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  • Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts by Daniel K. Richter
  • Marsha Hamilton
Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. By Daniel K. Richter. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 560 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

All historians understand that the present rests upon the past; past events shape the context for the present (or historical present) and thus directly influence the range of decisions that individuals can make. In his remarkable book, Before the Revolution, Daniel K. Richter elevates this basic premise of historical inquiry to a new level of interpretive importance by using it as the framework for his discussion as well as the structure of the book itself. He inverts the archeological concept of stratigraphy—digging down through layers of occupation—and builds his narrative from the deepest layer up, reconceptualizing the standard nationalist paradigm used to explain early North American history (and prehistory) by focusing on the worldviews of the actors, across the European and American spectrum, that shaped each layer.

Richter’s primary argument in this book is that we cannot fully understand the later events without a deep knowledge of earlier ones and, most critically, the perspective that informed those events. Although it sounds simple, applying this concept properly is a complex undertaking. For historians of North America, and particularly of the region that became the United States, a continuing frustration is the tendency of students of later periods to read revolutionary rhetoric and ideology back in time. The Mayflower Compact and Iroquois Confederacy, for example, are not necessarily precursors of, or models for, eighteenth-century events. By framing the book using the worldviews of earlier peoples, Richter avoids such oversimplifications of the past.

Before the Revolution is divided into six sections—“Progenitors,” “Conquistadors,” “Traders,” “Planters,” “Imperialists,” and “Atlanteans”—with two to four chapters in each section. The two chapters in “Progenitors” discuss Native American societies and European societies in the centuries before either knew the other existed and the social and political structures that had developed over time and influenced the contact period. One minor quibble with this section is that Richter uses the term “medieval North America.” Although the phrase forces the reader to recognize that the same time period is under discussion on both continents, no matter how different the societies, it also imposes a European conception of time at the beginning of the book, undermining the idea that social and political structures deserve equal consideration.

The next five sections of the book do not follow a strict (or standard) chronology. “Conquistadors” refers not just to Spanish activities [End Page 201] in North America but also to Protestant settlements and attitudes toward native inhabitants and their religious imperative to “civilize” these peoples, which were not qualitatively different from those of Spanish Catholics. The “conquest” perspective gradually gave way to that of “traders,” those (from European and aboriginal backgrounds) who saw economic and political opportunity in working with each other, even though each group had different conceptions of trade. “Planters” traces the shift from trade relationships to the European acquisition of land and labor and, consequently, the Native American response to such dispossession. Richter thus uses the term “planter” in its early modern sense, of one who establishes a European-style agricultural presence on the land. The section “Imperialists” focuses on the imposition of English control over North America, both its own colonies and “allied” native peoples and those of other European nations in the seventeenth century. Richter moves into the eighteenth century in “Atlanteans,” which discusses the development of the British Empire politically, but roots this commercial empire firmly in the strata of the traders. This is the thread that pulls the book together and gives it far more importance than most narratives. Richter quite clearly defines the connections between his layers—the ways that events built on previous events and ideas.

Much of the discussion is framed in the context of power relationships and the social and political structures that supported those relationships. An example of this is the different understanding of trade and exchange among natives and Europeans and how trade defined power structures in each society. Richter traces the connection between trade and status...


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pp. 201-203
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