Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts

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Overview

America began, we are often told, with the Founding Fathers, the men who waged a revolution and created a unique place called the United States. We may acknowledge the early Jamestown and Puritan colonists and mourn the dispossession of Native Americans, but we rarely grapple with the complexity of the nation’s pre-revolutionary past. In this pathbreaking revision, Daniel Richter shows that the United States has a much deeper history than is apparent—that far from beginning with a clean slate, it is a nation with multiple pasts that stretch back as far as the Middle Ages, pasts whose legacies continue to shape the present.

Exploring a vast range of original sources, Before the Revolution spans more than seven centuries and ranges across North America, Europe, and Africa. Richter recovers the lives of a stunning array of peoples—Indians, Spaniards, French, Dutch, Africans, English—as they struggled with one another and with their own people for control of land and resources. Their struggles occurred in a global context and built upon the remains of what came before. Gradually and unpredictably, distinctive patterns of North American culture took shape on a continent where no one yet imagined there would be nations called the United States, Canada, or Mexico.

By seeing these trajectories on their own dynamic terms, rather than merely as a prelude to independence, Richter’s epic vision reveals the deepest origins of American history.

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Editorial Reviews

The Wall Street Journal
An elegantly written attempt to see colonial America from the indigenous perspective...In Richter's grand system, the continent's history comprises successive waves of adventurers, one atop another. Although the American Revolution "submerged these earlier strata," he argues that they nonetheless "remained beneath the surface to mold the nation's current contours." Walking atop the topmost strata, in other words, are thee and me, the terrain around us shaped by those who came first. The approach is bold, original and insightful...[A] masterly account...Before the Revolution is a book that by its very boldness invites intelligent argument. Every few decades, historians develop a new way of looking at the past. I am not talking about "revisionism" but unifying conceptual schemes, the sort of mental framework that Frederick Jackson Turner created in his argument for the importance of the frontier to our history or that Bernard Bailyn established in his studies of the American Revolution's ideological origins. Historians debated Turner for a long time and continue to debate Bailyn. I wouldn't be surprised if they were arguing with Richter a decade from today.
— Charles C. Mann
Wall Street Journal
The most important history books make us rethink things we think we know. In Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts, Daniel Richter shows us a land built by successive waves of adventurers, immigrants and merchants, one atop the other. He insists on the primacy of human action in history--something not always popular in academia today.
Choice
[An] unusual and useful synthesis of North American history between 1000 and 1763.
— D. R. Mandell
Times Literary Supplement
The core of the work is a vivid, well-paced, stimulatingly opinionated and provocatively selective history of colonial Anglo-America...[A] spirited and engaging history of British North America...Richter's trenchant language excites enthusiasm. He evokes picturesque episodes engagingly--the agonies of Roanoke, the role of European goods in Powhatan power structures, the peripeties of indentured servants, the intolerance of Protestant fanatics, the poverty of seventeenth-century colonial home life, and the struggles of proprietors, rebels and crowns.
— Felipe Fernández-Armesto
New York Review of Books
Ultimately, [Richter's] history is a history of violence, of violence perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans, by Native Americans against Europeans, and by both peoples against their own kith and kin. It is a dark and brutal story, although one in which the Native Americans are shown as for long holding their own, manipulating Europeans as trading partners and playing off one set of Europeans against another until the overwhelming British victory of 1763 no longer made this possible. There is precious little uplift here, and little sense of the more constructive characteristics of the brave new world that was rising amid the wreckage of the old. But, in patiently uncovering the layers beneath the rubble, Richter forcefully brings home to us that the American past belongs to many peoples, and that none should be forgotten.
— J. H. Elliott
marginalrevolution.com
So far it is one of my two or three favorite non-fiction titles of the year...Definitely recommended.
— Tyler Cowen
Library Journal
In Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Richter (American history, Univ. of Pennsylvania) offers a nuanced study of the United States from the arrival of Europeans to the Jacksonian era through the prism of its Native American inhabitants; here, as in his former book, he uses the American Revolution as a demarcation point. He demonstrates that U.S. history did not begin with the American Revolution, convincingly arguing that the ideas that manifested themselves in the mid-18th century with the rebellious colonists had their origins in such varied locales as the Mississippian Southeast and Europe of the Middle Ages. Conflicting Christian religious ideas sprouted from Catholic conquistadors and multiple groups of Protestants. Influences came not only from Europeans but Native Americans and Africans. Although many of these peoples were subjugated and in some cases exterminated over time, Richter shows that they still made a lasting contribution to the story of what would eventually become the United States. VERDICT Any history written by this preeminent historian is an essential read for everyone interested in the deeper history of the United States.—John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY
Kirkus Reviews

Readers will find little ancient history in this deceptively titled work, but rather a lucid, thought-provoking history of North America to the 1760s.

Dreams of the conquistadores' riches influenced British, French and Dutch explorers after 1492, but Richter (Early American Studies/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, 2001, etc.) emphasizes that imperialism, trade and religious proselytism made an equally powerful contribution. For 150 years after Columbus, European arrivals in North America paid little attention to farming (and often starved as a result) but found trading profitable. The author downplays the traditional picture of early settlers driving hapless Indians off their lands. Exchanging a beaver skin for knives or guns seemed like taking candy from a baby to Native Americans. Obsessed with trading, many migrated toward, not away, from white settlements, fighting to expel tribes in direct contact with traders. Matters changed after 1700 with the Dutch out of the picture and France marginalized; Britain dominated seaborne commerce, commodity prices rose, African slaves poured in and Parliament began an intense, but unsuccessful, effort to convert the fractious colonies into a dependable revenue stream. Once land ownership—a mystery to Native Americans—and agriculture became the dominant source of profit, most Americans wanted Indians out of the way. Richter emphasizes that Europeans often treated each other as nastily as they treated other cultures.

An astute, thoroughly enjoyable mixture of political, economic and social history that culminates in a turbulent 18th-century North America whose people did not consider themselves on the verge of revolution but knew that things were not right.

marginalrevolution.com

So far it is one of my two or three favorite non-fiction titles of the year...Definitely recommended.
— Tyler Cowen

New York Review of Books

Ultimately, [Richter's] history is a history of violence, of violence perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans, by Native Americans against Europeans, and by both peoples against their own kith and kin. It is a dark and brutal story, although one in which the Native Americans are shown as for long holding their own, manipulating Europeans as trading partners and playing off one set of Europeans against another until the overwhelming British victory of 1763 no longer made this possible. There is precious little uplift here, and little sense of the more constructive characteristics of the brave new world that was rising amid the wreckage of the old. But, in patiently uncovering the layers beneath the rubble, Richter forcefully brings home to us that the American past belongs to many peoples, and that none should be forgotten.
— J. H. Elliott

Times Literary Supplement

The core of the work is a vivid, well-paced, stimulatingly opinionated and provocatively selective history of colonial Anglo-America...[A] spirited and engaging history of British North America...Richter's trenchant language excites enthusiasm. He evokes picturesque episodes engagingly—the agonies of Roanoke, the role of European goods in Powhatan power structures, the peripeties of indentured servants, the intolerance of Protestant fanatics, the poverty of seventeenth-century colonial home life, and the struggles of proprietors, rebels and crowns.
— Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Wall Street Journal
The most important history books make us rethink things we think we know. In Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts, Daniel Richter shows us a land built by successive waves of adventurers, immigrants and merchants, one atop the other. He insists on the primacy of human action in history--something not always popular in academia today.
Choice

[An] unusual and useful synthesis of North American history between 1000 and 1763.
— D. R. Mandell

Gary Nash
Once every quarter-century or so, a book of great sweep and synthetic sophistication bursts onto the scene to recast our understanding of early American history. This masterful study, with its startling comparisons of European patterns of conquest, colonization, chaos, and cultural convergence, is a must-read.
Fred Anderson
With breathtaking sweep and profound learning, Daniel K. Richter synthesizes the histories of Europe, North America, and the Atlantic world from the late Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century -- and he does it, in ways that no previous writer has managed, without carving his story into discontinuous regional narratives or succumbing to the teleology of the American Revolution. This book is nothing less than a masterpiece.
Karen O. Kupperman
By placing early American history fully in its Atlantic contexts and seeing all participants as historical agents, Before the Revolution allows us to understand the genuine parallels as well as the contrasts in the experience of Americans through their layered pasts.
marginalrevolution.com - Tyler Cowen
So far it is one of my two or three favorite non-fiction titles of the year...Definitely recommended.
Wall Street Journal - Charles C. Mann
An elegantly written attempt to see colonial America from the indigenous perspective...In Richter's grand system, the continent's history comprises successive waves of adventurers, one atop another. Although the American Revolution "submerged these earlier strata," he argues that they nonetheless "remained beneath the surface to mold the nation's current contours." Walking atop the topmost strata, in other words, are thee and me, the terrain around us shaped by those who came first. The approach is bold, original and insightful...[A] masterly account...Before the Revolution is a book that by its very boldness invites intelligent argument. Every few decades, historians develop a new way of looking at the past. I am not talking about "revisionism" but unifying conceptual schemes, the sort of mental framework that Frederick Jackson Turner created in his argument for the importance of the frontier to our history or that Bernard Bailyn established in his studies of the American Revolution's ideological origins. Historians debated Turner for a long time and continue to debate Bailyn. I wouldn't be surprised if they were arguing with Richter a decade from today.
New York Review of Books - J. H. Elliott
Ultimately, [Richter's] history is a history of violence, of violence perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans, by Native Americans against Europeans, and by both peoples against their own kith and kin. It is a dark and brutal story, although one in which the Native Americans are shown as for long holding their own, manipulating Europeans as trading partners and playing off one set of Europeans against another until the overwhelming British victory of 1763 no longer made this possible. There is precious little uplift here, and little sense of the more constructive characteristics of the brave new world that was rising amid the wreckage of the old. But, in patiently uncovering the layers beneath the rubble, Richter forcefully brings home to us that the American past belongs to many peoples, and that none should be forgotten.
Times Literary Supplement - Felipe Fernández-Armesto
The core of the work is a vivid, well-paced, stimulatingly opinionated and provocatively selective history of colonial Anglo-America...[A] spirited and engaging history of British North America...Richter's trenchant language excites enthusiasm. He evokes picturesque episodes engagingly--the agonies of Roanoke, the role of European goods in Powhatan power structures, the peripeties of indentured servants, the intolerance of Protestant fanatics, the poverty of seventeenth-century colonial home life, and the struggles of proprietors, rebels and crowns.
Choice - D. R. Mandell
[An] unusual and useful synthesis of North American history between 1000 and 1763.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055803
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/25/2011
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 832,180
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel K. Richter is Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History and the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the award-winning Facing East from Indian Country (Harvard).

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Layered Pasts 3

Progenitors

1 Legacies of Power from Medieval North America 11

2 Legacies of Conquest from Medieval Europe 37

Conquistadores

3 Crusades of the Christ-Bearers to the Americas 67

4 Crusades of the Protestants to New Worlds 88

Traders

5 Native Americans and the Power of Trade 121

6 Epidemics, War, and the Remapping of a Continent 143

Planters

7 Searching for Order in New and Old England 171

8 Planting Patriarchy in New England and Virginia 187

9 Dutch, French, Spanish, and English Counterpoints 212

Imperialists

10 Monarchical Power Reborn 241

11 Planters Besieged 265

12 Revolution, War, and a New Transatlantic Order 295

Atlanteans

13 Producing and Consuming in an Atlantic Empire 327

14 People in Motion, Enslaved and Free 346

15 Contending for a Continent 369

16 Gloomy and Dark Days 388

Epilogue: Present Pasts 417

Notes 425

Further Reading 450

Credits 462

Acknowledgments 470

Index 473

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2011

    No recommendation. See below.

    Sorry but it was purchased as a Christmas present and I probably won't get the opportunity to read it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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