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Jon Butler, "Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776"

Jon Butler, "Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776"

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Published by Sarah Cavanaugh
A review of Jon Butler's book, which discusses the idea that America's core values and characteristics that we associate with the Revolutionary War and post-Revolution society had already been adapted and embraced well before 1776.
A review of Jon Butler's book, which discusses the idea that America's core values and characteristics that we associate with the Revolutionary War and post-Revolution society had already been adapted and embraced well before 1776.

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Published by: Sarah Cavanaugh on Jul 25, 2012
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09/21/2013

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In Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776, Jon Butler argues that aremarkable, yet overlooked, transformation took place in the American coloniesbetween 1680 and 1760. This transformation manifested itself in almost everyaspect of colonial life, and changed the socioeconomic makeup of America forever.This gradual revolution included an ethnic and racial diversity, an increasinglymodernized economy, a growing display of power that would form the foundation of the political system and reveal its
elf in the colonists’ material lives, and a display of 
religious pluralism that is not seen even today in some societies. Butler not onlygives an excellent summary of matters such as immigration and indigenous religion,but also gives credible and convincing reasoning that it was the middle years of thecolonial period that would define America
not the victories and defeats of therevolutionary war. In the years between 1680 and 1760, America had becomemodern (aside from technological advancements that would appear throughout the19
th
century.)In
Peoples
, the first chapter of the book, Butler explains the importance of the expanding population. This population enlargement resulted in a diverse ethnicand racial society. In 1650, the total population of the colonies was roughly 50,000.By 1700 it had reached over 250,000. In 1770, the population exceeded two million.Prior to 1680, the colonial population was primarily that of English settlers, whocomposed approximately 80-90% of immigrants. In the years that followed,however, there was a massive flux of immigration from not only the forcedshipment of Africans to the colonies to be used as slaves, but also the arrival of numerous Huguenots, Jews, Germans, Scots, Irish, and French. By 1703, Butler
points out, there was “no national, ethnic or religious majority” (9).
The Scottish,Irish, French, German, and Swiss immigrants represented about 75% of migrants tothe colonies. This heterogeneity made the British colonies unique compared tocolonies belonging to other nations. For example, the overseas colonies owned byFrance, Spain, and Portugal never developed or contained the diversity of European
settlers that Britain’s mainland colonies saw.
Additionally, immigrants tended tosettle across all the colonies. While certain ethnic groups may have groupedtogether within certain cities, they did not limit themselves to only one area. Anygiven culture could be found throughout the Northeast, Pennsylvania, Maryland, andthe southern colonies. For example, while German immigrants may have relocatedheavily to the area of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, there was still a more or less equaldistribution of German immigrants throughout the mainland colonies. While theEuropean settlers were making America increasingly heterogeneous, they were also
causing the “cultural genocide” of the Native Americans. Through violent acquisition
of territory or contracting European diseases, the American Indians experienced aradical population decline. The Massachusetts and Patuxet tribes, for example, were
reduced from “25,000 people in 1600 to less than 300 people by 1700, while theEuropean population rose to nearly 90,000.” (12).
This mixture of ethnic and racialgroups was uniquely American
no other society had provided or supported suchan extent of diversity. This diversity would allow for the economic changes that thecolonies would go through and eventually embrace.
 
Butler contends that the economy of the mainland colonies was the first of itskind, and unique in numerous aspects. First, it experienced faster growth than anyprevious industrial economy. Secondly, it was more complex and diverse. Third, it was able to expand as the colonists expanded their territory. And, finally, it was ableto play into the international market through both imports and exports. Theeconomy in colonial America revolved around farming and agriculture, but simplybecause it had not reached the level of complexity that it would in the 20
th
century,Butler argues, does not mean it was simple and primitive. The economy in theprerevolutionary era reached a level of modernity that had not been seen in theeconomies back in Europe. Because the economy revolved around agriculture, asthe agricultural system developed and changed, so did the economy. After 1680,farming slowly shifted from being solely subsistent to becoming increasinglycommercial. At the very least, farmers would produce extra crops to sell toneighbors. Some payed attention to prices of certain crops and would produce moreof them to sell to factors, who would then ship them off to the world market. In theChesapeake area, farmers began focusing so much on the tobacco market that the
“Dale’s Laws” were incorporated, which
 
required “every settler to plant two acres of corn to safeguard the food supply as everyone hurried to grow tobacco for export.”
(52).In this regard, it was the South that led the way towards the increasinglycapitalist economy that the colonies were developing. The pervasive use of slaveryallowed for the southern colonists to farm for profit much easier than in the north,where slavery was limited. This, in turn, made economic competition much tougher,which resulted in the slaveholders vying for even more labor. Butler also arguesthat the farmers were able to manipulate the economy in order to make a profit. Forexample, as rice prices fell, (due to the amount of the crop being produced) farmerssupplemented their income by producing indigo to sell to Europe. By 1750, thevalue of indigo crops had grown tenfold. The growing influence the economy beganto have on the colonies can be seen through how the Indians reacted. After 1680, asthe economy was growing and expanding, the Indian economies began to resemblethe European (and emerging colonial) market system.As the colonists and the Natives furthered their trade connections, theybecame increasingly interdependent. As a result, the Indian economy becameentangled with the fluctuating market both throughout the colonies and overseas.
This economic connection became more complex because the two groups’
economies did not simply center on trade
both the colonists and the Indiansrealized that their economic fortune would be controlled by the amount of land theypossessed. This, in turn, led to a competitiveness and violent struggle between theNatives and the settlers. The colonies also had the advantage of having a link to analready strong economy back in Europe from the very beginning. Merchants andcraftsmen were present in the colonies from even the very first settlements such asJamestown. Unlike mainland Europe, which took hundreds of years to develop into
a modern economy, the colonies’ economy took shape at the height of 
Mercantilis
m’s popularity.
Butler contends that there were three aspects of the
 
colonies that allowed for the rapid growth and modernization that the economywould experience between 1680 and 1770
expansion, extension, andspecialization. Merchants expanded in number faster than any other profession, andwere not limited to the emerging metropolises such as Philadelphia or New York.Merchants could be found even in the rural countryside
whether as permanent shopkeepers or making visits to sell their merchandise. Merchants also focused onspecialized industries, such as dry goods and cloth/sewing materials in order tomake a profit and gain a competitive edge. Another aspect that arose through theshift towards a modern economy was the inequality it created. The merchant eliteof the major cities differed sharply from the poverty that had not been seen in the
colonies prior to 1680. The top 10% of Boston’s elite owned 46% of the city’s
wealth in 1687. By 1770, they owned 63%. This signified that as the yearsprogressed, more was held by the few, and it was becoming increasingly moredifficult for newcomers to the economy to succeed. These patterns of prosperityversus poverty that were established during the middle years of the colonial periodwould become one of 
the American economy’s
most enduring characteristics
onethat continues to plague society today.The third chapter of 
Becoming America
examines politics
both on the localand national level. Butler focuses not so much on the political thoughts andideologies that were prevalent at the time, but on the systems that arose during themiddle years, such as legal issues, assemblies, and the public sphere. He argues that 
the “partisanship, partiality, incessant personal intrigue, and institutional creativity
turned otherwise placid New World backwaters into laboratories for exceptional yet 
unplanned political experiments.” (90).
An increasing number of legal disputes(mostly over unpaid debts) emerged in the early 18
th
century, which in turn led to arise in the practice of law. These issues mostly played out at the local level, wherethe political process was not as complex or involved as at the regional or nationallevel. As the colonies developed past 1680, suffrage became more and moreimportant. Unlike local politics, which centered on land and personal grievances,
provincial elections “prompted widespread public discussions of politica
l issues and
the formation of political groups.” (96). Butler also argues that although voter
turnout in these formative years was low by modern standards, it was extensive by18
th
century European standards. 40% of eligible Virginians voted in 1760
compared to only 20% of eligible voters in Britain that year. Butler asserts that these middle years marked a transition from a hierarchical political structure to amore open, democratic system. One of the most crucial ways this was done wasthrough the development of the modern political system. While Butleracknowledges that it was not until after the Revolution that the national assemblieswould wield the power and authority that would begin to develop and expandthroughout the 19
th
and 20
th
centuries, he maintains that it was during theprerevolutionary era that the groundwork was laid for this system to progress. Theyears of 1680-1770 saw the development of a bicameral legislature throughout themajority of the colonies. While these assemblies lacked the national power that theywould gain after the revolution, the years leading up to the revolution proved to be

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