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South Carolina Honors College

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‘Teaching what history is’

When Woody Holton’s acclaimed “Abigail Adams: A Life” was released in 2009, the publicity was as surprising as the facts he uncovered.

“I did interviews with local NPR stations and The New York Times and hot shot outlets, and this high school sophomore asked me the best questions I got on that book,” says Holton, McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He also is the 2022 SCHC Professor of the Year, a South Carolina Honors College award given by members of its senior class.

Who nominated him? Riley Sutherland, that high school sophomore with the exceptional questions.

“She was interested in what property married women could own,” Holton said. “The short answer is none – in America and England. But it’s more complicated than that.”

What isn’t complicated are the benefits of a successful student-professor partnership. Holton recruited Sutherland, of Missouri, to the SCHC, where she flourished as a BARSC major in seven of his courses.

She’s still at Carolina, working on her master’s degree in history – and taking her eighth course with her mentor. He directed her senior thesis, guided her first peer-reviewed paper and prepared her for a conference presentation.

“It is hard for me to emphasize how greatly Woody Holton has changed my life,” Sutherland says, recalling her astonishment that he responded to her email in high school. “Although he was busy with his own research, teaching and personal commitments, he somehow found the time to offer research and professional advice, read my work, recommend articles, and encourage me to apply to the Honors College.”

What Holton got was also valuable. His 2021 book, “Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution,” includes 2,000 citations – all checked by Sutherland. “I’ve never had a student like that,” he says.

Holton spent 15 years researching and writing “Liberty Is Sweet,” and says Sutherland was his coauthor the 15th year. “You can always find mistakes if you’ve got it in for the author, but nobody has, and that’s because of Riley.”

Riley also created a first-of-a-kind population table, culled from 29 sources, that includes figures for Black, Native American and white people living around 1776 in the 38 North American colonies east of the Mississippi. Holton points out that Britain had 26 colonies in North America and the Caribbean, something many Americans don’t know, having been brought up on the 13 colonies that declared independence in 1776.

Indeed, Holton is known for his focus on those whose lives and actions haven’t been seriously examined. For “Liberty Is Sweet,” he researched more than 1,000 eyewitness records so he could include perspectives from Native and African Americans, religious dissenters, women and enslaved workers. In fact, the book’s cover depicts a woman who donned male clothing to waylay two British troopers and divert their dispatches to American Gen. Nathanael Greene.

“What has sustained me as an American historian is every single topic you find starts out simple and gets more and more complex,” he says, adding that “getting interested in things” is his biggest talent. For instance, he checks geography, finances and weather, pondering their roles in history as much as the politics of the time.

“It is like being a kid in a candy store,” he says. “There are so many fun projects that beckon to you. I’m 63 and feel like I have the enthusiasm of a 33-year-old.”   

A native of Virginia, Holton comes with strong Old Dominion roots. His father, Linwood Holton, was Virginia’s 61st governor; his sister, Anne, serves on Virginia’s Board of Education. She is married to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a former governor of that state.

Holton’s first career as an environmental activist was only partially fulfilling. Working as a professor – he earned his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1990 – satisfies his need for “contemplative hide-in-the-library” research work. Teaching allows him to be social.

His curiosity-driven approach to history invites students to think critically and uncover fresh insights. It’s not unusual for students to say at the end of a semester that they thought they disliked history but learned they didn’t.

“Those high school teachers are given this list of concepts to teach by June. There are teachers who find ways to make that history interesting. I wouldn’t be one of them,” he said. “What we’re doing at the college level is teaching what history is. You’re a detective sorting through the evidence, and an inventor, trying to make something new instead of rehashing what we already know. Say something no one has said before.” 

He encourages his students to look for “contrasting twins” in their research and writing. This method entails examining two topics or documents that seem similar but prove to be different on closer study. One student compared preachers during the American Revolution. He found that those who supported it quoted from the Old Testament, preaching that the Patriots were “a new version of God’s people,” Holton said. “It was like ‘God’s on our side; he’s on our team.’”

Studying history is critical for today’s American, he says, but not for content.

“I don’t think it’s important to know if Franklin Pierce was president before or after Chester Arthur,” he says. “Reading history helps you get better at reading news, and that can help people get out of their silos, or camps, and teach people to access evidence rather than accept authority. Especially in a democracy when the whole thing depends on us, we should base our thoughts on evidence. It will help us be better thinkers and less likely to have a civil war.”

Holton’s current book project focuses on diseases during the American Revolution. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Sutherland is helping him.

“Dr. Holton taught me to see the historian as a storyteller and an activist – a lesson that continues to guide my professional goals,” she says. “Hopefully I can eventually provide students with the same enthusiasm and support he brings to the classroom every day.”

Holton has his own mission. “As a teacher, I want to help students read critically enough to see through demagogues stirring up their prejudices to get their votes or money. I want them to see the complexity of issues enough to see both sides.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.