Book Review: Before the Revolution

Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). Pp. 502.

Image            Many volumes have been written attempting to concisely and properly synthesize years of early American research and publications into a single readable volume.  As a prominent Early Americanist with a sympathetic trend towards Native Americans, Daniel Richter joined the scholars that came before him with his newest publication, Before the Revolution.  Through his work Richter lays a path, peeling back the cultural layers of Progenitors, Conquistadores, Traders, Planters, Imperialists, and Atlanteans to demonstrate how each layer built upon each other, interacting together to create the history that is known and taught today.  He analyzes the relationships between Natives and Europeans, as well as Europeans amongst themselves across the time span of pre-contact to the Seven Years War, through agricultural, economic/trade, and religious interactions leading to positive or negative implications.  Each section flows in a chronological order, with minor overlap and revisiting of certain topics across chapters.

The Progenitors section lays the foundation for the book, giving a broad history of medieval Europe and North America through a little ice age and into a thawing.  This section argues that the power struggles in the medieval continents set up the meeting tone and tensions of the populations in the sixteenth century after a short ice age.  Much of this power came from the agricultural and land conquests.  Civilizations on both continents depended upon a type of feudal society, with the Natives paying homage and food supplies to a chief or spiritual leader and the Europeans under the power of a Lord and King.  Most impressive is the detailed dedication specifically to the Native Americans in a greater length than many high school and undergraduate textbooks typically afford.

After the “Little Ice Age,” the intense desire to explore and conquer permeated throughout the European continent.  The power built in the Progenitors age transitioned into the Conquistadores age.  Conquistadors had lofty dreams of ruling over grateful Natives worshipping their new Lords.  Richter dispels the myths of the conquistadors solely searching for spices or to prove that the world is round or flat.  Instead, these warriors from France, England and Spain sailed to find land to acquire, either by force or coercion, wealth to send back to their homeland, and people to convert to their religion. The race was on for the varying Protestant denominations from England and France and the Catholics from Spain to create posts and colonies trying to convert the Natives to boost their numbers and maintain a stronger foothold in the new continent.

Religious views aside, once posts or colonies had been established, the Natives and Europeans discovered the benefits they could reap from each other through trade despite their cultural differences concerning money and monetary value.  However, through this trade, greed rampaged throughout each civilization creating tension and warfare between the nations.  Native tribes created alliances in order to save themselves from other larger and stronger tribes who preyed on the weak who did not trade for weapons.  Many tribes lost members not through warfare over greed of land or commodities, but through disease spread via contact with the Europeans.  As much as 90-95% of the Native populations were wiped out from diseases alone.

As the Europeans firmly settled themselves in their new land, a new threat to the Natives survival as they knew it and to order in the “new world” emerged after the Pequot War: the white planter.  The Planters section highlights the beginning of a stratified society via land wealth, similar to the feudal societies on the European continent.  With the religious and political dissent in England, many frustrated or repressed people, such as the Puritan community, viewed the colonies as a place of freedom and a new beginning to implement their ideas of how to create a perfect society.  With so many different groups setting out to the colonies to start new lives, the turmoil simply followed them from one continent to another.

While the colonies struggled and then found their stride on the North American continent, the European homelands were facing political and religious upheaval.  In the 1660s, monarchs in England and then France took firm control of their countries, reigning in their feudal lords and subordinates, including the Planters in North America who had created their own elite status.  Likewise, life was not quiet in the colonies.  Nathaniel Bacon led “Bacon’s Rebellion” in a violent political demonstration against these elite and the Natives fought against their European conquistadors in four separate conflicts, including the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and King Philip’s War.  The Dutch, on the other hand, rose in their popularity with the Native American traders creating a more stiff competition between the colonies for the Native trade goods.  However, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 signaled the weakening of the imperialist hold on the colonies.

After the Glorious Revolution, the North American British colonies began to mirror the lifestyles and look of major English cities.  These people that Richter has deemed the Atlanteans mastered trade, shipping, and printing crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  Trade and shipping grew to include the increased shipment of slaves from Africa.  Indentured servants lost favor as an expensive resources, whereas the African slaves were treated as less than human.

For such a large undertaking, Before the Revolution has numerous positive points.  First, Richter does not shy away from analyzing the motivations and results of the greed from both the Native Americans and the invading Europeans in trade and conquest of land and people.  The in-depth analysis and  not just fact listing dispels many common myths currently taught in high school history classrooms, such as in the case of Columbus.  Such analysis also highlights some of the historical arguments regarding certain events and documents usually not questioned in a classroom, such as John Winthrop’s demands.  Further, the maps positioned directly with the correlating text are helpful for comprehension of complicated sailing routes and township locations especially for new students to the subject matter.

However, for all of the positives, the survey also lacks vital information.  The slave trade is mentioned in several chapters across the book and especially in the Atlantean section; however, more in depth analysis of the shift from indentured servants and captured slaves from the various wars would have provided for a deeper understanding of the economic shift African slavery brought the colonies.  Likewise, information on the Caribbean and La Florida is scarce, with small pieces mentioned when it directly correlates with an event on the mainland, such as short paragraphs on the West Indies, Cuba, and sugar plantations.  Instead, the focus of the second half of the book is mostly on the English, their history and settlements, with the exception of Pennsylvania, the only true colony open to any religious sect.  Although, in such a broad survey it is next to impossible to include all information that could be considered important.

Despite its shortcomings, Richter’s work sways the scholarly conversation into a slightly different direction, giving richer detail in less glamorous favor of the Europeans while demonstrating the continual interconnected history of the world with strong religious, economic, and agricultural themes.  Utilizing numerous secondary sources and extensive research, Richter’s survey will be appreciated by scholars, undergraduate and graduate students alike, as well as a general audience with an intense special interest in pre-revolutionary history.

For more information on the author, Daniel Richter, please click here.

To purchase Before the Revolution, please click here.