Drink hard, pray hard and simply vanish

Jack Rakove

  • Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 by Jon Butler
    Harvard, 324 pp, £19.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 674 00091 9
  • Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans by Joyce Appleby
    Harvard, 322 pp, £17.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 674 00236 9

Did the 13 mainland colonies of British North America become America before their inhabitants thought of themselves as Americans? That is the question raised by these two books. Each is a work of scholarly synthesis; each deals rather uneasily with the epochal event – the Revolution – that separates their respective periods; each is finally concerned with the onset of modernity in the world’s ‘first new nation’, as Seymour Martin Lipset described the United States.

The quest to identify the origins, sources and nature of modernity is perhaps the grandest project of the human sciences – which is not to say that it lends itself to asking useful questions about particular eras. Making modernity their grail gives historians a strong incentive to discover telltale signs of its emergence. Such signs can take many forms: scepticism about revealed religion and priestly authority; the development of new modes of governance; above all, the rise of the market and capitalist entrepreneurship and the development of the autonomous liberal personality.

In many ways, 18th-century Britain, with its ‘polite and commercial people’, seems a much better candidate for first modern nation than the marchland of North America. Are the origins of modernity in America therefore to be found in its colonial past, or are they better located in the break with Britain? Jon Butler argues the former, Joyce Appleby the latter.

Butler also wants to argue, however, that although a recognisably modern society took shape in America during the ‘provincial decades’ following initial colonisation (1680-1770), the distinctive traits, attitudes and habits of mind that formed the ‘American character’ came later. Here he agrees with Appleby, who suggests that the first real Americans were the children and grandchildren of the Revolutionary generation, born in the quarter-century or so after 1776. Too young to participate in the great event itself, they were the first to convert its legacy of political independence into the ideas of individual autonomy, mobility, opportunity and equality that have supposedly shaped the American way of life ever since.

The idea that colonists of various origins were already well on their way to becoming a distinct American people has a good pedigree, including J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, the source of all but one of Butler’s epigraphs. Crèvecoeur’s famous question was: ‘What then is this new man the American?’ His immediate answer – ‘that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country’ – suggested that American identity was fashioned by boys meeting and getting girls in defiance of parental expectations to marry within the group. Crèvecoeur’s analysis in effect is based on the belief that the American environment and the liberality of American laws allowed European immigrants to be ambitious and aspirational as they never would have been in the Old World. In Crèvecoeur’s formulation (and Butler’s), the establishment of a distinctive society precedes the creation of a character type. Europeans were able to become Americans because America was no longer Europe.

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