When I was writing a review of Jon Butler’s Awash in the Sea of Faith in graduate school in the winter of 2009, I went through several drafts. At one point, I had an opening sentence that went something like this: “If revisionism were a religion, Jon Butler would be the chief priest.” I eventually settled on something else (I recycled that review for my latest classic review in case you are interested in reading it), but Awash in a Sea of Faith really left an impression on me and I most admired Butler’s in-your-face style of revisionism that took no prisoners and challenged the reader to seriously reconsider the past. With that in mind, I started reading Becoming America with certain expectations. In this later book, Butler argued that changes in British North America between 1680 and 1770 constituted a revolution and thus “shaped the Revolution of 1776, including the social and political upheaval unleashed by independence.” Butler was quick to point out that these changes did not cause the American Revolution, but asserted that changes “created a new society with a distinctive economy, politics, secular life, and religion.” Moreover, other “more subtle and more difficult to elicit” historical changes “created a new public and even private culture, simultaneously willful, materialistic as well as idealistic, driven toward authority and mastery.” Butler cites five broad areas of American life that experienced change and thus rendered the society of the British mainland “modern”: ethnic and national diversity, the emergence of a dynamic domestic and international economy, a political system that foreshadowed modern participatory democracy, the development of a materialistic culture, and religious pluralism. Butler provided a chapter on each of these topics and then a final chapter where he summed things up. There is a lot of useful information in this book that is mercifully short – just under 250 pages. If you are looking for revisionism on the scale of Butler’s other work, you will be sorely disappointed. While I cannot speak for the author, I think that Butler’s goals were less revisionist and more synthetic – that is gathering up decades worth of historical writing and synthesizing it all in one narrative to therefore give historians a jumping off point for future inquiry. Butler does a heroic job of sorting through years of research and writing from scholarly journals, monographs, dissertations, and essay collections and presenting the information in a cogent and readable format. Gordon Wood called this book a tour de force. I, on the other hand, found the book rather bland and disappointing – sort of like going to a fancy restaurant and ordering an expensive steak that turns out to overcooked and underseasoned.
I think much of the problem lies with Butler’s synthetic approach. It is clear to me that the book was intended to pull together a vast array of historical research. While I am by no means an expert on the era in question, I have read a number of the very articles and books that Butler drew from. Take, for example, Butler’s first chapter entitled “Peoples.” Here Butler gives a broad overview (too broad in my opinion) of the various groups in America in 1680 and those that arrived over the course of the next 90 years. Historians have written a great deal about this very subject. Scholars have also endlessly debated what effect economic changes had on the colonies and if they were indeed signs of an emerging capitalist economy. Likewise, academics have produced volumes of material on colonial politics and religion. Material culture analysis has emerged over the past few decades and become an interesting field of inquiry for historians with have anthropological impulses. In short, what Butler’s chapters have in common is that they are all synthetic historiographic overviews that find their origins in the research of other historians (let me clear – there is nothing necessarily wrong with doing this). The problem I find here is that Butler did not put forth any section of the book (save his conclusion) that was uniquely “his,” methodologically or conceptually. Or, put another way, Butler did not set his own research agenda and so the whole book feels forced to me. I don’t feel the passion from Butler that I felt when I read Awash in a Sea of Faith. Instead, what we have here is a sometimes dry and tedious monograph that helps iron out a few historiographic wrinkles, but doesn’t open up any new or exciting doors for the field. Moreover, Butler’s thesis hinges on the five elements that went into making Colonial America “modern.” The author did not actually define what he meant by the term modern (if this book had been a doctoral dissertation, he would have been made to define that important word if he wanted to graduate). Are these five elements – ethnic diversity, dynamic economies, materialism, religious pluralism, and participatory politics – the only indicators of a “modern” society? Or are they even recognized as such by some kind of historiographic consensus? Modernity means many different things to many different scholars – Butler’s modernity is not the same thing that a scholar of the industrial revolution would write about. Overall, I think Butler is convincing that in the 90 years between 1680 and 1770 British North America was transformed by the factors he described, but I think he simultaneously oversells and undersells his hand at the same time. There are five generally well-argued chapters that do seem forced and yet at the same time I wanted new evaluation of evidence that offered something groundbreaking like Butler’s earlier book. The result is that Becoming America is both heavy-handed and sadly disjointed.
There are still more objections to raise to some of Butler’s specific points. I’ll discuss one of them. In Chapter One, Butler takes time to discuss different European immigrants to North America in all of their ethnic diversity: Germans, English, Scots, Irish, French, and Jews. He discusses various Indian tribes broadly and, if nothing else, acknowledges their great diversity even if he doesn’t really give them the treatment they deserve. And Butler discusses people who were forced to immigrate from Africa to be slaves in North America. He contends that “after 1700 and down to the American Revolution, Africans constituted the largest group of arrivals in the colonies and outstripped all European immigrants combined.” To discuss a half-dozen or so groups of various European immigrants and then to lump all Africans into one group is absolutely infuriating because Butler knows better. While he does mention a few of different African tribes in one sentence, he mostly talks about African immigrants so monolithically that you would think they were all basically the same if you didn’t know any better. The continent of Africa was (and is) extraordinarily diverse. Furthermore, the regions of Africa that supplied slaves to North America were ethnically diverse. There was an emerging historical literature on this subject when Butler published Becoming America eleven years ago. Later, in the chapter on religion, Butler finally acknowledges the diversity of African in a sort of off-handed way when describing an African “spiritual holocaust.” In a way, this acknowledgement of African diversity came so quickly, I wondered if he wasn’t throwing it in there because of negative comments from peer-reviewers. More clearly acknowledging the diversity of African slaves in America would allow Butler to explain that underlying the experience of slavery were conditions that made human bondage even more difficult because of uniquely African cultural considerations. For example, slaves were often grouped in slave ships or on plantations with people from other ethnic groups. It’s one thing to be a black slave in the South in 1750 – quite another if you consider some of the people on the plantation where you are forced to work might not even speak the same language you do or, worse yet, might come from a tribe that was recently at war with your own. In addition to African political hatred, cultural and religious differences abounded among slaves. When you consider that, it understandable that a pan-black identity took at least a hundred years to develop among slaves in the South and the forced mingling of these often hostile groups could help explain why blacks experienced Butler’s spiritual “holocaust.” Little cohesion would certainly not lend to the survival of religious systems. If you are interested in this topic, the best book on the subject that I’ve read is Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, 1998). Be warned that this is a good book, but it is very difficult reading in places (especially the introduction).
I have to remind myself to be very cautious to not be overly critical towards Butler – I always try to be even-handed when I write these things. Butler is a really great historian and much of what we know about American religious history has dramatically changed because of his research and writing. I was hoping that Butler could catch lightning in a bottle and do that the same with Becoming America that he did with Awash in a Sea of Faith, but he fell short. Nevertheless, I have to admit that Butler’s efforts simply to synthesize and potentially redirect a vast array of research is something that few historians could have accomplished much better. Perhaps my misgivings with Becoming America have more to do with the business of synthesis than with this book specifically. I certainly hope so and I will remember Butler for his brilliant revisionism in Awash in a Sea of Faith rather than this courageous but otherwise disappointing effort.