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Posted November 11, 2009
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In this gracefully written book, Jon Butler in Becoming America ¿traces the enormous social, economic, political, and cultural changes that created a distinctively modern and, ultimately, ¿American¿ society in Britain¿s mainland colonies between 1680 and 1770.¿ (2) With straightforward prose refreshingly free of jargon, Butler shows that the American colonies developed into surprisingly modern entities by the eve of the Revolution. In separate chapters, he details five major characteristics of American modernity in support of this claim: ethnic and national diversity; complex economies; ¿large-scale participatory politics¿; religious pluralism; and ¿the modern penchant for power, control, and authority¿ over both their environment and other human beings. This change from primitive 17th century outposts of Britain¿s colonial empire to ¿complex and variegated¿ (3) colonies by the mid 18th century is what Butler terms the ¿Revolution before 1776.¿ By 1770, America was anything but a homogeneous society in terms of its population, particularly when compared to Europe. Butler notes that Indians and Europeans ¿lived side by side¿ (15) in most rural areas of the colonies. Religious, economic and cultural strife forced many in Europe to immigrate to the British mainland colonies, while after 1680 the American colonies ¿became a haven for non-English Europeans.¿ (20) Butler points to a variety of newcomers¿Jews, Scots-Irish, French Huguenots, Germans and Swiss¿who settled all over America to make the New World a mix of ethnic groups, which ¿predicted the growing importance of ethnicity in America¿ which continues to the present. (25) Butler also details the ¿horrific suffering¿ of Africans, forced to America by the burgeoning slave trade at the end of the 17th century. Writing sensitively about the plight of these enslaved blacks, he also notes that their influx ¿recast the seventeenth-century colonies and [became] the American future.¿ (36) Not only was America¿s population diverse, so was its religious composition. ¿Colonial American religion,¿ Butler concludes, was ¿varied and rich between 1680s and the American Revolution.¿ (185) This ¿religious pluralism and vitality,¿ far more extensive than was characteristic of Europe, has been ¿identified as the very soul of modern American culture¿ he concludes. Butler also points to ministers like George Whitefield as being modern, in their celebrity status, individualism and ¿nondenominational, media-conscious[ness].¿ Butler points to the diverse and complex economies of the British colonies in America as evidence of their modernity, though he is careful not to ignore the growing poverty and inequality in New World.. Colonists ¿took command¿ of their commercial life and shaped it into a ¿notably autonomous economy,¿ (51) especially in their agricultural pursuits, in which farming became more commercial after the 1680s. This new emphasis on the market was accompanied by diversification. Similarly, Butler shows that native Americans too ¿became enmeshed in complex and powerful economic relationships¿ with Europeans in the colonies. (67) Merchants won ¿wealth and status¿ through expansion, extension and specialization,¿ (69) all of which demonstrate for Butler that colonial economics were modern and complex. Colonial politics, Butler concludes, were ¿so complex that they often baffled observers.¿ (90) Provincial politics, while not democratic, were popular and included that formation of ¿political groups that sometimes assumed almost modern, partylike appearances,¿ (96) such as the Quaker party which emerged in Pennsylvania in the 1740s. America after 1680 became less deferential and became a ¿more open, ultimately democratic nation.¿ (99) Butler also points to the maturation of provincial assemblies after 1680 and the expansion of their power to demonstrate an increasing modernity of colonial politics. In Becoming America, Jon Butler has convincingly depicted BritisWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.