Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination

by Joyce Appleby

Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Made up of an introduction and thirteen previously published essays,Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination constitutes both an intellectual biography of the author, Joyce Appleby, and a coming to terms with the “republican” point of view—first identified by Robert E. Shalhope in “Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Histo- riography,”William and Mary Quarterly 29 (1972)—that has dominated interpretations of the American Revolution since the late 1960’s.

Framed first by Bernard Bailyn, this point of view challenged that of an earlier school of “consensus” historians—best represented by Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (1955)—that saw liberalism as the American national ideology by default; original, inevitable, and enduring. Younger scholars discovered that the ideological sponsors of the American Revolution were not John Locke and Adam Smith. Colonial resistance was indebted instead to the dissenting republicanism of radical Whigs in early eighteenth century England.

Redundancy is inevitable in such a collection, but it enriches rather than blurs Appleby’s discussion. With one exception, all the essays fall squarely under the book’s conceptual umbrella. Only “The American Model for the French Revolutionaries,” published in 1971 and reprinted here as chapter 9, seems beside the point. The other essays address intersecting subsets of her extended family of themes.

Chapter 1, “Political and Economic Liberalism in Seventeenth-Century England,” and chapter 2, “Locke, Liberalism, and the Natural Law of Money,” supply essential historical background. These essays speak to Appleby’s original scholarly stock-in-trade, the recovery of an early tradition of liberal thinking that emerged in the seventeenth century in response to the commercialization of the English economy. They reprise the arguments in her first book, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (1978).

Chapter 5, “Liberalism and the American Revolution,” chapter 6, “The Social Origins of American Revolutionary Ideology,” and chapter 7, “John Adams and the New Republican Synthesis,” present an early critique of Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969), and J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), the canonical texts of the republican synthesis. The availability of a protocapitalist liberal alternative to republican discourse broadened the social basis of dissatisfaction in colonial America, Appleby argues, and hastened the movement from resistance to revolution.

Chapter 3, “Modernization Theory and Anglo-American Social Theories,” chap- ter 4, “Ideology and the History of Political Thought,” and chapter 11, “Republicanism and Ideology,” raise important theoretical, methodological, and historiographical issues. Chapter 3 discusses the failings of modernization theory as applied to less developed societies and its obfuscation of differences in the early English and colonial responses to economic development—a blurring resulting from neglect of the intervening variable of ideology in shaping cultural reactions to change. Chapter 4 discusses, among other things, the priority of the “Cambridge school” of Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock, and others in using social linguistics to rethink intellectual history as “ideological history”; that is, the history of the socially constructed meaning systems that shape political discourse. By challenging the importance ascribed to John Locke in the eighteenth century in liberal historiography, their work opened space for a republican rereading of Anglo-American political thought. Chapter 11, discusses what that point of view has meant in practice to historians of early America.

“The American Heritage—The Heirs and the Disinherited,” chapter 8, deals with the alternative visions of community debated in the late colonial and early national eras and implicit still in different schools of constitutional jurisprudence. Stimulated by discussions of the Supreme Court and the judicial philosophies of Court appointees in the Reagan era, this essay is Appleby’s most topical and pointed contribution. By subverting the legitimacy of group-based interests, a liberal discourse on rights that serves to disaggregate communities can work, she suggests, to disadvantage further those who are already outside the political nation.

“The ‘Agrarian Myth’ in the...

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