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Woody Holton Theory Analysis

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Published: Tue, 05 Sep 2017

Woody Holton is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Richmond in Virginia and is a member of the Richmond Research Institute. He has published three award-winning books: Abigail Adams (2009), a Bancroft Prize winner, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), a finalist for the National Book Award; and Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999) winner of the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Curti award for social history. In 2006, the OAH named Holton one of its Distinguished Lecturers.[1]

In his book, Unruly Americans, Holton endeavors to revive Beard’s arguments in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution that our Constitution was created to protect the interests of a small group of wealthy farmers and creditors over those of small farmers and debtors. However, Holton shifts the focus from the wealthy few to the ordinary people who opposed the concept of a strong centralized government. Holton sides with Beard that the principal purpose of our Founding Fathers was “not to safeguard civil liberties” but to protect their own financial interests. (xi) The author contends that the arguments and efforts of “ordinary farmers” who maintained that the post-Revolutionary recession could have been ended “without making the United States a less democratic country” that resulted from the Constitution. (17) We are indebted to these farmers for insisting the Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution.

Holton argues that these amendments “directly contradict the Framer’s antidemocratic intent.” (277) He goes on to state that besides initiating the Bill of Rights, the tax rebels “with no rebellions, there would have been less tax and debt relief legislation, and without relief, there would have been much less need for a powerful new national government.” (277) According to the author, few supporters of tax relief wanted to repudiate debts, but “in at least nine states” they suggested to discriminate, treating “the original recipients of bonds differently from those who had purchased them on the open market.” (55) The “rigorous tax and debt collection had prevented Americans from realizing their full potential as laborers.” (101) Holton shows that tax burdens for ordinary Americans were “three or four times higher than colonial levels” which made them question “whether they had been better off under British rule.” (29)

The author relies on newspapers, pamphlets, and political tracts to prove his thesis. He depicts the conflict between the debtors struggling to regain their economic footing after the Revolutionary War while Congress encourages the state governments to increasingly impose new taxes upon them. Holton describes the contributions of previously unknown individuals such as Herman Husband, a North Carolina farmer, and William Mathews, a Massachusetts tavern keeper. He also mentions Adonijah Mathews who owned a tavern in Virginia. Their inclusion allows him to go beyond “the leading Anti-Federalists.” (274)

Meanwhile, states struggled to compensate the bondholders who loaned them money, Congress battled to pay off the commutation certificates of former officers in the war, and debtors and creditors clashed over whether paper money should be used to satisfy outstanding taxes and debts. Holton argues that because state governments failed to maintain order and fulfil their obligations, reformers “decided to meld those thirteen sovereignties together and launch and empire of their own.” (3) He states, the “democrats” unconsciously initiated a powerful reactionary movement as bondholders and creditors attempted “to put the democratic genie back into the bottle.” (5)

According to Holton, James Madison and others accused that state representatives “had shown excessive indulgence to debtors and taxpayers. They had refused to force farmers to pay what they owed.” (8) The argument from the debtor side was that “thousands of other Americans contended that the remedy for the recession was not to press harder on taxpayers and debtors, but to ease up on them.” (100) Holton contends that the Framers of our Constitution saw disproportionate democracy as the root of tax leniency which obstructed bondholders and thwarted investment. Holton argues that “the need to reign in the states weighed far more heavily upon the convention than the motive that has received the most attention from later generations of Americans, strengthening the Confederation.” (182)

While this reviewer appreciates Holton’s arguments on behalf of the ordinary Americans, this book is very repetitive. Some points such as the perspective of farmers’ on democratic government and the influence of bondholders on the creation of the Constitution are stated multiple times. His mention his intent is to focus on individuals such as Adonijah Mathews, yet he tends to go off on a rant about our Founders such as James Madison. Mathews and Husband received but a few pages of reference in the index, but Madison has eighty-three pages listed under his name. This seems to flip Holton’s assertions that his book is about “ordinary Americans” rather than about the Founding Fathers.

Holton also impedes his own arguments when he states that “although bond speculators were among the Constitution’s most enthusiastic supporters…it is also clear that thousands of Americans…supported federal taxation not because they owned bonds-many did not-but for other, more public-spirited reasons.” (215) Holton further contends that “Some of the most avid supporters of the Constitution were not creditors but debtors.” (230) Therefore, his own arguments contradict Holton’s conclusions that the adoption of the Constitution was largely the result of class conflict in the fledgling nation between the haves and the have-nots.


[1] Simon and Schuster, “Woody Holton” http://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Woody-Holton/44139211



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