Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts

Article excerpt

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts. By Daniel K. Richter. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of the University of Harvard, 2011, Pp. viii, 502. $35.00.)

In the epilogue of Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts, Daniel K. Richter artfully illustrates the significance of colonial history. The strange, brutal pre-1776 colonies, with their racial hatreds, state violence, labor exploitation, and religious intolerance, contained within them examples of evil, but also voices for good. Richter evokes examples that reveal, in this, they were not so unlike us. We moderns examine the seemingly foreign human lives of the past, and react with surprise that they are indeed like us; not precisely so, but enough to create humility for those who dare take a close look.

Before that memorable conclusion, Richter presents a bold reinterpretation of colonial America. He centers his narrative in the seventeenth century, much earlier than previous works, and strongly divides colonial from Revolutionary America, which previous scholars have connected to varying degrees. A geologic metaphor carries Richter's argument. He proposes that six different movements of people successively defined colonial American history. Like layers of sediment and rock, each new arrival obscured, but never completely eliminated, the legacies of those who came before.

These peoples began with medieval progenitors of both North America and Europe, whose reactions to their respective precontact crises shaped their descendants' responses. After contact, conquistadors (both Catholic and Protestant), traders (often French and Dutch), and planters (largely English "men of small means") josded for influence. Over time, the differing groups came under the control of imperialists, those Restoration-era English monarchs who ejected the Dutch from North America and sought to impose a feudal order over their domains. Only partially successful, imperialists gave way to Atlanteans, whose name invokes both the ocean that connected them to the Old World and the classical tale of the Titan who bore the world's weight on his shoulders. These eighteenth century colonists enjoyed new and more consumer goods, imported massive numbers of slaves, enjoyed a relative peace with their Indian neighbors, and jostled alongside waves of Germanic and Celtic emigrants. …

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