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Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 Paperback – January 27, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0674006676 ISBN-10: 0674006674

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Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 + Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia) + The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History & Culture)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 27, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674006674
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674006676
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 6.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,650 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Historians have often argued that the colonies became "Europeanized" in the century before the American Revolution, but in his latest book, Yale historian Butler (Awash in a Sea of Faith) contends that we need to pay close attention to this slice of early American history. The decades in between the Puritan-dominated 17th century and the market-revolutionizing early 19th century were a formative period, he suggests, during which a distinctly "American" societyAand, as Butler would have it, the first "modern" societyAdeveloped. It was a culture "simultaneously aggressive and willful, materialistic as well as idealistic, driven toward authority and mastery." Butler examines the Americanizing process in the realms of politics, economics, religion and material culture. In the first chapter, "Peoples," Butler reminds readers that late colonial society was polyglot and diverseAincluding Germans, French, Scots, Ibo, Ashanti, Yoruba, Catawba and Leni-Lenape. The rest of the book is marked by Butler's characteristic innovation. Regarding politics, for instance, he suggests that Americans were no longer harmoniously self-governing through the town meeting; it was the colony itself, rather than the local microcosm, that was the center of political life. Likewise, distinctly American decorative arts began to develop during these years: after 1680, the relatively simple public buildings of the 17th century were "replaced by far larger, more elaborate facilities." Butler's original analysis is important reading on 18th-century America; he shows that the colonies were developing distinct ways of spending, building, praying, decorating and politicking even thenAa cultural revolution that anticipated the political revolution that was to follow. B&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


In a thoughtful, erudite survey of colonial history, Butler traces the formation of many of America's modern social characteristics in the crucible of pre-Revolutionary society...Americans today think of the colonial period, if at all, as a time remote from modern America, in which society was unimaginably different from ours. Butler argues persuasively that America during the late colonial period (1680-1776) rapidly developed a variegated culture that displayed distinctive traits of modern America, among them vigorous religious pluralism, bewildering ethnic diversity, tremendous inequalities of wealth, and a materialistic society with pervasively commercial values...A sweeping, well-researched analysis of the transformative changes wrought by immigration, war, and cultural change in colonial America. (Kirkus Reviews)

We must congratulate Butler for [bringing] under control (a] profusion of scholarship and [making] sense of it in fewer than 250 pages. His book is a tour de force ... Compelling and readable. (Gordon S. Wood New Republic)

The decades in between the Puritan-dominated 17th century and the market-revolutionizing early 19th century were a formative period, [Butler] suggests, during which a distinctly 'American' society--and, as Butler would have it, the first 'modern' society--developed...Butler's original analysis is important reading on 18th-century America; he shows that the colonies were developing distinct ways of spending, building, praying, decorating and politicking even then--a cultural revolution that anticipated the political revolution that was to follow. (Publishers Weekly)

A terrific book, filled with human interest and the kind of detail that makes abstractions meaningful. A commendable weaving together of themes and materials from political history, social history, and cultural history. Butler offers us a firm foundation for further exploration. (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University)

An engrossing, important book. It promises to provoke and inspire. Jon Butler's Becoming America is an ambitious examination of Britain's mainland North American colonies between 1680 and 1770. The scope of the book is really quite broad; it covers nearly a century of development across thirteen widely varying colonies, and considers six formidably large aspects of early American life: migration and settlement, politics, economics, religion, the material world, and the origins of the Revolution. Butler's book revolves around, and advances, a coherent, critical thesis: that 'the vast social, economic, political, and cultural changes' of this period 'created a distinctively 'American' society.' The surprise of the book is that this society was modern; indeed, as Butler claims, it was the world's 'first modern society.' The world Butler portrays in his often vivid, and always highly readable prose is an America of fantastic diversity, an America of many languages, different customs, and dissenting practices of piety. Butler's Becoming America is a world of bustling politics and economic revolutions. (Jill Lepore, Boston University)

In yet another provocative challenge to the conventional wisdom, Jon Butler argues for the 'modernity' of eighteenth-century America. He provides a lively and readable account of how transatlantic commerce, participatory politics, religious pluralism, and ethnic and racial diversity put colonials on the path to 'becoming Americans' during the decades before the Revolution. (Christine Heyrman, author of Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt)

In Becoming America, Jon Butler examines the less examined period of American colonial history from 1680 to 1770 to argue that distinctive traits of modern America were already in place…The book makes a strong case for the early modernity of American society, helps to delineate the evolution of American identity, and serves as a good overview for the period. (Joel Hodson American Studies International)

Writing in a deceptively simple style, Butler builds creatively on complex historiographical debates and masterfully synthesizes vast amounts of specialized research, both by himself and by others…Indeed, one of the book's great virtues is its accessibility, and both its exclusively American focus and its stress on concrete social processes contribute to the clarity and forcefulness of the account. By all reasonable measures, this is a highly successful synthesis that manages to be at once enjoyable and provocative. (Ruth H. Bloch William and Mary Quarterly)

Butler divides his approach to the period into well- studied categories before considering the implications for the Revolutionary era. His chapters on "Peoples," "Economy" and "Politics" provide a helpful synthesis of recent historiography without the tedious name dropping that characterizes so much historiographical literature…Butler will prompt us all to think more clearly about the structural relationships that evolved during these years. (John Ritchie Garrison The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography)

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on November 13, 2006
Format: Paperback
Jon Butler, well-known as a scholar of early American religion, broadens his area of concern in "Becoming America" to ask fundamental questions about the formation of American identity in the colonial era. In this book Butler traces a significant alteration in social, cultural, political, and economic perspectives in America between 1680 and 1770. He eschews discussion both of the early years of British America and the immediate origins of the American Revolution so common in historical texts in favor of this "middle period" which is usually passed over in traditional accounts. The result is a fascinating portrait of a people in flux, no longer dependent on the "mother country" but not yet independent. As he writes in the introduction: "The transformations occurring between 1680 and 1770 made the term `America' increasingly indelible. They made the direction of American history unmistakable, even if they did not make it inevitable" (p. 4).

Butler suggests that three major interpretive approaches have dominated colonial history, and in every case "Becoming America" is an attempt to move beyond them. First, he noted that historians have tended to concentrate on the story of the earliest British settlements in North America before 1650, especially Puritan New England and Virginia. In so doing, they gave short shrift to the middle colonies and the period after the first generation of the colonies and before the strife with England that led to revolution. Second, a younger generation of historians in the 1970s began to explore the history of the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, employing quantitative methods, emphasizing society and ethnicity, and analyzing the development of both unique political and economic institutions.
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29 of 38 people found the following review helpful By pnotley@hotmail.com on August 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Jon Butler's "Becoming America" offers a new perspective on revolution. Instead of arguing for the conservatism or the radicalism of the American revolution, Butler argues that there was a fundamental revolution in practices before 1776. In Butler's opinion the years 1680 to 1770 saw a revolutionary transformatiion in which the American colonies became modern in five major ways: ethnic diversity, modern market economies, modern participatory politics, modern consumerism and religious pluralism. (2) The relationship of this silent revolution to 1776 was very complex, but it could be said that "the American Revolution of 1763-1789 can rightly be called the first modern revolution, THE model for the French Revolution of 1789 and subseqently" onwards. (227)
In many ways this is a fine introduction to pre-1776 America. Butler is concise and his use of the secondary literature is very thorough. Problems, however, start with his chapter on ethnic diversity (8-49). For a start ethnic diversity is not a hallmark of modernity. The fact that more than 90% of Japan and Korea are of the same ethnic group does not make them less "modern" than India or Indonesia. Butler also underplays America's linguistic uniformity, where English among whites was overwhelming, in contrast to still Gaelic Ireland and still Welsh Wales. Actually the most modern thing about America's population was not its diversity but the rise of international migration, a process whose causes Butler says relatively little (22-23, 29). His discussuion of the African-American experience leads to another problem. His account of 18th century slavery (36-49), slave poverty (86-88, 136, 139-40) and slave religion (215-24) is based on the most thorough and recent research.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
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