Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia

Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia

Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia

Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia

Synopsis

In this provocative reinterpretation of one of the best-known events in American history, Woody Holton shows that when Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other elite Virginians joined their peers from other colonies in declaring independence from Britain, they acted partly in response to grassroots rebellions against their own rule.

The Virginia gentry's efforts to shape London's imperial policy were thwarted by British merchants and by a coalition of Indian nations. In 1774, elite Virginians suspended trade with Britain in order to pressure Parliament and, at the same time, to save restive Virginia debtors from a terrible recession. The boycott and the growing imperial conflict led to rebellions by enslaved Virginians, Indians, and tobacco farmers. By the spring of 1776 the gentry believed the only way to regain control of the common people was to take Virginia out of the British Empire.

Forced Founders uses the new social history to shed light on a classic political question: why did the owners of vast plantations, viewed by many of their contemporaries as aristocrats, start a revolution? As Holton's fast-paced narrative unfolds, the old story of patriot versus loyalist becomes decidedly more complex.

Excerpt

Americans tend to think of the Virginia gentry, the colonial elite that gave us Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as a proud and optimistic ruling class. They do not imagine gentlemen resorting to desperate measures such as crashing down the gates of prisons or placing weapons in the hands of slaves. But, in April 1774, Jacob Hite, one of the wealthiest men in Berkeley County, Virginia, did both of those things, and more. the desperation experienced by men like Hite—and, to a surprising extent, by men like Jefferson and Washington as well—helped drive them into the American Revolution. Since they took Britain’s largest American colony with them, anyone interested in the origins of the Independence movement needs to understand why they felt so desperate.

Hite was the son of a highly successful Shenandoah Valley land speculator and had hoped to replicate his father’s success farther west. in the late 1760s, he and his business partner Richard Pearis contrived a way to obtain a large tract of land from the Cherokee Indians. Pearis had a son, George, by a Cherokee woman. Métis like George Pearis were viewed by Cherokee headmen as useful diplomatic bridges to British America whose interests should be promoted; so, when George asked headmen for a 150,000-acre tract just west of South Carolina, they gave it to him. George Pearis then sold the land to his father and Jacob Hite. It was a clever scheme, but a British official feared that it might provoke the Cherokees to join an anti-British confedera-

1. Warren R. Hofstra, “Land Policy and Settlement in the Northern Shenandoah Valley,” in Robert D. Mitchell, ed., Appalachian Frontiers: Settlement, Society, and Development in the Preindustrial Era (Lexington, Ky., 1991), 107–108.

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