There are few periods of U.S. history that are as vigorously debated, as emotionally and civically charged as the American Revolution. And for good reason: How Americans interpret that period — its heroes, its villains, its legacy — shapes how we understand our social foundations, our national identity, our shared political project.
Woody Holton is a historian at the University of South Carolina, a leading scholar of America’s founding and the author of numerous books on the period, including, most recently, “Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution.”
Holton’s work presents a fundamental challenge to the version of the American Revolution that most of us were taught in grade school. In his telling, America’s “founding fathers” were far less central to the country’s founding than we imagine. Class conflict was just as important a cause of the Revolution as aspirational ideals, if not more. And the way Holton sees things, the American Constitution was a fundamentally capitalist document designed to rein in democracy, not expand it.
But Holton’s work shouldn’t be understood solely as a revisionist account of a particular era in history. It also provides a unique lens for rethinking some of the defining features of our present — the disconnect between the kinds of policies that democratic majorities support and what our systems of government enable, the fervor to which we cling to national heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the enduring challenges of governing a fractious, deeply divided society, the complex relationship between material interests and ideology and much more.
This episode is guest-hosted by Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist whose work focuses on the intersection of politics and history. Before joining The Times in 2019, he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. You can read his work here and follow him on Twitter @jbouie. (Learn more about the other guest hosts during Ezra’s parental leave here.)
(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.