Early American Get-Up-and-Go

We are often told that the “baby boomers”—that is, those born in the two decades or so following World War II—have brought about the greatest transformation of political, social, and cultural life in American history. Ever since this generation came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, it has involved America in a multi-tude of radical changes allegedly unmatched by the experience of any previous generation of Americans—changes in politics, civil rights, race relations, sexual habits, family life, women’s roles, cultural attitudes. All these changes, according to many, have resulted in a series of challenges to our traditional identity as an optimistic, enterprising, and progressive nation.

But maybe this baby boomer generation is not unique after all. If we read Joyce Appleby’s new book, we might conclude that at least one earlier generation, the first generation—those born in the two decades or so following the Declaration of Independence—participated in an equally radical, or perhaps even more radical, transformation of American society and culture. In fact, according to Appleby, the changes brought about by this first generation created much of the very traditional national identity that is presently being challenged.

This first generation, says Appleby, experienced a pace of change that no earlier Americans had ever experienced. Indeed, in less than a half-century following the Declaration of Independence Americans moved “from the end of traditional society—’the world we have lost’—to the social framework we are still living with.” The Revolution released powerful popular forces that had existed just beneath the surface of colonial life, and once released, these forces overwhelmed and destroyed much of the colonists’ world. This destruction, says Appleby, “forced the members of this generation to move forward on their own, a necessity that set them apart from earlier and later cohorts.”

Not only did they, or at least the Northerners among them, radically democratize politics and create a liberal, commercial, or capitalist market society of unparalleled scope and social influence, but they also constructed the peculiar national identity of autonomous and enterprising individuals that came to characterize Americans through much of their history. In other words, this powerful first generation, precisely because it was first, advanced an interpretation of the collective meaning of American democracy that made it difficult for the people of subsequent generations to set forth other identities and other meanings of America. As a result of Appleby’s book we now know better where America’s exceptional liberal consensus came from.

To put together her story of this first generation Appleby scoured a variety of sources about the individuals who made up what she calls “my cohort.” She read all she could find about thousands of people—famous and obscure, men and women, rich and poor, Northerners and Southerners, immigrants and old stock, blacks and Indians. Her most important source was the extraordinarily large number of autobiographies written by the men and women of her cohort. She counted nearly four hundred of which she says she read two hundred. Her “witnesses,” as she calls these two hundred,…

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