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Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts Hardcover – May 25, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


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. (Gary Nash, author of The Liberty Bell)

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. (Fred Anderson, author of The War That Made America)

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. (Karen O. Kupperman, author of The Jamestown Project)

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. (Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 2011-03-15)

[Richter] 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...Any history written by this preeminent historian is an essential read for everyone interested in the deeper history of the United States. (John Burch Library Journal 2011-04-01)

So far it is one of my two or three favorite non-fiction titles of the year...Definitely recommended. (Tyler Cowen marginalrevolution.com 2011-04-07)

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 2011-05-07)

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 New York Review of Books 2011-06-09)

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 Times Literary Supplement 2011-09-23)

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. (Wall Street Journal 2011-12-17)

[An] unusual and useful synthesis of North American history between 1000 and 1763. (D. R. Mandell Choice 2011-12-01)

About 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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1st edition (April 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674055802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674055803
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #602,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dan Richter teaches early American History at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he also directs the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. His first book, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, won the 1993 Frederick Jackson Turner Award, Organization of American Historians and the 1993 Ray Allen Billington Prize, Organization of American Historians, and was selected a 1994 Choice Outstanding Academic Book. His Facing East from Indian Country won the 2001-02 Louis Gottschalk Prize in Eighteenth-Century History and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Daniel Richter's "Before the Revolution" is among a handful of recent major histories of early America that compel a serious re-thinking of our political and economic origins - particularly in light of current voices in national and state politics. First, one must admire the extraordinary grasp of detail evident in this work. The book must be a summa of an entire lifetime of careful study. But more importantly, details in this work paint the larger movements of life throughout the settlement of this country. Richter's conceptual handle on the themes of America's early development are richly conveyed throughout every stage in this history. One looks to historians for far more than facts and Richter delivers in very compelling ways. The prose is lucid and gives a solid narrative sense without losing the reader among tangential episodes. The book gives yet more evidence of how profoundly early American culture and settlement events were shaped by religious and political trends in England and Europe. Richter captures the conflation of spiritual/religious motives with raw greed for land and power in ways that make a mockery of typical lay renderings of this time period. One's understanding of the sources for slavery of Native Americans, Irish and English down-and-outs,and then of Africans are exhaustively conveyed in this text. One cannot walk away feeling utterly freed from the lasting effects of this history.

Richter's work stands among several others of note for this time period. Fred Anderson's "The Crucible of War" is another richly detailed and comprehensive account of some of the same period.
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Format: Hardcover
The power and clarity with which Professor Richter writes are absolutely breathtaking. The author presents a richly nuanced picture of the dependence of developing societies and civilization upon such factors as climate, agriculture, and religion. Alas the darker side of humankind is also highlighted in its tendency toward criminal conduct (warfare, extortion, and slavery) along with the cynical manipulation of religious beliefs to defraud the more gullible, yet productive, members of the local population.

The author draws many parallels between North Americans and European developments during the Medieval Warm Period. While Europeans were building magnificent cathedrals, the indigenous Americans were busy constructing huge mounds for burials and other religious rituals. And on both continents, a pyramidal caste structure emerged to enrich and enthrone the most successful thugs and warlords. This is the true origin of all who claim royalty. Similarly, the origins of capitalism, and patriarchal entitlements are shown to be a consequence of English and European fiefdoms.

Professor Richter's wonderfully concise condensation of centuries of interaction between competing parties is both a blessing and a curse. Each chapter is filled with so many points worthy of contemplation that I was routinely frustrated by the pressure to continue on without pause. Thankfully, he provides a superb epilogue to sum up many of the points that might occur to the reader along the way. For instance, he points out that the Native Americans were by no means passive victims of European aggression, land theft, and racism. Indeed, they had become skilled in the process of playing one European super-power against the other, to increase their own power and dominate their traditional foes.
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Format: Hardcover
Prof. Richter's "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts" attempts an interpretive history of North America and European contact beginning in medieval history and ending with the French and Indian War (or Seven Years' War). The strengths of the book lie in its broad-scope narrative that encompasses not only English, but also French and Spanish colonization in North America, but, at least as important, Native American prehistory and history. The cohesiveness of the narrative is strong, as Richter manages to move for the most part chronologically, with few jumps forward or backward, while still maintaining wide geographic coverage. And he provides some very useful insights along the way, such as the fact that Protestant colonists likely felt that the British crown's policy of religious toleration was tyrannical.

His interpretive goals however do not seem fully achieved. His aim is to describe several eras of colonization and interaction thematically, and he labels them, successively, as those of Progenitors, Conquistadors, Traders, Planters, Imperialists, and Atlanteans; and he further attempts to demonstrate how each of the latter eras manifested the themes of those preceding it. So he is attempting an interpretation that is somewhat at odds with itself -- delineating separate eras in colonial history, but also arguing that the dominant themes of preceding eras were always manifest. Neither goal is completely achieved: Not every of his eras in colonial history seems so distinct, and the connections Richter purports to draw often come across as more his own personal view than truly evidence-based.
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