In what could be regarded as the standard interpretation of U.S. history, General George Washington and his band of men liberate the harried colonists from the oppression of British rule during the Revolutionary War and lay the foundation for what would become the United States’ distinctive brand of democracy. With little more than a passing reference to the War of 1812, the story skips ahead to the Civil War and how that conflict ended slavery and demonstrated the industrial might of the North. This is the essential narrative framework that shapes American history; and while there is an acknowledgment of the growing rift over slavery between the North and the South in the young republic, the story still leaves a great chasm between the loose collection of states that defied a world power and the internecine conflict that nearly destroyed the young nation. Joyce Appleby’s book Inheriting the Revolution does not change that essential narrative framework, but it does address a fundamental question concerning American history: How did this fledgling country make the transition from a group of British colonies to an independent nation? Though by no means comprehensive, Appleby’s approach is as novel as it is effective. Her stated purpose is an examination of the lives of the first generation of Americans born after the onset of the revolution—that is, from 1776 through 1800. While the results of her research can in no way be termed revisionist—Appleby shows little interest in rewriting history—she does reveal “the multifarious ways that as individuals confronting a new set of options, they crafted the political style, social forms, and economic ventures of an independent United States.”
In practical terms, Appleby takes a two-pronged approach in her discussion of these early Americans. There is the objective information that forms the foundation of any historical discourse: the facts that she gleans from official records on this first generation that tell readers when they lived and what they did. However, what makes Appleby’s book so engrossing is her reliance upon some two hundred autobiographies written by these early Americans. While she acknowledges the hazards of resorting to such subjective narratives, she convincingly argues that they “are an unparalleled source of clues about sensibilities . . . as well as of the values and interpretations that constructed reality for a given generation.” Utilizing this massive amount of little-used information, Appleby organizes her book into eight chapters: A useful introduction outlines the main themes and reveals her methods, and the remaining chapters explore the changing political landscape, the increased business and career opportunities, the notion of class distinctions, the personal relationships, the zeal for reform, and the emerging national identity.
Interestingly, the import of Appleby’s method is her increased awareness of how this first generation viewed itself as it set about building a nation. She makes this immediately clear in the opening pages of the book. Instead of a straightforward recitation of facts about the nation after the revolution, Appleby opts to summarize a short story from the period, William Austin’s “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” (1824). The title character, having set off for Concord, Massachusetts, during a storm in 1770, falls into a kind of time warp for fifty years. When he emerges in the nineteenth century, he is stunned by the sight of a thriving New York City, perhaps the most salient index of the changes that occurred in the postrevolutionary period. One could certainly pick other examples from the fiction of the period, the best-known being Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” (1819-1820). Irving, who lived from 1783 until 1859, was certainly a member of that first generation of Americans, and his tale of the hapless Rip emerging from a twenty-year doze highlighted the changes between colonial life and the postrevolutionary world. However, Appleby’s choice is more apt, as it serves to underscore her approach to her material. While Irving’s tale remains popular with modern readers, Austin’s was more widely read during the period covered by Appleby’s book.
Appleby’s narrative, though concerned with those born after independence was declared, nevertheless proceeds from that revolutionary act that severed the American colonies from Britain. Specifically, Appleby views the revolution as a rebellion against the king; it was this rejection on a national scale of a fatherly authority figure that rocked colonial society down to its very foundations. As Appleby makes clear in considerable detail, the real revolution in the United States commenced not with the initiation of hostilities but with their cessation. In physical terms, this included all the elements requisite in a thriving capitalist society: issuing and maintaining a stable currency, building and maintaining roads and other aspects of the infrastructure, and establishing secure borders with armed forces. All of these had to be invented—or...
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