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Beyond the Farm

National Ambitions in Rural New England

By J. M. Opal

Publication Year: 2011

During the first half-century of American independence, a fundamental change in the meaning and morality of ambition emerged in American culture. Long stigmatized as a dangerous passion that led people to pursue fame at the expense of duty, ambition also raised concerns among American Revolutionaries who espoused self-sacrifice. After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the creation of the federal republic in 1789, however, a new ethos of nation-making took hold in which ambition, properly cultivated, could rescue talent and virtue from the parochial needs of the family farm. Rather than an apology for an emerging market culture of material desire and commercial dealing, ambition became a civic project—a concerted reply to the localism of provincial life. By thus attaching itself to the national self-image during the early years of the Republic, before the wrenching upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, ambitious striving achieved a cultural dominance that future generations took for granted.

Beyond the Farm not only describes this transformation as a national effort but also explores it as a personal journey. Centered on the lives of six aspiring men from the New England countryside, the book follows them from youthful days full of hope and unrest to eventual careers marked by surprising success and crushing failure. Along the way, J. M. Opal recovers such intimate dramas as a young man's abandonment by his self-made parents, a village printer's dreams of small-town fame, and a headstrong boy's efforts to both surpass and honor his family. By relating the vast abstractions of nation and ambition to the everyday milieus of home, work, and school, Beyond the Farm reconsiders the roots of American individualism in vivid detail and moral complexity.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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p. 5-5


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pp. v-vi

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Prologue: In Search of Ambition

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pp. vii-xiv

Ambition is central to the American self-concept. Besides "freedom" or possibly "equality;' no word so powerfully evokes what we want to have, or think that we embody. It is noteworthy, then, that we typically couch ambition in gentler words like "opportunity;' "individualism;' or, in the favored...

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Introduction: Ambition and the American Founding

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pp. 1-16

In 1862, Edward Hitchcock finished a history of his long-time employer, Amherst College, and asked a friend to review the book. Had he made too much of his own department's importance, Hitchcock wanted to know. Had he been fair to the college's present leadership? Did the autobiographical portion, a brief"personal history'' that traced his life since his birth in 1793...

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1. Finding Independence

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pp. 17-43

Charles Harding recalled a Sunday trip to church in rural Vermont, circa 18oo, as a single-file formation of people and animals. "Father rode the black [horse], with a boy behind him, and Mother rode the white one, with a girl behind her;' he relates. "In this way we went to church:' No doubt they also wore their best clothes and shoes, hoping to leave the dirt...

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2. Creating Commerce

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pp. 44-68

How would Charles Harding, Ephraim Abbot, or other inheritors of the post-Revolutionary hinterlands answer the question, "Where are you from?" In what terms would they comprehend the newfound republic? During the 1790s, these questions preoccupied a wide array of influential people. The general concern was that the citizen-to-be would reply that he...

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3. Opening Households

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pp. 69-95

In the countryside of eighteenth-century New England, household and neighborhood duty underlay a cultural hierarchy that set old over young, custom over innovation, precedent over potential. Youthful inclinations were inherently suspect-youthful talents, vaguely threatening. "It is a common practice in the country for grave old age to speak of some youthful...

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4. Exciting Emulation

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pp. 96-125

For several weeks in 1800, the twenty-one-year-old Thomas Burnside labored as a farm hand in Maine. Predictably, this work led nowhere. The labor he managed to wring from his frail body went to enhance other men's property, and once the seasons turned his value evaporated. So he made his way back to Upper Coos, New Hampshire, where at...

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5. Seeking Livelihoods

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pp. 126-153

In his thirties, Edward Hitchcock glanced back at his teenaged years-and did not like what he saw. His younger self had been haughty, restless, and "well nigh spoiled through with philosophy and vain conceit." He had forsaken his Calvinist heritage because orthodox pieties ran against "my prejudices, the preaching I had always heard-the opinions of most of my...

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6. Pursuing Distinction

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pp. 154-178

The year 1815 wears the label watershed as well as any in American history. From our perch in the present, it is clear that fundamental changes in the economic and geopolitical contexts of the nation gained speed around that time. The introduction of new infrastructures and, to a lesser degree, new technologies spawned an economic regime of industrial production and commercial...

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Epilogue: Worlds Gained and Lost

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pp. 179-192

At the end of his 1869 autobiography, Charles Harding added a series of chapters about the vast changes in American life since his birth in 1807. Most of these installments concerned the religious movements in which he had been involved, but one detailed a "complete revolution" in the rural economy. In olden days, he explained, farmers had taken periodic trips to...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 193-194


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pp. 195-256


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pp. 257-261

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203455
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221565

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies