A socialist attacks a racialist approach to the American Revolution

At the University of South Carolina, a leftist, revisionist historian has doubled down on the Democrats’ assertion that the American Revolution’s purpose was to defend slavery. The loudest voice challenging this historian is...wait for it...the World Socialist Web Site (“WSWS”), which published an article arguing that this grotesque historic inaccuracy harms socialism by giving fuel to conservatives.

Woody Holton, who got himself a Ph.D. in History from Duke University and now teaches American history at the University of South Carolina, is the quintessential modern academic, for he sees American history as a series of oppressive acts aimed at destroying anyone who wasn’t rich, White, and male. He’s also an attention seeker.

Writing at the WSWS, Tom Mackaman, a socialist who wrote a book attacking  the 1619 project, explains that Holton wrote a pro-1619 Project article for the Washington Post, which he followed with a series of tweets, all aimed at proving that the American Revolution had nothing to do with liberty and was, instead, a thinly veiled effort to maintain slavery in the face of an “Anglo-Black Alliance”:

In his Post column, Holton says that he believes that the American Revolution was caused when “Whites” became “furious” after learning “that Blacks had forged an informal alliance with the British.” It was only this uncontrollable racist fury that caused “Whites” to formally declare independence. According to Holton, the American Revolution was no revolution at all, but a “secessionist” reaction to the threat of slave liberation posed by the British Empire, and, in this, its true essence, was nothing so much as a dress rehearsal for the Confederate counterrevolution of 1861.

Mackaman identifies and quickly demolishes each piece of “evidence” Holton puts forward to support this proposition. The article focuses especially closely on Holton’s centerpiece argument, which is built around “the Dunmore Proclamation.” In the proclamation, issued in November 1775, the last royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to any slaves who took up arms against masters revolting against the Crown. This, said Holton, so panicked White Americans that they became fiercely racist and determined to secede from Great Britain.

To his credit, Mackaman will have none of this:

To arrive at this conclusion, Holton must disregard the basic chronology of the Revolution. In fact, the war was already on a half year before Dunmore’s order. Major battles had already taken place in New England, the Continental Army had been formed, and a situation of dual power had emerged throughout the colonies, with the imperial state crumbling and new revolutionary structures of authority taking its place, at the head of which was the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In Virginia, British authority had rapidly dissolved over the preceding two years. In fact, Holton fails to note that Dunmore issued his order from his refuge aboard a British naval vessel in the James River!

The article is long, detailed, and well-sourced, and I can’t do it justice here. It’s certainly worth reading, for Mackaman cites multiple Revolutionary War scholars and spells out chapter and verse of events in the 1770s that put the lie to Holton’s revisionist claims. He also takes apart Holton’s arguments challenging anyone who dares deny his revisionist history.

What’s so ironic is that Mackaman, in addition to having an honest person’s disgust for falsifying history, says that the lies that Holton writes damage the socialist cause—a cause the Founding Fathers would have viewed as appalling:

Holton does not think he is a racist. No doubt he believes he is fighting racism, and that in this fight it is permissible to play fast and loose with the facts of history—even its very chronology—all the better to achieve “a usable past” for the present.

He is mistaken. The oppressed masses of all races and all nationalities require an honest and objective understanding of the past, just as much as they do the present.

The imposition of racialist mythology on history, whatever its short-term and, frankly, pecuniary aims, will only provide fodder for the unscientific and irrationalist miasma out of which the far right emerges. The attack on the American Revolution and Civil War, and the broader historic struggle for equality in which these revolutions formed twin peaks, only strengthens the right wing. It comes at a dangerous moment, when democracy in the United States, and elsewhere, is in a state of peril. Indeed, the far right finds its own “usable past” in the historical territory abandoned, and now denounced, by American liberalism. The attack on the American Revolution by the New York Times and historians like Woody Holton allows Trump and the Republican Party to posture as defenders of 1776. Behind this screen the coup-plotting against democracy deepens.

When the Revolution finally ended with Cornwallis surrendering after the Battle of Yorktown, the British band played a then-popular song, “The World Turned Upside Down.” Seeing a socialist writer, at a socialist publication, absolutely savage an academic who’s bought into Critical Race Theory and seeks to drag the American Revolution under that umbrella makes me think that the world really has turned upside down.

I don’t think I’d enjoy dinner with Professor Holton. I’m very sure that, despite his awful political ideology, Tom Mackaman would be an interesting person to meet.

Image: Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown by John Trumbull. Public domain.

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