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.”
Even more significant in creating this new, energetic society was the explosion of commercial activities in the North. In an important sense these commercial activities—the beginnings of capitalism—lie at the heart of Appleby’s book. Several decades ago Appleby took on the task of refuting the so-called “republican synthesis,” the historical interpretation most closely associated with the work of J.G.A. Pocock that contended that the United States was born in a mood of nostalgia for a lost classical world. In the world according to Pocock, Jefferson was no longer seen as a progressive reader of Locke, leading America into its individualistic future; instead he became a backward follower of the English Tory Bolingbroke, obsessed with virtue and corruption and fearful of new commercial developments.
In a series of important articles, and in her book Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (1984), Appleby almost single-handedly rescued the liberal Jefferson from this “republican synthesis.” Realizing that such a synthesis could never explain the emergence of the liberal, individualistic, commercial, and interest-ridden world of early- nineteenth-century America, Appleby simply denied its applicability to the main currents of eighteenth-century American social and economic life. She argued that most eighteenth-century American farmers had already become individualistic and commercial-minded, so much so that their commercial liberalism soon became part of the nation’s understanding of itself. The spokesman for the mass of these American farmers was Jefferson. He and his followers, said Appleby, envisioned a new liberal economic order of competing enterprising individuals that eventually became America’s ideology. Now in this new book Appleby seeks to describe in detail the various ways in which this ideology of liberalism came to dominate early-nineteenth-century American culture.
Capitalism, according to Appleby, was created by the commercial activities of ordinary Americans. In their strenuous efforts to turn their talents and energy into cash, writes Appleby in one of her less elegant similes, “enterprising men knocked against enterprising men like so many billiard balls.” It was not Hamilton’s finan-cial policies and the investments of wealthy elites that explain America’s commercial growth in these years. It was the willingness of “ordinary men and women…to move, to innovate, to accept paper money, and to switch from homemade goods once commercial ones were available” that accounts for “the expansion of farming, commerce, credit, and information.” To the surprise of European observers, American farmers did not resemble Old World peasants; they were commercial-minded entrepreneurs who were eager to abandon their land and move on to wherever profits were to be made.
But the truly remarkable sources of America’s early-nineteenth-century commercial boom, says Appleby, were “the boot-strap manufacturing ventures that proliferated in the rural North…. Mechanics, tradesmen, and farmers with little or no capital turned their brains and hands to making something new.” Bright young men from obscure backgrounds, like Peter Cooper and Amasa Goodyear, were able to take advantage of America’s unique conditions and opportunities to become successful businessmen. Novelty and inventiveness became their watchwords. Because American labor was expensive compared to European labor, these hustling entrepreneurs were eager to develop machines and tools to enhance productivity. They were risk-takers as well, showing “a surprising willingness to venture outside the realm of their experience.” Everywhere in the North manufacturing swiftly “passed from an artisanal phase to a commercial one,” and America’s internal market became “the largest in the world.”
All these commercial farmers and small businessmen needed credit, lots of it, and they found it in the hundreds of state-chartered banks that sprang up everywhere in the North. Nothing like this democratization of credit existed anywhere else in the world. In 1813, New Hampshire, a small state undistinguished for wealth in any category, had ten banks in six different towns, four of them in Portsmouth, a town of fewer than six thousand people. Not only did these banks offer local savers opportunities for investment, but they “became the principal source of currency—welcome, unregulated, and amazingly good at flooding the nation with notes.”
“With economic pursuits that had previously been regulated now open to all comers, the economy,” Appleby writes, “could be construed as voluntary, free, even natural.” This, she contends, “seemed to confirm the most potent ideological legacy of this era: the idea of a natural harmony of interests mediated by natural economic laws.” Americans convinced themselves that government had little or nothing to do with these economic activities. It was all free enterprise. Democracy and capitalism grew up together. “Conservatives then,” she writes, “were not proto-industrialists, but defenders of obsolete cultural traditions. Competition, far from being associated with grinding the face of the poor, stirred up hopes of advancement in ordinary men and women, who vigorously rejected the aristocratic nation of natural inequality.”
Appleby’s book contains some of the most celebratory accounts of early American get-up-and-go that one can find in today’s historical literature. But were these expansive accounts accurate depictions of reality? Were large numbers of Americans really participating in this explosion of capitalism? Appleby believes that “interpreting reality is the most serious intellectual activity people take part in, but that the process of interpretation—both individual and collective—is always prompted by outside events.” Presumably she means by “outside events” the social reality itself, the day-to-day experience of people in the world. Appleby contends that it was her cohort of mostly successful Northern white men who constructed America’s national identity as an enterprising and innovative people. And this collective identity, “expressed in universal terms,” was so dominant that it threw “other people into the shadows of national consciousness” and “obscured for decades to come the varieties of identities and affinities within the nation.”
Appleby seems uncertain about how far she should go in claiming that this national identity reflected social reality. She does not want to commit the sin of “homogenizing the experience of diverse groups,” but at the same time she cannot help writing about her cohort in collective and “essentialist” terms, especially since it had sufficient power to create America’s understanding of itself for decades to come. And her first generation did after all create capitalism in America.
From the beginning of the twentieth century “dissenting historians,” as Appleby pointed out in an earlier work written with two colleagues, have always opposed “the conflation of democracy and free enterprise.”* But she herself has never been reluctant to link capitalism with ordinary people, with democracy, and with its spokesman Jefferson—even in the face of a historical profession not all that eager to accept that linkage. Many historians want to believe that capitalism was created and sustained by narrow elites and profit-seeking capitalists—Hamilton and his moneyed men, for example. They do not like to see any connection between democracy, which is a good thing, and capitalism, which presumably is not such a good thing. Appleby is not necessarily celebrating this linkage, but she has been committed to it for decades; and as a good historian she cannot help describing it in the same exultant terms that many of her characters in the period used. Of course, she often prefaces her many anecdotes and success stories with reminders about the harm done and the people left behind. She pauses to tell us of the plight of the Indians, of women, and of African-Americans. She points out that many people went bankrupt and many were hurt by the rapid growth of commerce. But the general direction of her work is celebratory.
Thus Appleby emphasizes capitalism’s “creative destruction” of older, stable ways of life. Hundreds and thousands of talented young white men with few evident prospects uprooted themselves and took risks and “turned themselves into agents of change.” Their extraordinary entrepreneurial activities gave free enterprise its good reputation in America: it was
the freedom to innovate, to aspire, to seek a range of individual satisfactions in the market…. To fail to mark this feature of the early republic is to obscure a very important element in American history: the creation of a popular, entrepreneurial culture that permeated all aspects of American society.
Commerce, says Appleby, was not a divisive force for Americans but “the carrier of progress for an energetic, disciplined, self-reliant people.”
Much of this praise of commerce and capitalism comes from the sources that Appleby has relied upon—the several hundred autobiographies, many of them written by successful businessmen who were proud of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Of course, they often failed during their lifetimes, sometimes more than once, but they recovered and persevered and prospered. Their lives were seen as stories of success, and they had an inordinate influence on America’s sense of itself.
Much of Appleby’s book is not new. Other historians have emphasized the radical changes in American society and culture caused by the American Revolution. But what ultimately makes Appleby’s book more than a mere collection of interesting success stories and gives it its edge is the connection it makes between these success stories and America’s emerging national identity in the decades following the Revolution. The lives of successful Northern entrepreneurs—and nearly all of them were from the North—served as “models of innovation” for a society eager to forget the aristocratic past. These “individual stories of striving and succeeding poured into one large narrative” and “supplied the empirical evidence to validate sanguine assertions about American destiny.” “Because political union preceded the formation of a national identity, the first generation,” says Appleby, “was forced to imagine the sentiments that might bind the nation together.” Out of their repeated stories of effort and accomplishment, ordinary Northern white men and women acquired a heightened appreciation of their worth and captured control of America’s sense of nationhood. By the 1820s the South, which at the time of the Revolution had thought of itself as the heart and soul of the nation, had become a bewildered and beleaguered slave-ridden minority out of touch with the tales of reform and free enterprise that now dominated the country.
This first generation, says Appleby, created “a powerful myth about America that metamorphosed ordinary labor into extraordinary acts of nation building”—a myth of American identity so powerful that succeeding generations had great difficulty questioning it. Indeed, she writes, “this first cohort promoted attitudes that still retain their vitality.” So self-congratulatory were its themes of individual autonomy, prosperity, and progress that those who did not share the triumphal optimism of these themes were stifled and ignored, “culturally disfranchised.”
Since the 1960s many historians have challenged this earlier sense of national identity. In the book Telling the Truth about History, written a half-dozen years ago, Appleby described the great advances that have been made since the 1960s by social historians with “radically different perspectives on the American past” from those of previous historians. (Among the more prominent writing about early America have been John Demos, James H. Merrell, Philip D. Morgan, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.) These new social historians have ignored the lives of statesmen, generals, diplomats, and other elites and have concentrated on the lives of those who had remained in the shadows of American history, “the poor, the persecuted, and the foreign.” From their research over the past several decades these social historians have discovered “tales of frustration and disappointment which cannot be easily assimilated to the monolithic story of American success.” They have “lifted from obscurity the lives of those who had been swept to the side-lines in the metahistory of progress.” Historians, she contended, have taken on “the role of social critic” and have placed themselves “on a collision course with the conventional accounts of the American past”; indeed, it is the very conventional accounts that were largely created by the first generation of independent Americans that are the subject of her new book.
These recent social historians are in fact challenging the old myth of a homogeneous national identity that celebrates individualism, free enterprise, and progress. That, according to Appleby and her coauthors, is largely what multiculturalism is all about. In its most extreme form multiculturalism contends that “national identity is a chimera created by the elite to indoctrinate other groups in society with its self-serving conception of the country’s purposes.” But even in its milder forms, wrote Appleby, multicultural historians, “struggling…for control of the nation’s memory,” have fragmented the history of the United States, “not in comparison to the actuality of an earlier simplicity, but in reference to the simplified story that was told about the nation’s past.” In her earlier book Appleby admitted that the price of this multicultural fragmentation might be high. She even raised “the disturbing possibility that the study of history does not strengthen an attachment to one’s country”; indeed, the new social history may even “weaken the ties of citizenship.”
Appleby seems to believe that by showing, as she has done in this new book, that America’s traditional sense of identity created by the first generation was not natural, not God-given, but rather a myth, an imagined social construction, based on the experience of some successful Northern white men, then somehow or other we can shed that identity and adopt something new, something multicultural, something more in accord with the changing nature of America’s social reality. But myths of national identity are not so easily shed or manipulated if they bear some accurate relation to social reality. America’s original ideology, however much of an artifact it was, however socially constructed, would never have lasted as long as it has if it did not largely reflect the hopes and the reality of more than just a few white men. The so-called myths of national identity are not just figments of a few people’s imagination, or devices concocted by tiny elites to overawe the masses.
Appleby’s new work shows that. In the remarkable series of stories that make up much of her book she has shown us where America’s optimistic and enterprising sense of itself really came from. And she has done it in the manner of a new social historian. She has written not about presidents or generals but about ordinary people. Yet instead of tales of frustration and disappointment she has discovered tales of opportunity and enterprise out of which emerged an astonishingly robust and successful commercial society. Ironically her own vividly detailed evidence reveals that the conception of America as a nation dedicated to “innovation, enterprise, and reform” was not a “simplified story” without foundation in the social reality but rather a complicated one firmly rooted in the lives of many ordinary Americans.
It seems quite possible that this conception has persisted as long as it has because for large numbers of these common Americans—not for all, of course, but for many—it has continued to be a meaningful description of reality. Which is why Tocqueville’s account of America, which Appleby strangely ignores, still today makes a remarkable degree of sense. When that reality of innovation, enterprise, and reform changes for most of the American people—and we seem to be a long way from that—then and only then will the nation’s idea of itself change as well. Historians can never do it all by themselves.
June 29, 2000