Forced Founders

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

By Woody Holton

256 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 illus., 3 maps, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4784-8
    Published: September 1999
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-9986-1
    Published: January 2011
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7077-3
    Published: January 2011

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Awards & distinctions

2000 Merle Curti Award in American Social History, Organization of American Historians

A Nota Bene selection of The Chronicle of Higher Education

2000 Fraunces Tavern Book Award, Fraunces Tavern Museum

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.

About the Author

Woody Holton is assistant professor of American history at the University of Richmond.
For more information about Woody Holton, visit the Author Page.


"[A] fine new book. . . . Where Holton moves beyond his predecessors is the large and colorful cast of characters that he includes in this story." —James H. Merrell, H-Net

"The Revolution in Virginia is at last explained. The great menaces that threatened the Virginia gentry and that gave force to their revolutionary rhetoric have been effectively documented for the first time. Woody Holton shows most persuasively that armed Indians, rebellious enslaved workers, and democratically active smallholders were just as much active agents of the Revolution as Lord North and Patrick Henry." —Rhys Isaac, La Trobe University

"In this tour de force, Woody Holton takes on a powerful image: (white) Virginians moving together into independence, united behind a patriot leader class. He shows instead how Virginians of all sorts confronted a shared crisis from their own points of view, how all of them influenced the outcome, and how living through that crisis changed them all." —Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University

"[Holton's] insights into the interplay among class, race, and ideology produce a complex and persuasive account of Virginia's path to revolution. The strength of Holton's book lies in its careful delineation of the regional issues propelling the Chesapeake into revolution and in his insistence that Indians, slaves, and small farmers played roles as significant as the planter elite and British policy-makers in making that revolution. . . . A really well-written book, with vivid descriptive details and clearly presented analysis." —Carol Berkin, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY