1760s in the Ohio River Vally had much to lose once the Proclamation Line of 1763 was enacted  which nullified and voided any previous patents or land claims held by speculators. Many students of the Revolution know, for example, that the British drew the Proclamation Line following their expansionist conquest in North American as a kind of redline which American colonists were not expected to cross, and for their obedience, the English send several thousand  troops allegedly to “protect” them from Indian raids. Americans were expected to pay for those Regulars with duty impositions against which they loudly protested.

.           What they may not know,  however, was that, hoping to remove part of this geographic impediment, in 1768, The Hard Labor Treaty was signed between Cherokee leaders and John Stuart – a British agent —  which essentially extended Virginia to the Ohio River and included what would become West Virginia – a geographic boundary that went far beyond the legal limit. Patrick Henry quickly became interested in this new area with a purchase of some 3,300 acres. (Holton, 9) [4]  Within a month, the Iroquois relinquished an almost identical tract to William Johnson at New York’s Ft. Stanwix in what became known as the Ft. Stanwix Treaty.  Yet despite the apparent conflict land speculators were sure Britton would honor any treaty involving their war allies, the Iroquois.  Many land speculators followed suit, sparking a land rush which, by 1769, caused the Virginia Executive Council (the upper house of the Virginia Assembly) to void all of the patents thus far obtained to put an end to a land rush in an area which was legally off-limits. Lobbying and petitions to Parliament ensued. So did inter-tribal conflict because those tribes selling land weren’t exactly authorized to do so. (Holton 14). Ultimately the whole affair came to nothing. As Holton notes:

Because of the British government’s denial of Virginia’s bid for Kentucky, its refusal to revoke the Proclamation of 1763, and the Indian coalition-building that had helped to bring about these imperial policies, the total yield of Virginia land rush set off by the Fort Stanwix treaty had been was a pile of rejected land petitions and worthless surveys. (Holton, 28). 

Unfortunately, Holton never convincingly ties these failed land ventures to what he argues was a resentment so deep against the British, the colonists went to war.  In the next chapter, Holton introduces a new set of Virginias – debtors and slaves, the non-elites, who likewise have reasons to hate the British.

Holton summarized that chapter nicely: “The struggle between Virginia Tobacco growers and British merchants helped to spark the American Revolution”  (Holton, 43).  For evidence, he cites the deaths – two suicides and a murder — of three members of the emerging grower-gentry whose deaths he ties to their crushing debt, itself a consequence of their financial links to a failed  speculative venture, the New River lead mine to have been located west of  the Proclamation Line of 1763. Unfortunately, the connective tissue of evidence needed to show how debtors who did not resort to suicide but who were somehow part of the “forced founders,” and who participated in the mounting rebellion is missing. Instead, Holton spends the rest of the chapter illustrating how Virginians felt “enslaved” to the Navigation Acts which forced them to import only British goods and export only to British ports. However, that frustration was shared by every American colonist, and the suicides resulting from debt could well have been a way to escape the dismal prospect of debtor’s prison.

Although neo-progressive interpretations of the Revolution often provide welcomed and overlooked focus of unsung contributions to Revolutionary activities by individuals or small groups, Holton does not appear content with so narrow a task; he wants instead to add an entire new layer of understanding to what motivated Virginians – a herculean task by any measure. Yet  he attempts to do so within the confines of  fewer than 300 pages and in many cases without convincing evidence.  In his approach,  Holton appears to be  continuing the work of Rhys Isaac’s provocative, “The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790”  (University of North Carolina Press, 1999.) in that  his focus is somewhat microsiciological, re-aligning the broad lens of  Virginia Revolutionary history onto matters of less contributory significance as though they shared equal weight. Thus, in the same Issacian approach, he is using “top-down sources (to support claims about) bottom-up history” (Holton, xxi).  Holton’s  reviewers, therefore,  have been no kinder to his approach than they had been to Isaac before him.[5]

The most glaring weakness of  “Forced Founders”, however,  is stylistic rather that evidentiary; the language is both dense, and  the evidence used to support it a thick collection of  footnotes which are frequently longer than the text,  leaving the reader bleary-eyed by the first chapter’s end on page thirty-eight.

Much of that chapter deals with land speculator’s claims and counter claims as it concerned Kentucky and disputed Indian lands, highlighting royal treaties, grants,  Virginia Assembly legislation, as well as  the intricacies of  Anglo-Indian deals and counter-deals, not to mention inter- and intra-tribal friction, all to illustrate how in the colonial period, land speculators, the Virginia gentry, the King’s Privy council,  the Virginia Assembly,  as well as the Indian allies of each sphere often worked at cross purposes.  This insistence upon detailed footnoting and language density, however, reduces what could be a fascinating analysis into a clinical monograph of ad nauseum detail.

Nevertheless, “Forced Founders” offers the reader an excellent magnifying glass by which to examine in more detail the complexities of Revolutionary Virginia’s backstory, and provides us with a finer-grained view of the mechanics involved amongst those who had every right to feel betrayed by the British Empire and its imposition of the Proclamation Line of 1763.      Moreover, while Holton’s overall thesis has not impressed scholars, his concise and detailed collection of revelations about how the frustrations of rebelling Virginians played out enroute to war, makes “Forced Founders” a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf of any student of Virginiana.

[1] Kevin Hayes, “The Road to Monticello” (Oxford University Press, New York, 2008)

[2] Woody Holton, “Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1999.)

[3] George Washington’s dealings  in the Mississippi Land Company and his interest in the 2.5 million-acre land grant in the Ohio River Vally from the Crown are well known. See:  “Mississippi Land Company” in  Digital Encyclopedia, George Washington’s Mount Vernon website Thomas Jefferson, contrary to Holton’s view, never dabbled in speculation beyond the Appalachians although he’s received offers to do so. See Thomas Jefferson and the Northwest, in Richard J. Bean, “The Founders and the Pursuit of Land,” Lehrman Institute Historical Essays

[4] In 1774, Patrick Henry began a land speculation agreement with William Byrd, but later backed out of the arrangement because of his standing in the House of Burgesses and did not wish to sully his reputation; moreover, he felt at some point, were he to become a jurist in a land dispute case, he would have to recuse himself due to conflict of interest. See: Deposition of Patrick Henry, June 4, 1777, in “Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky: History of Kentucky, Volume 2” ( Collins and Company, Covington, 1882.) 496 It is curious, given this deposition, and Henry’s standing as a Virginia assemblyman  since 1765, that Holton nevertheless attributes to Henry an implied resentment against the British related to his land holdings.

[5] A. G. Roeber, “The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 by Rhys Isaac” (review) The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, (Vol. 106, No. 4 Oct., 1982) 569-571.


About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
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