Biography 25.2 (2002) 404-406
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In the great debate over the nature of the ideology of the American Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, Joyce Appleby became a spokesperson for the belief that the founding fathers adhered to a liberal republicanism that emphasized individual rights over the civic morality of classical republicanism. More importantly, in her Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York UP, 1984), Appleby brilliantly turned the traditional interpretation of the Hamilton and Jefferson debate on its head. Previously, most scholars viewed the Hamiltonian Program of the Federalists as forward looking and capitalistic in its support of speculators by assuming and funding the national debt, creating the national bank, and encouraging manufacturing. The Jeffersonians, on the other hand, had been seen as wedded to an agrarian simplicity that stood opposed to capitalist development. Appleby argued that by adhering to a liberal view of republicanism, the Jeffersonians were even more capitalist than the Federalists. From this perspective, the Federalists became backward looking in the defense of privilege, and the Republicans forward looking in their search for markets for agricultural produce and the opening up of opportunity for all. Rather than viewing the economy from the Federalist perspective as a closed system to be manipulated by government policies, the Jeffersonians envisioned "the economy as a natural and orderly system invisibly producing social harmony" without the restraining hand of government intervention (95). [End Page 404]
Inheriting the Revolution picks up the story where Capitalism and a New Social Order left it. In this book, Appleby looks at the collective biographies of the first generation of Americans after the founding fathers, and traces how the Jeffersonian triumph of 1800 led to a new social order that accelerated capitalist development and drove a wedge between the southern and northern portions of the United States. Centering her story on biography allows her to show how "America's liberal society found its architects and champions, their careers giving substance to the hope that free choice, free trade, and free speech could flourish within a self-regulating social order" (91-92).
The key to this new social order was individualism—a concept thatAppleby reminds us is not a "natural phenomenon," but a historical construct that in the early nineteenth century became "a national icon that differentiated the United States from the savagery at its borders and the tyranny across the Atlantic" (7). This individualism worked its way into all aspects of American life. It led to the spread of universal white manhood suffrage and a democratization of politics. It also led to a new entrepreneurial spirit. Appleby explains that "without imperial control over land and credit thousands of bootstrap operators could act on their plans with little but high hopes for their financing" (57). Whether it was settling cheap land on the frontier, building a steamboat, trading to new markets overseas, or entering manufacturing, men took risks, made and lost fortunes, and pursued their own interest with abandon. For Appleby, examining the new careers unfolding for the individual "is to watch the sprawling American middle class materialize" before our eyes. The middle class expressed itself in both public and private. New notions of fashion emerged that encouraged "a more honest, direct, and simple presentation of self" (147). The middle class individuals could also express their own intimate feelings in a sentimentality that redefined the family. The same concerns gave birth to evangelical religion and reform.
Appleby has written an important book that helps us to discern the contours of the world in the early American republic. She also understands that no one could have predicted the new social order that the first generation created. While at times Appleby almost sounds as if she is writing her story as a celebration of the American liberal tradition, there is a tragic undercurrent throughout the book. The triumph of the new ideals did not occur overnight. Appleby...