Holton, Woody 1959–

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Holton, Woody 1959–

(Abner Woodrow Holton)


Born June 15, 1959; partner's name Gretchen; children: Beverly. Education: Duke University, graduated.


Office—University of Richmond, 28 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23171. E-mail—[email protected]


Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA, former faculty member; University of Richmond, Richmond, VA, associate professor of history.


American Antiquarian Society.


Merle Curtis Social History Award, Organization of American Historians, and Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award, New York Sons of the Revolution, both for Forced Founders; National Book Award nomination, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.


Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1999.

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2007.


History professor Woody Holton is interested in how economic factors have influenced great events in American history. He has written two books about the link between economic factors and political change: Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, which won the Merle Curtis Social History Award and the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award, and Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, which was nominated for the prestigious National Book Award. In Forced Founders, Holton focuses on the state of Virginia, though there are implications that his thesis could apply to other parts of colonial America as well, when, he proposes, that the leading elite class of that state decided to break away from Britain because its members feared losing political and financial control. According to the author in his book, "The decision for Independence was partly the result of a complex struggle involving the British government and three groups of Americans: land speculators, back country settlers, and Ohio Valley Indians." The British, for example, were siding with the Native Americans in trying to prevent wealthy land speculators from further encroaching on lands west of the colonies. Also, the Navigation Act, which had been in existence decades before the American Revolution, was becoming an increasing financial strain to merchants after the 1750s, and their debt to the British was increasing. Holton goes into detail about the trade in tobacco, in particular. Colonists had cooperated to boycott the importation of British goods, but the boycott had not gained followers in Virginia because high tobacco prices made tobacco farmers so wealthy that they could easily af- ford import duties imposed on British products in the 1760s. When tobacco prices fell in the 1770s, however, tobacco farmers got on board; a new boycott that followed Britain's Coercive Acts was consequently more successful.

Meanwhile, native tribes were becoming more organized against the Colonies. Black slaves were starting to exert more pressure as well, and settlers on the frontier were becoming increasingly difficult to control. According to Holton, all these factors made the elite in Virginia nervous about their ability to retain power, thus leading to their decision to declare independence with the other rebellious American colonies. While a Historian contributor called Holton's book "an imaginative and engaging reinterpretation of the coming of the American Revolution in Virginia," not all reviewers agreed with this assessment. Robert E. Wright, writing on the EH.net Web site, was particularly nonplused by Holton; he pointed out that the author did not uncover any new research among his sources and he felt that "the book has little to offer economic historians, except to exemplify the chasm between the research methodologies of economic and social historians." Wright particularly objected to Holton's premise that increasing debt motivated Virginia's colonial elite to rebel, stating that "Holton completely misrepresents the purpose and meaning of debt. For economic historians, firms assume debt to finance projects thought to have a positive net present value"; thus, debt is an indication of economic promise, rather than a burden indicative of a worsening economy. Wright maintained that while the influence of native tribes, slaves, and backwoods settlers may have been factors in the decision to declare independence, they were just some of the many issues involved. "Holton did not exploit the founders' cogent cost-benefit analyses because that would have meant treating the non-elite groups merely as variables or background noise," according to Wright.

Other critics of Forced Founders gave Holton much more credit for his research and analysis, with James H. Merrell stating on H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online that this was a "fine" and "deeply researched" book. Admitting that many of the ideas had been addressed by other historians, Merrell felt that the author was the first to "weave these various strands into a single interpretative fabric of considerable persuasive power." Complimenting Holton for pointing out the connections between what was happening in the worlds of Native Americans and slaves with the economic and political issues of the colonies, Merrell wrote that "Forced Founders makes another signal contribution by suggesting how, despite their obvious differences, common principles and common strategies animated these peoples." Historian contributor James O'Donnell, furthermore, called the work "an excellent example of using top-down sources to demonstrate the impact of the bottom-up forces."

In an interview with Jennifer Gonnerman on the National Book Foundation Web site, Holton remarked that writing about economics in American history is a tough topic to sell to lay readers, or even to fellow academics. When his research revealed how "bond speculators played a huge, albeit indirect, role in bringing about the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787," however, he became fascinated, while admitting to himself: "You have to be pretty weird to get excited about government finance." The result of his research is Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. Picking up on American history after the Revolution, the book's setting is a group of thirteen colonies being thrown into chaos because of a lack of standard currency, domestic investments in worthless war bonds, and lack of foreign investment. The Articles of Confederation did not provide a solid means of governing this turmoil and so a new document needed to be created. The country's leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, believed that power was best left in the hands of the well-educated and powerful elite, but they also recognized that they would have to acknowledge the importance of the average American or else it would not be ratified by the states. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written in acknowledgment of this political necessity. Jay Freeman, writing in Booklist, echoed a number of critics in finding that Holton's work presents "some interesting twists on old assertions." A Publishers Weekly critic likewise wrote that Holton "is full of surprising insights" in this "suggestive study."

In his interview with Gonnerman, Holton said that he considered Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution to still be "pretty dry compared to the history bestsellers, so I want to make my next book (a biography of Abigail Adams) even more accessible to non-historians."



American Historical Review, October, 2000, James Sidbury, review of Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, p. 1287.

Booklist, August, 2007, Jay Freeman, review of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, p. 16.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, January, 2000, H.M. Ward, review of Forced Founders, p. 995.

Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 1999, review of Forced Founders, p. 27.

Historian, March 22, 2002, James O'Donnell, review of Forced Founders, p. 754.

Journal of American History, December, 2000, Gregory H. Nobles, review of Forced Founders, p. 1015.

Journal of Economic History, March, 2001, Pamela J. Nickless, review of Forced Founders, p. 221.

Journal of Southern History, February, 2002, Albert H. Tillson, review of Forced Founders, p. 156.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2007, review of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

Law and History Review, fall, 2001, Terry Bouton, review of Forced Founders.

Publishers Weekly, July 9, 2007, review of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, p. 39.

Reference & Research Book News, February, 2008, review of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

Reviews in American History, March, 2001, Ruth Wallis Herndon, review of Forced Founders, p. 23.

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, summer, 2000, Terri L. Snyder, review of Forced Founders.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 2000, Robert Gross, review of Forced Founders; winter, 2001, review of Forced Founders.

Washington Lawyer, February, 2008, James Srodes, review of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, p. 43.

William and Mary Quarterly, July, 2000, Gwenda Morgan, review of Forced Founders, p. 703.


EH.net,http://eh.net/ (February 1, 2001), Robert E. Wright, review of Forced Founders.

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online,http://www.h-net.org/ (April 14, 2008), James H. Merrell, "Virginia Reels," review of Forced Founders.

National Book Foundation Web site,http://www.nationalbook.org/ (April 14, 2008), Jennifer Gonnerman, interview with Woody Holton.

University of Richmond Web site,http://www.richmond.edu/ (April 14, 2008), faculty profile of Woody Holton.

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