As Various As Their Land

AS VARIOUS AS THEIR LAND—Wolf’s title points to her main theme. The multicultural and multilingual diversity of the eighteenth century was different in character from that of the modern United States, in part because a sense of national unity was virtually impossible until after the Revolution and Constitution. Other similarities may seem more remarkable to contemporary readers. For example, the century was plagued by urban violence and wild, underemployed and unattached young people; and about one-third of the population was supported by public welfare at least once during their lifetime. The dissolution of the extended, economically defined family in favor of a smaller, more individualistic nuclear family was seen by many as a sign of the decline of civilization, in part because the care of servants, the aged, and other former dependents became increasingly the responsibility of the community. Some of the differences are equally surprising, such as that about half the population did not belong to a church and was indifferent to religion. This contrasts with the virtually universal affirmation of religious belief among contemporary Americans as well as with the view that early America was profoundly pious.

Wolf’s always readable narrative contains a number of amusing anecdotes and fascinating observations. For example, the advent of affordable chairs facilitated the shift toward nuclear families by making it practical to eat meals together around a table. And, the “Wild West” first appeared in the colonial South, where West Africans introduced their “cowboy” style of herding cattle to North America. Like all good history, AS VARIOUS AS THEIR LAND leads one to think again about the present by informing about the past.