Granger Collection

Thomas Paine with a scroll of The Rights of Man, 1792

Over the last fifty years the writing of North American colonial history has undergone a great transformation. During the nineteenth century and a substantial part of the twentieth there was not much doubt about its scope or its purpose. Essentially the colonial period was seen as a prelude—a prelude to the achievement of independence by the thirteen mainland colonies from British imperial domination, and to the creation of the God-blessed nation that was to become a model and an inspiration to the peoples of the world. The challenge facing historians of this period was to trace the origins and early manifestations of those elements—political and religious liberty, individual self-fulfillment, innovation and enterprise—that grounded the new nation on a set of fundamental principles, and to explore the processes that would enable the United States to win its rendezvous with destiny.

The resulting story, as told to generations of Americans, was relatively simple and straightforward. Its origins were located in England, the England of Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation, and the seventeenth-century struggle to save liberty from the grasp of arbitrary power. It was thus an essentially English story, which was then carried across the Atlantic by English emigrants, and was in due course replayed on the soil of America, and primarily of New England. Naturally it acquired new elements along the way. In particular, Frederick Jackson Turner added a fresh dimension to the origins of American individualism with his arguments for the impact of the frontier experience on American society.

The story, however, continued to be shaped by three defining elements. It was Anglocentric, in the sense that it placed the weight of its emphasis on the contribution of British settlers, with some assistance from continental Europeans, primarily those of Teutonic origin, who were granted a kind of honorary Anglo status. It was teleological, in the sense that everything in the story built up to a logical conclusion in the winning of independence. And it was exceptionalist, in the sense that it was a story like no other about a nation that itself was like no other. As William Findley wrote, even before the eighteenth century was over, Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.”1

Over the past few decades all three pillars supporting the structure of colonial history have come to look increasingly insecure, partly as a consequence of changes in the discipline of history, but also because of the enormous political, social, and cultural changes that have transformed the world itself. As far as teleology is concerned, the Whig approach to history, with its retrospective selection of those features of the past that are held to explain a distinctive, and equally selective, interpretation of the present, has fallen out of favor. While it lingers on, more frequently in covert than in open form, it has given ground before a contingent view of events that has no use for teleology. Against a determinist reading of the past, whether Whig or Marxist, historians are now more likely to see it as embracing a range of possibilities, and have become more aware of the need to keep their eyes open for the paths not taken.

American exceptionalism, too, has come to look out of joint with the times. To some extent this is a reflection of the ever-widening scope of historical inquiry. The move by many scholars into social, cultural, and gender history during the past few decades has encouraged historians to look at North American colonial history in the wider setting of the history of the Western world as a whole during the early modern period. Witchcraft, after all, was not a phenomenon confined solely to Salem. Comparative history, too, has helped to identify similarities as well as differences, for example in the colonizing process. On examination, the early settlers of Jamestown do not look so very different in their aspirations and methods from the Spanish conquistadores hunting after gold and Indian laborers in Mexico and Peru.

But perhaps most important of all, the world has changed, and, with it, the United States’ sense of itself. National self-confidence, which once took for granted a manifest destiny deriving from a set of exceptional national qualities and characteristics, has taken some hard knocks since the 1960s. If the destiny is less manifest and some of the characteristics are less positive than they once appeared, then perhaps, after all, the United States does not have all the answers.

What, then, of the third supporting column of the traditional structure of American colonial history, its Anglocentric pillar? This, surely, is the one that has crumbled most dramatically. The greatest discovery made by the United States in the twentieth century was the discovery of its own diversity. If E pluribus unum remains, in its widest sense, an abiding aspiration, the country has been brought face to face with the fact that it contains within its borders a multiplicity of ethnicities and ethnic inheritances that the Founding Fathers could never have envisaged. In seeking to secure their own place in the sun, the different ethnic groups of which today’s United States is composed—groups all too easily categorized into Native American, African-American, Hispanic-American—have also sought to claim their share of the past. Historians have responded by attempting to incorporate their stories into the traditional grand narrative and, in doing so, have broken it wide open.


The dramatic development of the history of slavery, in particular, has made a mockery of any narrative confined to a discussion of the achievements of a white settler population. With some 1.5 million Africans—over three times the number of free emigrants—transported to the British American colonies in the eighteenth century, the African contribution to the construction of the British colonial world, and subsequently of the United States, has rightly assumed its proper place in the story. Similarly, the central place of slave labor in the development of the British Caribbean islands, which in the seventeenth century received some 91 percent of the slaves transported to British America, has helped to bring home the deficiences of a mainland-based narrative.

The plantation societies of the West Indies were integral to the shaping and expansion of Britain’s American empire, as contemporaries were well aware. So, also, was that great historian of British colonial America Charles McLean Andrews.2 But Andrews’s approach to imperial history went out of favor in the postwar period. It would be some time before the work of a new generation of historians firmly restored the West Indies to the agenda of North American colonial history. An empire divided in the late eighteenth century, when the mainland colonies and the Caribbean islands went their separate ways, is no justification for a historiography divided.3

If the new colonial history has been extended to embrace the Caribbean, it has also been extended to embrace the North American West. There has, of course, been a long tradition of borderlands history, as the names of Hubert Howe Bancroft and Herbert Eugene Bolton remind us. Bolton, whose The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest was published in 1921,4 worked hard to persuade colonial historians of the importance of incorporating the Spanish borderlands into their view of the past, and of recognizing the extent of the Hispanic contribution to the shaping of the future United States. His views, and those of his followers, however, were Turnerian in their approach to the frontier, and, like Turner, they saw it as a dividing line between civilization and savagery.5

The civil rights movement and the impressive achievements of ethnohistorians in uncovering the past of “the people without history” have combined to discredit this approach.6 Since Francis Jennings launched his assault on historians of “frontier semantics and mythology” in 1975, there has been an enormous increase in the number of studies devoted to Indian societies and to the interaction of Europeans and Native Americans in the colonial period.7 Many of these studies have attempted to see the process of European intrusion and settlement through Indian eyes, and an outstanding contribution along these lines was made by Daniel K. Richter, the author of the book under review, whose Facing East from Indian Country is subtitled “A Native History of Early America.”8 Thanks to the work of Richter and others like him who have set out to break with the traditional Eurocentric narrative, “the people without history” have been given back their voice.

The widened reach of colonial history over the past few decades, however, and the complexity introduced by an awareness of the need to listen to many different voices have led to the realization that the old framework is no longer fit for purpose. In an age of globalization, parochialism is at a discount. One way in which historians of colonial North America have responded to the challenge is to extend their range of vision by looking out from the colonial seaboard, both eastward and westward. To the east, they have discovered, or rediscovered, the Atlantic. To the west they have lifted their eyes to see a continent.

In recent years Atlantic history has become one of the most dynamic of historical subdisciplines. Developed and encouraged in particular by Philip Curtin and Jack P. Greene at Johns Hopkins and by Bernard Bailyn at Harvard, it has sought to show the interconnectedness of the societies—British and European, African and American colonial—that border the Atlantic. In tracing and analyzing the movement of people, commodities, ideas, and cultural practices across and around the Atlantic, which these historians tend to treat largely as a British Atlantic, it has helped to counter any tendency to view the American colonies in isolation. The history of the slave trade and slavery, and of migratory movements and the peopling of America, have been particular beneficiaries of the new Atlantic perspective, but it has also done much to underline the limitations of old-style imperial and nationalist history.9


For all its contribution to the widening of horizons, the practice of Atlantic history has thrown up a number of problems, and one of the most intractable of these has been that of deciding how far it extends geographically. The Indian peoples of the eastern seaboard were early, and tragically, caught up in the turbulence of an Atlantic world in expansion, but how far westward does Atlantic history go? There was clearly a ripple effect as the peoples of the interior were exposed one after another to the presence of settlers moving inland, and of European traders bearing coveted goods. Richter, in his Facing East from Indian Country, takes his western boundary as the Mississippi River, and looks eastward from St. Louis. The land he surveys was indeed Indian country in the eighteenth century, although shrinking Indian country; but westward there stretched a vast continent that was also Indian country, and that hardly seems a serious candidate for inclusion in Atlantic history.


Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin: Back View of Mandan Village, Showing the Cemetery (detail), 1832

As historians and ethnohistorians have turned their attention to these peoples of the interior, like the Osages, the Comanches, and the Pueblo Indians—peoples who themselves were undergoing great transformations while living out their own histories—it is not surprising that Atlantic history has been finding a counterpoint in the developing field of continental history. This has not yet been subject to the kind of historiographical surveys that Atlantic history has generated, but it has produced some impressive works, like Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire, that are revolutionizing our knowledge and understanding of Native American history.10 Such books reinforce the current trend toward seeing Indians as actors rather than victims. They also show how apparently remote events occurring deep in the American interior impinged on and shaped the history of the developing colonial societies. As Paul W. Mapp has shown in an important new book, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713–1763, colonial history by the eighteenth century requires a perspective that spans the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.11

These many changes in our perception and understanding of the colonial past have confronted historians who aspire to write accessible surveys with a number of dilemmas. How do they find space for so much that is new without jettisoning too much of the old that is both valuable and important? How wide should be their geographical range, and whose pasts, among the many possible pasts, are they relating? One of the surveys that has most successfully faced up to these challenges is Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, first published in 2001.12 It has now been joined by Daniel Richter’s Before the Revolution.

Alan Taylor’s solution to these various problems was to move forward through time by dividing his book into three chronological sections, entitled “Encounters,” “Colonies,” and “Empires,” and then dividing them into regional subsections, such as “The Atlantic, 1700–80” and “The Great Plains, 1680–1800.” This made his survey widely inclusive, although at some cost to inner coherence. Daniel Richter, who is director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, adopts a different strategy. He, too, follows a chronological approach, but one that presents the history of North America as consisting of a succession of layers, superimposed one on another. Thus we start with “Progenitors,” covering in two chapters medieval North America and medieval Europe, and then move on to “Conquistadores,” both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and then to “Traders,” “Planters,” “Imperialists,” and finally to what he calls “Atlanteans,” by which he means the peoples of Britain’s Atlantic Empire or those within its orbit. He ends his book, as he begins it, on the eve of the Revolution, with the figure of Thomas Paine.

Paine is important to him because, as Richter points out, even as Paine talked about beginning the world over again, he remained well aware of the presence, and the weight, of the past. It is this presence of the past at each successive stage of the North American story that Richter seeks to demonstrate in his layered history. Inevitably there is something rather artificial about this layering device, as if conquistadores, traders, and planters can be separated into neat substrata, but it has the advantage of presenting the continuities in North American history, as against its ruptures. There is no better antidote to the tendency to see the Revolution as beginning the world again than to take the North American story back to the Indian settlements at Chaco Canyon (in present-day New Mexico) and Cahokia (in present-day Illinois), and show how their inhabitants, and their descendants, contributed to the shaping of the world that the Founding Fathers inherited and wanted to remake.

As is to be expected, Richter is particularly strong whenever he turns to Native Americans and their interaction with those of European descent. He has much less to say about Africans, perhaps feeling that in recent years they have had a substantial share of the limelight. Much of his book, however, is devoted to the telling, or the retelling, of the story of European, and primarily English settlement—of how the English grabbed the land, and ultimately contended successfully for the control of North America. To many readers, therefore, his story will have a familiar ring, although he tells it well, and with many touches of freshness.

He is good, for instance, at drawing on contemporary sources, like the House of Lords Journal for 1710. He uses this to show how contemporaries viewed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, before going on to suggest—not, I think, entirely convincingly—that imperialism looked much the same after as before it. He is also alive to the importance of environmental history, and at various points dwells on the impact on peoples on both sides of the Atlantic of the Little Ice Age that began in the 1300s and reached its peak in the seventeenth century.

Yet as they read his recapitulations of British history and colonial politics, or his excellent brief discussion of such bloody events as Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676, some of Richter’s readers will wonder how far, if at all, his new layered history differs from its predecessors. The history of English colonization consumes a considerable amount of space. So, too, does the development of British imperial policy and the domestic events that lay behind it. In many respects this is to be welcomed, and reflects another trend of the times—a rethinking of imperial history, with a particular emphasis on the struggle of the European powers for control of the continent.13 Francis Parkman, indeed, should have been living at this hour. Richter’s book does, however, raise the question of just whose past a survey of North American colonial history should embrace, and of the relative amount of space to be accorded to each of the many peoples who figure in its story.

Richter certainly gives Native Americans and the English their due. He also has a welcome comparative chapter, entitled “Dutch, French, Spanish, and English Counterpoints,” designed to illustrate what he calls “the oddity of the English model.” That the English settlements in North America differed in important ways from those of their European rivals is undoubted, although one of the great historical questions remains the extent to which English attitudes toward land, patriarchy, and religion, on all of which Richter places much emphasis, account for these national differences, as against the American environment into which respective European peoples moved, and the character of the Native American peoples with whom they came into contact. This is not, however, a question with which the author can be expected to grapple in a survey as compact and wide-ranging as this.

Yet if Richter often seems to be treading well-trodden ground, even though successfully including many features of the new Atlantic and continental history on the way, his story has an ending that is rather less familiar. There is no triumphant build-up here to a successful Revolution. The final chapter, ominously called “Gloomy and Dark Days,” covers the Seven Years’ War and its aftermath. The words chosen for the chapter title are those of Teedyuscung, a Delaware chief, both warrior and peacemaker, who was murdered in his sleep. Those words convey “the violence that ripped North America’s Atlantean peoples apart,” in Richter’s reading of the period, far better than that “antiseptic term” the Seven Years’ War. In his summation, “Native American traditions of property, land, trade, and power smashed against those of Europeans, in turn setting land-grabbing creole planters against imperial offi- cials. The final victim was the fragile unity of the Atlantean world.”

Ultimately, his history is a history of violence, of violence perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans, by Native Americans against Europeans, and by both peoples against their own kith and kin. It is a dark and brutal story, although one in which the Native Americans are shown as for long holding their own, manipulating Europeans as trading partners and playing off one set of Europeans against another until the overwhelming British victory of 1763 no longer made this possible. There is precious little uplift here, and little sense of the more constructive characteristics of the brave new world that was rising amid the wreckage of the old. But, in patiently uncovering the layers beneath the rubble, Richter forcefully brings home to us that the American past belongs to many peoples, and that none should be forgotten.