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Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans
Joyce Appleby
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
$16.00, 322 pages, ISBN 0-674-00663-1.

Bill Mohr
University of California, San Diego

In The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, George Kubler compares a historian’s technique with a painter’s task: “to discover a patterned set of properties that will elicit recognition all the while conveying a new perception of the subject.” Joyce Appleby’s significant accomplishment in depicting the first generation of a newly fledged nation is all the more remarkable because she had no familiar image of her subject to work with; as she puts it in her opening argument, this cohort of early citizens and their subordinates and slaves is usually perceived as either “a coda or a preface.” Appleby’s title frames the initial problem she confronted in her choice of a period. Outside of numerical chronology, what exactly is the name of this generation, and if they are the first to inherit, how does their lack of anticipation of the inheritance affect their reaction to its plenitude? An inheritance, after all, is something one usually looks forward to, and in the uncertain glow of its arrival time, one makes plans for how to spend it. The economy of this primogeniture, however, is one which required those who received the benefits to imagine themselves as the rightful owners of a nascent state of things.

Appleby suggests that the generation she examines did not so much inherit a revolution as generate the actual inheritance itself, for it was this cohort that made the United States an “imagined enterprise.” Her felicitous variation on Anderson’s well-known term provides her analysis of the major transitions in this period with a context for the emergence of America’s primary generic character: the self-made man. As Appleby acknowledges, this phrase was coined by Henry Clay, although she does not mention that it did not enter circulation until the early 1840s, well after the period she is attempting to illuminate. Nevertheless, “the autonomous individual,” as Appleby points out, “came to personify the nation and the free society it embodied.”

Appleby’s strategy is by now a familiar analytical shift: emphasize that which has been overlooked before, and reduce the role of those who previously dominated the narrative. William Cullen Bryant, for instance, certainly fits within the temporal perimeter (1776-1800) of birthdates for the characters who populate Appleby’s argument, but Bryant’s presence as a literary figure is reduced to a reference to a single poem. Instead of famous families, Appleby illuminates her account of this period by drawing on memoirs of relatively ordinary women and men, several of whom appeared in her earlier examination of autobiographies from this period, Recollections of the Early Republic. Inheriting the Revolution expands the argument she proposes in Recollections of the Early Republic that only in the America “did the decisions that individuals made about their personal lives play so large a part in shaping the character of public institutions.”

Appleby supplies varying degrees of irony within the notion of the self-made man throughout her book, but the life of the New England shoemaker Arial Bragg is an especially acute example of the ideology of autonomy at work. As Appleby observes, “truly effective social markers must be communicated subliminally, their identities conspicuous, attitudes unthinking and behavior automatic.” If Bragg is a good example of the individual who inherits the revolution, he occupies this position because of how his life and occupation are related in an unthinking manner to those whose disinheritance increased after the Revolution. In contrast to African-American hopes prior to the Revolution for manumission after their owner’s death, by 1820 slaves found themselves even more enmeshed in the South’s predatory logic. A million more of them lived in states such as Alabama and Mississippi which did not exist when the Constitution ratifying their servitude was approved. Supplying footwear to these slaves, Bragg’s prosperity as a shoe manufacturer grew in direct relation to the expansion of a cotton market in the South. Bragg’s success demonstrates how “self-made” must always be italicized by its direct dependence on the exploitation of human beings stripped of any rudiment of human dignity.

In addition, autonomy of the self, for white males at least, could flourish only because the new nation did not perceive its legal boundaries to be anything other than whatever settlement its citizens were willing to establish in the territory that constituted the nations of Native Americans. If Appleby’s book has a weakness, it is in the very limited amount of space that she allows Native American voices during this period. Very few Native Americans wrote autobiographies, which constrains Appleby’s inclusion, but a few more maps would have helped us understand the extent of the devastation. As she records in a footnote, the paintings of the tribal representatives who went to Washington, D.C. at the tail-end of this period were destroyed in a fire, but that effacement should not be compounded by the absence of maps. I am certain I am not the only person who must confess that I have no precise idea of the actual area which constituted the Shawnee nation led by Tecumseh, whom Appleby calls the “greatest American Indian leader of the era [and] perhaps the one Native American capable of negotiating some kind of an accommodation with the United States.” The War of 1812 receives scant attention in this book, which is not necessarily a flaw, but if Tecumseh was honored in defeat through “the ritual cleansing of print,” a page or two addressing those texts and how they circulated would permit us to understand how the onslaught of American individualism used the social organization of Native American life to justify its own accumulating power. Both Julia L. Dumont and Benjamin Drake, for instance, wrote about Tecumseh, and both (both in 1794) easily fit within Appleby’s definition of first generation.

Inheriting the Revolution
demonstrates how difficult it can be even for an astute and accomplished scholar to resist the youthful romantic myths of an imperialist nation, a myth so alluring that it seduces Appleby into indulging in a brief fantasy of what the immigrant insurgency must have been like as the population west of the Appalachian Mountains soared from a third of a million to more than two million between 1800 and 1820. “There must have been something wondrous,” Appleby fantasizes, “about growing up when the pinebreaks and forests, teeming with game, yielded to the plough, the ax and the managed fires of frontier farms. Stands of hardwood trees, covering the land, opened up farther west to prairies ablaze in spring flowers.” The actual wonder of this time was much more pragmatic, as Appleby herself notes. After the War of 1812, for instance, veterans received a bounty of 160 acres of land, which most of them promptly sold to land speculators. As a historian, Appleby appears to be fair to everyone, especially those who have previously been marginalized, but one wonders if she betrays a secret sympathy when she repeats a sentence that follows the above snatch of lyrical effusion. As an example of the kind of people who moved through this undiluted wilderness, she presents the Trimble family, who “passed though the Cumberland Gap with a party of five hundred moving west in military formation under the tight discipline of a former Continental army officer,” and over a hundred pages later again recites almost the same exact sentence, though the second time she omits any mention of the several slaves who helped clear the Trimble family property.

The restless prosperity of the first generation did not extend to all free white males. The contemporary disparity in the distribution of wealth in the United States is a well-known fact, but Appleby’s statistics indicate that this gulf has been a persistent fact of American social life, with the “top 10 percent (of free white men) controlling almost half of all wealth” during this period. Significant material possessions did not translate into enduring political power, however, for the Federalist party which represented old money yielded to the ascendancy of Jefferson’s followers. This factionalism was not simply about political ideals, but represented a social challenge that “had thoroughly politicized the very notion of social superiority.” Appleby emphasizes the role that commodities played in leveling the lingering images of hierarchical notions of social subordination.

Political independence did not instantaneously translate into cultural autonomy, and Appleby succumbs too quickly to the cultural division between Great Britain and the United States. “Each set of heirs necessarily re-works its cultural inheritance,” she argues, but neglects to account for the continuities in literary rules employed by American critics. When Appleby cites criticisms of biographies of contemporary Americans of that period, she fails to mention that the notion of the power of private life to illuminate the character of a public figure derives from Samuel Johnson’s contentions about this genre. What Appleby calls the “contrapuntal action of past and present” is indeed the flux that vivifies our understanding of the genealogy of “individual aspiration,” but the point of view of her argument too often isolates this generation within its own contours. She does, for instance, incorporate the successful slave revolt that resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Haiti into her argument, but these events in Haiti are also an inherited revolution with more consequences than she presents.

All of these reservations are minor, however, for her book permits us to juxtapose many of the social contradictions that American capitalism inherently generates. Appleby builds on the assumptions that culture is primarily “the traditions and attitudes passed though speech and actions from parents to children.” The first generation however, developed a tradition that shaped the entire concept of an individual’s relationship to the community. Whatever aspects of gemeinshaft that might have existed in American society after the Revolution vanished quickly as what came to be known as a “career” refocused one’s sense of responsibility to one’s fellow citizens. Appleby cites Joseph Schumpeter’s term, “creative destruction”, to mark the arrival of a new virtue: one’s reputation for self-reliance. Inheriting the Revolution will provide scholars with a framework for further investigations of this period in American history for many years to come, and may prove to be the most frequently cited of all of her books in bibliographies of future scholars.

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