Holton's Rebellion 

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Virginia first lady Anne Holton has a famous husband, Gov. Tim Kaine, a famous father, former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, and an increasingly famous brother.

But Abner Linwood "Woody" Holton III did not join the family business. Instead, he railed against it. He's spent the bulk of his academic career putting some of the most influential figureheads in American history back in their place.

"We all laugh a little bit," Anne Holton says. "[Thomas] Jefferson is dad's great hero and Woody has spent a lot of his career debunking the importance of Jefferson and his colleagues."

Now Woody Holton, 48, teaches history at the University of Richmond. His latest book, "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution," focuses on how poor farmers and state governments demanded the citizen protections that became the Bill of Rights and the heart of the real freedoms missing from the Constitution.

The book has raked in honors since its publication last year and was named a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in October. And last week the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced a cash prize to Holton to support research for his next book, a biography of Abigail Adams.

"My focus on ordinary people helps me justify the fact that I didn't go into politics," Holton says, though he admits one reason he didn't was that he knew he couldn't do it as well as his father.

The goal of his research has been to elevate the contributions of everyone else -- slaves, Indians, poor farmers, women. Abigail, not John.

Meanwhile, David McCullough, another decorated historian of early America, has turned his book "John Adams" into an HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks. The film was shot around Richmond and Colonial Williamsburg and recently had a red-carpet premiere at the Byrd Theatre.

Holton says he likes McCullough personally, but doesn't think much of his book. He says people who've read Adams' biographies before won't find anything new in this latest re-telling. It belongs to a literary genre he calls "Father's Day" books, which "harm our civic culture."

"The Father's Day books tell us that's the way we're going to be saved — that the Duke's going to show up in time," he says. In Holton's view, "the Duke is us."

In a way, his research is academic self-defense. He's arguing that it's not just great governors, but sons of great governors — "and sons of bitches!" he insists — who make important contributions.

As for the pressure to "do something political," Anne Holton says, "I think it was a little harder on my brothers, and I wonder about it with my kids." She served as a Richmond juvenile court judge before stepping down when her husband took office.

If Woody Holton grew up under the public expectation that he would follow in his father's footsteps, he did nothing to dispel the rumor. The family moved into the executive mansion in 1970. Holton was 10 and displayed the one characteristic indispensable for successful politicians: a knack for fundraising.

There was a fountain in Capitol Square in front of the mansion. Holton seeded it with coins so tourists passing by would throw their change in, too. Woody quietly collected it for himself. When he finally got caught, Anne recalls their parents asking Woody to give the money to charity. Woody remembers the cash going to a candy bar wholesaler in Shockoe Bottom.

In college at the University of Virginia, he studied English and wrote for the Cavalier Daily. His sister recalls everyone thinking he might go into journalism. Instead he got his doctorate in history from Duke University and started a grassroots door-knocking outfit called Clean Up Congress.

Sitting in a miniature armchair next to a plastic toy grill in his Ginter Park home, Holton says during even-numbered years he would pick a race in an interesting part of the country, find the candidate whose environmental record was the worst and round up a heap of college students to go door-to-door spreading the bad news to citizens.

Perhaps the height of Holton's ingenuity came during the 1994 Senate race in Virginia, when Chuck Robb defeated Oliver North. Holton printed up "Oliver North's Pack of Lies" — decks of playing cards in which each card debunked a North claim on topics ranging from the Iran-Contra affair to the manner of his dog's death (cancer, not poison).

After working even-numbered election years and re-working his thesis in the off years, Woody published his first book, "Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia," and took a teaching job before landing back in Richmond in 1999.

He met his wife, Gretchen Schoel, at a dinner party. He says he fell for her after learning her thesis topic: an inquiry into how the Internet was developing and impacting the way musicians communicated with each other. Two of the four chapters examined the interactions between a Japanese blues band and one in Mississippi trying to jam together via video conference.

She's lean with tomboy good looks that suggest she could do an equally convincing job of working on a farm or fronting an alt-country band. In her native Mississippi drawl, she says that her husband-to-be managed to work in the fact that his father was a former governor on the first date. "I've always tried to not have it be important to me," she says — "and you can quote me on that."

They aren't exactly the traditional couple.

Now a blissed-out father himself with a 22-month-old daughter, Holton's back to the business of demystifying the Founding Fathers and their political progeny.

"The real power is outside of Washington, D.C.," he says, "in the form of money, or once in a while the grassroots gets it together."

He hopes his work examines the balance of those real powers.

"The prevailing winds now [say] politicians have power," he says. "Blame the historians who tell you that [Abraham] Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, when W.E.B. Du Bois argues, I think convincingly, that it was the slaves who transferred their labor from South to North who forced him to."

As for his own famous father and brother-in-law, they're exempt from Holton's criticism. "Dad got people thinking about segregation, mental health, etc.," he writes in an e-mail. "Tim has gotten them thinking about pre-K, the death penalty, etc. … I don't think praising Dad's legacy is just filial piety; if it is he has a whole lot of kids."

What if Holton's perspective on history wins? What if, 10 years from now, his daughter, Beverly, hops on the bus and heads for the public school named after Uncle Tim, desegregated with help from her grandfather, then sits through a third-period history class that teaches a curriculum with a diminished role for the Founding Fathers? Is that what Woody Holton wants?

Populist is one word to describe him, but contrary is another.

"It's definitely possible for me to imagine things swinging too far the other way," he says, "and then I would be the one saying, 'Hey, don't forget the dead white guys.'"

For now there's not too much danger of that. These days baby Beverly Holton starts her days waving from her daddy's arms at the yellow school bus that rolls by their house at 7:15 a.m. History awaits. S

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