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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, were “those who did something in public—started a business, invented a useful object, settled a town, organized a movement, ran for office, formed an association, or wrote for publication, if only an autobiography.”

After a lengthy introduction, Appleby has seven chapters, each focusing on separate themes: responding to the revolutionary tradition; enterprise; careers; distinctions; intimate relations; reform; and a new national identity. The book is thus not a narrative history of this first generation, but rather a series of analyses of these particular themes, culminating in the creation of a new American identity dedicated to individualism and free enterprise. Because Appleby often does not date the anecdotes and events she relates, it is not always easy to know precisely when something is taking place within the thirty-or forty-year period she is dealing with. Thus readers who do not know the history of these decades between 1790 and 1830 may very well find it difficult to know the setting of what is happening.

Since Appleby does not describe in any detail what the old order was like, we pretty much have to take her word for the extent of change that took place during this first generation. Mostly what she offers us are a few brief phrases such as “traditional hierarchies” or “old elite traditions” or “the old colonial social structure.” The closest she comes to describing the old order is her short account of a patronage-dominated colonial world in which people had few choices of career or occupation.

Moreover, Appleby never fully explains why these remarkable changes took place when they did. Much of the time she seems to attribute everything to Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson’s election in 1800 above all, she writes, that broke the Federalist identification between social and political authority and created the liberal and democratic society that emerged in the succeeding decades. Among early American historians Appleby has been one of the most important celebrators of Jefferson’s role in American history. Not that she is unaware of Jefferson’s dark side, his aversion to black Americans, and his expansionist policies that proved deadly for the native Indians in the West. Indeed, she recognizes that the conservative Federalists were far more opposed to slavery and more protective of African-American and Indian rights than were the Jeffersonian Republicans. Still, she says, it was Jefferson and his supporters who were most responsible for democratizing American politics and commercializing the United States.

Sometimes, realizing perhaps that she may be attributing too much to Jefferson’s election itself, she suggests that there were powerful, long-existing demographic and economic forces that made inevitable the defeat of the Federalists’ hierarchy and their plans for an integrated, centralized European-like fiscal-military state. Here and there she suggests that it was the Revolution and its “tendencies” that actually challenged and subverted the older hierarchies and released the deep-lying social forces. Perhaps we might even see Jefferson’s election itself as a consequence of those “tendencies.”

Appleby’s writing can be elegant at times, but it also can be hard going, with too many piled-up participles and subordinate clauses slowing down the flow of her prose. Sometimes too her passion for unusual images becomes strained or awkward, as when “economic failure and sectional dissension pushed the melody of many individual lives into a minor key,” or when women’s “avenues to grace became highways to close bonds with those sharing their communion.” Her citations and endnotes are often erratic: well-known information gets cited while important quotations are left undocumented.

Despite all of Appleby’s remarkably detailed coverage of the society and the culture of this first generation, she ignores important themes or treats them superficially. There is almost nothing on the development of political parties and the emergence of the Jacksonian Democratic Party in the 1820s as the radically new model of a modern party. There is nothing too on the Revolutionary dream of America’s becoming the world’s leader in the arts and sciences and the struggle of the first generation in trying to realize that dream. For Appleby, Samuel F.B. Morse was simply someone who “pursued his career as an artist while applying himself to inventions like the telegraph”; she ignores the fact that artists like Morse turned to inventing things only when their high-minded artistic aspirations were dismissed by a philistine commercial world. Appleby mentions the courts and the common law only to dismiss them as instruments for sustaining patriarchy in the home and workplace. Nowhere does she acknowledge the important role of judges in adapting the common law to help create the new commercial world of her first generation.

Still, despite these omissions, Appleby gives a remarkably broad and rich portrait of early-nineteenth-century society. It was above all a society very much on the move. Annual sales of western land increased from a hundred thousand acres in the 1790s to half a million after 1800, and farms multiplied at a rate unmatched since the original settlements. Tens of thousands of ordinary folk pulled up stakes in the East and moved westward, occupying more territory in a single generation than had been occupied in the 150 years of colonial history. Between 1800 and 1820, the trans-Appalachian population grew from a third of a million to more than two million. “Never again,” Appleby writes, “would so large a portion of the nation live in new settlements.” And, she says with some understandable awe, “there must have been something wondrous growing up” in these new settlements in the wilderness.

As the old colonial society fell apart, men and women scattered in all directions, and tens of thousands of “young people found their ways to opportunity.” Choices and occupations of all sorts emerged and multiplied—in writing, publishing, journalism, school-teaching, law, politics, medicine, civil engineering, painting, and preaching. To follow “the careers of those in the first generation,” writes Appleby, “is to watch the sprawling American middle class materialize, summoned into existence by political independence, thickening trade connections, and religious revivals, all tied together by print.” Reading became a necessity of life and a principal activity of nation-building. Northern Americans became one of the most, if not the most, literate people in the world. Printers, publishers, and booksellers all doubled in number in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By 1810 Americans were buying 24 million copies of newspapers annually, the largest aggregate circulation of any country in the world.

Not only did lawyers multiply and come to dominate the increasing numbers of political offices, but preachers sprang up everywhere, no longer needing the college education and the credentials of their colonial predecessors. The revivalist movements of these years—called the Second Great Awakening—undermined the old established religious orders of Congregationalists and Anglicans and created a new and uniquely voluntary religious world dominated by evangelical Methodists and Baptists. Francis Asbury, the founding bishop of the American Methodist Church, estimated that in 1811 alone over three million Americans attended revivalist camp meetings. Evangelical preachers, says Appleby in one of her many mixed images, “unleashed a torrent of zeal among a full quarter of the adult population,” not only among white men and women but African-Americans as well. Out of the conversions of tens of thousands of newborn Christians caught up in the turmoil of these years emerged “a recognizable American type,…confined to a substantial minority of men and women, but powerful beyond its numbers because it involved a mastery of self and a prompting to good works.” These evangelical Christians were “earnest, intrusive, passionate, and disciplined,” and they “eagerly made their affirmations those of the nation at large.”

Within two decades or so, Appleby writes, the revivalists transformed American civil society. Not only did they form proliferating numbers of churches and sects, many of them, like the Disciples of Christ and the Mormons, with no European roots whatever; but they together with other reformers also created thousands of other kinds of voluntary associations, dedicated to everything from antislavery to temperance reform. Out of the dismantling of the traditional hierarchical society, writes Appleby, emerged a new democratic citizen—“the assertive individual who bends every effort to make his own way, both socially and intellectually, and reads his own reform as a sign of the possibilities for society at large.”

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