In a thoughtful, erudite survey of colonial history, Butler (Awash in a Sea of Faith, not reviewed) traces the formation of many of America's modern social characteristics in the crucible of pre-Revolutionary society.
Americans today think of the colonial period, if at all, as a time remote from modern America, in which society was unimaginably different from ours. Butler argues persuasively that America during the late colonial period (1680–1776) rapidly developed a variegated culture that displayed distinctive traits of modern America, among them vigorous religious pluralism, bewildering ethnic diversity, tremendous inequalities of wealth, and a materialistic society with pervasively commercial values. Butler reviews the growth in population during this last half of the colonial period: while most settlers in 1680 were of English origin, by 1776 the British colonies were populated by a polyglot population of peoples from the British Isles, continental Europe, and Africa, as well as the indigenous Indian population. At the same time the population diversified and the economy changed in complex ways: the period saw such diverse developments as rapid growth in artisan and craft skills, the development of a large middle class, the growth of professional classes, widespread urbanization with attendant poverty, and the institutionalization of African slavery, formerly a sporadic practice not easily distinguishable from indentured servitude. The colonials developed democratic political institutions of surprising vigor, especially provincial and local assemblies, while royal governors were mostly irrelevant and sometimes incompetent. Frontier wars with France reinforced cultural and political differences with Britain while forging a sense of shared American nationhood that resulted in the Revolutionary movement.
A sweeping, well-researched analysis of the transformative changes wrought by immigration, war, and cultural change in colonial America.