In his book Forced Founders, author Woody Holton argues that the American Revolution in Virginia, commonly believed to be the struggle by Virginian “gentlemen” to protect and expand their...

In his book Forced Founders, author Woody Holton argues that the American Revolution in Virginia, commonly believed to be the struggle by Virginian “gentlemen” to protect and expand their freedom, was the result of the powerful influence of non-elites: Indians, debtors, merchants, slaves, and smallholders (yeomen). How, according to Holton, did each of the non-elite groups push Virginia’s gentlemen into revolution? Can one agree with Holton’s argument for the causes of the revolution,  or was the revolution simply a revolt against British taxes and monarchy?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his book Forced Founders, author Woody Holton contradicts the commonly held belief that weaker groups in America, such as the "Indians, merchants, and slaves," were merely puppets of the gentry. Instead, he argues that each of these groups had the ability to exert its own power and pull its own strings to significantly influence America's gentry in political decisions. More specifically, he argues that weak groups like the Indians and slaves unintentionally influenced the American gentry in starting the American Revolutionary War. Holton certainly does provide a convincing amount of evidence to support his claim that groups like the Indians unintentionally pulled the strings that led to the revolution.

As Holton argues in his first chapter, one way in which the Indians unintentionally pulled the strings of the American gentry is through their failed Pontiac Rebellion.  The Pontiac Rebellion was a war against the British initiated by a group of tribes, soon after the French were defeated by the British in the French Indian War. After the British drove the French out of America, the Indians were left to the control of the British. The Indians objected to British control because the Indians felt that, unlike the French, the British treated them dishonorably and with inequality. The Indians' objection to British treatment partially stemmed from the decision of General Amherst, the British commander-in-chief over North America, to stop giving the Indians gifts of weapons, tobacco, and clothing. In contrast to the British, the French had used the Indian custom of giving gifts to village chiefs as a means of showing respect, treating them as equals, and sealing their friendship. Amherst stopped the tradition because he saw it as only bribery and further saw that there was no longer any need to bribe the Indians into doing the bidding of the Empire. Hence, for many reasons, Indians became very distrustful of British rule and united in an effort to drive off the British. Though Pontiac's Rebellion was an Indian failure, it did succeed in showing the British the strength and danger of the Indian forces. As a result of British fear, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, which secured all land west of the Appalachians for the Indians.

But as Holton explains in his book, the motive of the British to secure this land for the Indians was not one of "moral obligation"; instead, they knew that if they didn't secure the land, the "Indians would attack them, and the British army might have to come to the rescue at great cost to the imperial treasury" (p. 5).

The Proclamation of 1763 posed problems for Virginian gentleman land speculators because it prevented them from procuring land titles to fertile lands, especially in Kentucky; the lands could not be sold at a profit without the titles. Hence, Holton is arguing that the wealthy Virginian gentry became infuriated enough over British rule as to want to rebel against the British, and their fury was indirectly caused by the Indians' own rebellion that led to the Proclamation of 1763.

But the Indians were not content to stop at their defeat in the Pontiac Rebellion. They were still determined to drive off the British. In their determination, multiple tribes joined together to form an anti-British coalition, and they knew they would not successfully defeat the British without the support of the Americans. Hence, Indian delegates also went to the Americans to join the coalition, and the Indians joined the Revolutionary War.  As Holton phrases it, "Delaware and Shawnee diplomats powerfully influenced the most important decision white Americans ever made" (p. 36).