2016-06-30
Becoming America
by Jon Butler
Harvard University Press, 320 pages

It's a truism that each generation writes history in its own image. Historians writing in the 1950s thought America had always been a land of abundance and complaceny; scholars in the 1960s saw a past fraught with struggle; historians in the 1970s wrote of psychological conflict. So perhaps it's not surprising that Jon Butler, in his broad-brush synthesis of eighteenth-century colonial history, argues that colonial America was pluralistic and multicultural, tolerant of religious diversity, encouraging to economic growth, oriented toward the market -- in short, a fully modern society, rather similar to ours today. All that's missing is the Dow Jones.

A usable past, surely, but an accurate one? There was more diversity in the colonies than our picturesque stereotypes admit. There was more to colonial religious life, for example, than Puritanism. Butler's treatment of Quakers, German Pietests, and other colonial Christians is a useful corrective.

But though Butler's book dispels some popular myths about the colonies, itis a distortion to treat colonial society as though it were fundamentally "modern," and therefore essentially similar to ours. Maybe farmers took their goods to market, but could they even have imagined agribusiness? At times, Butler's thesis is reminiscent of Daniel Boorstin, consensus historian par excellence. Like Boorstin, he argues that colonial development didn't translate into imitation of Europe; on the contrary, as the colonies grew, so did a distinctive American culture. Perhaps the greatest distinction between the two is that Butler sees slavery as an integral part of American modernity -- "an institution of exceptional power that exemplified modernity's capacity and inclination to control human lives" -- rather than a relic from an earlier era. Except for some interesting claims like this one, Becoming America is really just up-to-date consensus history, befitting an age as conservative as our own.



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