- Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England
The transition to capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has generated a vast amount of scholarship over the last couple decades, but as Paul Gilje has noted, the most difficult aspect to articulate has been “the mindset—mentality—of capitalism.”1 In Beyond the Farm, J. M. Opal attempts this most difficult of tasks by tracing the contours of ambition in early national rural New England. Opal convincingly takes the reader through the transformations of ambition in rural New England as they intersected with the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, the nation, and modernity.
Ambition was a culturally fraught term in the early republic, retaining its earlier connotation of a dangerous passion while simultaneously being harnessed to larger, national projects of progress. As one might expect, ambition was a highly gendered concept, and Opal convincingly explores this by tracing the lives of six “ordinary” men in rural New England, all of whom came of age in the early republic. In this way, Opal adds much needed depth to the myriad discussions of the gendered and raced nation. By tying the lives of these six men to larger discourses of national formation through the category of ambition, Opal takes the reader through the often unconscious ways in which the nation was coded as a white, male republic. Ambition, Opal convincingly argues, was a trait open only to white, educated men.
The first part of the book situates ambition in four overlapping cultural, social, and political contexts: the Enlightenment, the Revolution, Constitutional ratification, and the widespread establishment of independent [End Page 171] households throughout New England. For Enlightenment thinkers, the rehabilitation of ambition occurred insofar as it was part of a constellation of ideas like emulation and enterprise, which were more explicitly civic minded. It was the Revolution, and even more so the ratification of the Constitution, that remade ambition. The new nation, particularly the one envisioned by the Federalists, was an extended republic that required those of talent and genius to think beyond the provincial confines of household, neighborhood, or even region. The nation-building project “bore powerfully on the experiences and imaginations of obscure and isolated people,” demanding rural ambitions go beyond the household (14). Here, as in much of the book, Opal foregrounds ideological and cultural changes that paved the way for the later economic market revolution.
Opal follows this early foray into the meanings of ambition by tracing it through the transportation and consumer revolutions, the establishment of independent households, the transformation of education, and finally the establishment of new, independent professions. At all of these sites and stages, ambition was constantly made and remade. Opal is at his strongest in the middle of the book, where he examines the movement of young men beyond their natal households and the institution most formative in that move—the academies that emerged throughout New England at the end of the eighteenth century. It has become a historiographical commonplace that the post-Revolutionary family went through dramatic changes animated by romance, affection, and consent, all of which undermined patriarchal authority. Yet, as scholars such as Susan Juster and Dana D. Nelson have noted, while the hierarchical authority of the father may have been challenged by the Revolution, the fraternal authority of white males was reinforced.2 In a convincing fashion, Opal demonstrates that the rising significance of ambition was central to this transformation, and, moreover, negotiates the seeming historiographical contradiction. Opal argues that “a new rationale of family life” emerged “that lifted the prospects of the nation over the needs of the household” (69). To this end, youthful ambition was to be encouraged (within limits) [End Page 172] and the “natural” talent in children cultivated. If the sentimental family was becoming a model of national belonging, Opal shows the ways in which independent, rural men were required to reject the family in the name of the nation. And it was the academies, increasingly dotting the landscape of rural New England in...