(1999), a non-fiction book by American author and history professor Woody Holton, poses a two-pronged argument concerning the Founding Fathers of Virginia. The first is that the Founding Fathers were driven as much by personal agendas as high-minded ideals of independence in their fight against British imperial rule. The second is that American Indians, slaves, debtors, and the merchant class were just as instrumental in precipitating American Independence as the traditional Founding Fathers.
Holton begins with helpful context about the motivations of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in declaring independence from British imperial rule. Contrary to long-held historical narratives, Washington and Jefferson were driven in large part by their debt to British merchants. Both had borrowed extensively from the British merchant class to prop up their failing tobacco plantations. Therefore, declaring independence would allow them to negotiate more attractive international trade terms with the British, saving themselves from financial ruin.
Holton then discusses the role of Native Americans in shaping the Virginia class of landowners' view on independence. In the wake of the French and Indian War and reluctant to enter into another expensive and bloody conflict with Native Americans, the British were eager to capitulate to various Native Americans' demands which often ran counter to what the colonists wanted. For example, when colonists attempted to take land away from Native Americans, the British frequently sided with the Native Americans in order to prevent another French and Indian War.
Holton also discusses the role of merchants in organizing boycotts against goods imported from Britain. Eager for their fellow colonists to buy their own goods, artisans and planters were largely in favor of the boycotts. However, most merchants were philosophically agnostic about British goods—they didn't care where the goods they sold came from, as long as people bought them. The boycotts thus put a great deal of pressure on merchants to hope for independence since it would mean America could be empowered to negotiate more attractive trade rates, thus ending the reason for boycotting British goods.
Meanwhile, slaves, as well as extremely poor white farmhands, were viewed as a threat to the Virginia gentry landowning class. The landowners feared that without the autonomy to pass laws to keep slaves and poor whites in place, there would be an armed insurrection against the ruling class. Moreover, there were numerous instances in which the British were explicitly allied with slaves, as a matter of fact, rather than merely shared incentives. In 1775, for example, John Murray was the British representative in charge of Virginia. On the eve of revolution, Murray armed both slaves and Shawnee Indians to guard his palace in Williamsburg. That same year, Murray attempted to recruit more slaves and Shawnee Indians to band together against the Virginia class of colonial landowners. This gambit ultimately failed, not least of which because Murray was one of the commanders who fought the Shawnees during the French and Indian War. Nevertheless, the existence of such real and symbolic alliances paints a picture of how much the most disenfranchised Americans had to lose from the Founders' fight for "freedom." In other words, the freedom the Founders fought for would become a direct threat to the freedom of nonwhite Americans, according to Holton.
While much of the book doesn't reflect very kindly on the Founding Fathers of Virginia, in another sense, the book humanizes them, painting them as just as frightened and desperate for "freedom" as many other groups in America. Granted, their idea of "freedom" was ridding themselves of onerous trade policies, while slaves lacked "freedom" in the very strictest sense of the term. Nevertheless, the book paints a picture of a pre-Revolutionary Era as one dominated by flawed individuals fighting for self-preservation, and aligning themselves with whomever they believed could help them—whether the British lords and the Indians they had fought just decades earlier, or disenfranchised slaves and rich British debtors, both concerned about what American autonomy would mean for their tribes.
Even when particular groups weren't aligned, Holton argues, these groups learned from one another. For example, Holton writes that Virginia gentlemen were influenced by Indians' and slaves' own tactics for gaining independence, even as the eventual victory of those same gentlemen damned these very groups.
The ultimate effect of Forced Founders
is to push back against the idea that the American Revolution was the result of a few distinguished gentlemen's desire for independence. Rather, a group of chaotic factions collaborated and pushed against one another to create an environment in which revolution could thrive.