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Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans
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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2000
Around page 20 I figured out I should skip the wordy Introduction. It would make a better Conclusion -- too abstract to follow if you don't already have some factual underpinnings.
On to the rest of the book. Chapter 2 is sort of an overview. Remaining chapters cover "Enterprise", "Careers", "Distinctions" (about social status), "Intimate Relations", "Reform" (religious and moral), and "A New National Identity". The material is undeniably interesting -- dueling newspaper editors (and dueling everyone else), downtrodden young people finding their way, cultural battles between north and south, Federalists vs. republicans, the inception of careers and jobs that had not existed before... and did you know that separate right and left shoes were an invention of this recent time period? Where Appleby stocks the book with primary material, it's engaging. Where she talks in generalities, there are way too many sentences that have to be read several times to sink in. "The intense politicization of public life from political and institutional controversies accustomed Americans to public disclosure." (p. 41) Is this circular, or what? I imagine the book is most difficult for those unfamiliar with the material, a little easier for those who have some background.
One other complaint: The reader is often left to wonder how things got to be as Appleby describes. For instance: "Jefferson and his supporters democratized American politics... by implementing policies that enabled people to work out the terms of their lives with minimal interference from family, church, or state." What policies? Not one example is given; there's nothing for the reader to grip. I'm intrigued by the statement but I'm left hanging.
On the whole, it's a worthwhile bunch of material, and the style is sometimes engaging. Just be prepared to deal with the passages that are less engaging.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2000
Appleby's thesis is that the generation of Americans born in 1776 through 1800 inherited an as yet unformed society whose outlines were based on the revolutionary conception of governance, but that it was that this first generation of post-war Americans who had to actually form the "more perfect union." She shows how this task was taken up by all kinds of Americans through all kinds of means, including evangelicalism, new mass communications vehicles like newspapers, and the formation of political and social clubs and societies. Empowered as they were by Jefferson's explosive policies, policies which eventually wrested the governance of the United States out of hands of the elitist, self-serving hands of the Federalists, the rising middle class cleared a space for themselves.
Appleby assumes the reader knows the basic history of this period, an assumption which enables her to not only cover a lot of ground fairly quickly, but also to treat her material thematically. This approach may leave some readers unhappy or confused, but for those with a basic grounding in the era, the method can provide startling insights into a much-written about period of American history. In addition, the reader is given by virture of this technique insight into the present era. Appleby's one overriding insight is that once the civic religion of America was set into motion by this post-revolutionary first generation, and we Americans have been making only minor adjustments to this national imaginary and our place within it ever since.
For fun, read as companion texts "The Education of Henry Adams" by Henry Adams and "Improvised Europeans" by Alex Zwerdling. These "un-common" Americans contrast nicely with the rising middle class population described here.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2000
This is a detailed and interesting compilation of bits and pieces of information about an over-looked but important period in American history. Unfortunately, its thematically-organized chapters become repetitive by the end, and its sentences sink beneath the weight of academic jargon until one is convinced one has read the same sentence three times. At the same time, amid the repetitious treatment of some subjects, interesting topics, such as the prevalence of duelling during the period, surface briefly then are never explored in depth.
More attentive editing might have helped. Beyond the structural issues, confusion arises from what appear to by typos, such as the appearances by Lewis and Louis Tappan, only one of whom can be found in the index, leaving the reader to wonder whether these are the same or different persons. If the premise were not an exploration of a relatively unfamiliar period, such lapses might be forgiven. But these oversights, when combined with an overly generous assumption regarding the reader's base of knowledge about the major historical events of the period, and an onslaught of unfamiliar, similar sounding names, can be bewildering.
Finally, while it is admirable that the author attempted to explore differences in the experiences of southerners, women, and African-Americans, it would have been more enjoyable had she found a way to introduce such discussions other than inserting an awkward transition in every chapter along the lines of "For women, on the other hand . . . "
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2001
I have some reservations about this book. 1) Its main new primary sources are the several hundred autobiographies that were written in the first decades of the new republic and which Appleby has read. I would suggest that these autobiographies have their own systematic bias. They represent the literate side of the United States, as opposed to the 30%-50% of American whites (and the overwhelming majority of slaves) who were either illiterate, had strictly limited literacy or had little contact with the world of print. Similarly these autobiographies privilege the middle class over the others, the story of the successful entrepreneur over the stories of the unsuccessful or only partially successful. It also privileges the religious over the non-religious. Given the fact that the early United States was an overwhelmingly rural country and that it only had a poor and parochial intelligentsia, it is not surprising that evangelical propaganda had a disproportionately large influence in American publishing. There was a market for accounts in which the subjects feared for their very souls and who wrestled with the demons of the world. There was much less of a market for people who had no qualms with sleeping with their fiancées and who thought Methodists should mind their own business. Yet at the turn of the century one-third of New England women conceived their first child outside of marriage, and the rate was probably higher elsewhere. At one point Appleby notes how little interest or affection her autobiographers showed for Andrew Jackson. Yet considering that Jackson was only three men to win a plurality of the vote for the presidency three times (Cleveland and FDR are the other two) this points out an important bias in her selection.
2) Appleby has a talent for interesting setpieces, such as the rise of duelling as a symbol for the political passions of the Jeffersonian era, or the dialectic of refinement and plainness while obscure biblical names went out of fashion, or the culture of drink or alcoholism. Yet her account of Americans considering their revolutionary tradition misses something. There is a discussion of the triumph of Jefferson and the failure of the Federalists, an account of party strife, and the limits of Northern Emancipation. Yet there is a certain passion missing about the meaning of democracy and liberty here. This is book which concentrates more on the successful entrepreneur than the unsuccessful working man. It discusses race and gender, but it does not really elucidate the dialectic between slave and citizen, and men and women that are crucial to understanding why such potent ideologies arose and their effect.
3) In order to appreciate this book's limits one should compare her work with other recent works of scholarship. One should contrast her appreciative account of Jeffersonian democracy with the subtle, ironical and methodically documented accounts of Alan Taylor which shows the limited gains by Maine farmers, or the political limits of the enemies of Mr. William Cooper. In contrast to her somewhat upbeat account of the industrialization and commercialization of the United States, one should look more closely at Christopher Clark's painstaking narrative of the rise of rural Capitalism in Western Massachusetts. One should contrast her brief comments on love and sexuality, with Nancy Cott's startling demonstration of the fragility of marriage. In contrast to her use of autobiographies one should look at Mechal Sobel's recent work which suggests the rise of a new personality in the United States, more individualistic, less communal. (The discredited concept of bourgeois revolution vindicated by psychoanalysis? We shall see.) And Appleby's account of the triumph of evangelicalism appears a bit complacent, a bit boosterish in its enthusiasm for the winning side in contrast to the recent work of Jon Butler and Christine Heyrman. In conclusion, one might say this book reminds one of Tocqueville. This is not meant as a compliment, since one reason for Tocqueville's abiding popularity and the almost total absence of serious criticism of him is that he provides a complex picture of modern society and its disconents in which questions of liberty and justice are ultimately irrelevant. When such questions arise they are not values in their own right, but problems which must be ably managed by the wise elite Tocqueville is part of. Of course Appleby cares very much about liberty and democracy. What is not so clear is whether she has thought through them enough.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 19, 2001
Appleby provides an excellent survey of the culture of the "first" generation of Americans and what influenced and shaped their interpretation of the American revolution that laid the groundwork for our governance and society today. Appleby notes that the first generation of Americans had to grapple with a yet unformed political and economic structure and much of their thinking and actions completed the formation of our national institutions and culture.
Many themes run through the work. First, Jefferson's election in 1801 was critical because it marked the beginning of the expansion of democracy and participatory politics to the masses and reaffirmed the predominance of state and local control over politics. Literacy and the wide consumption of newspapers and books, social and physical mobility,inventiveness, the embryo of industrialization, the proliferation of religious denominations, the blurring of social distinctions, and the formation of political and social organizations are just a few of the many themes she touches upon. These cultural tides, and others, broadened and made more inclusive participation in the structuring of economic, political, and religious decision making in both formal institutions and informal channels of influence.
Appleby also illuminates the growing isolation of the South from the rest of the country because of its rationalization of slavery -- an institution that was anathema to the ideals (if not the reality) of the nation's founding and ran counter to the democratization and upward mobility experienced by the rest of the nation. In hindsight we see the cultural beginnings of the schism between North and South -- here in cultural terms -- that explains how our nation could bring itself to such violent conflict in the Civil War years later.
These are just a few of the themes in Appleby's work -- and does it little justice. It would take me 20 pages of run-on sentences to describe many of the thought provoking elements in this book. So in short, I highly recommend it for those interested in the nation's founding.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2000
The book's contents are an assortment of anecdotal information about individuals, comments by foreign travelers in the early United States, historical facts, and the author's analysis and interpretations. It is not a complete history. It is a commentary on the social/economic/ political/religious development in the United States during the country's first half century. It was a time when people had been set loose from the law's and restrictions of England. The constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion and other freedoms caused a splintering of the church into various denominations, and a person could become a preacher simply by declaring himself as such. Likewise, people with a minimum of training (if any) could hang out shingles as doctors, attorneys, and teachers. Various entrepreneurs flourished, some successful, some not, as people struck out on their own to seek their fortunes. Schools developed as people sought education to improve their positions, and publishing boomed (partly because of the education, partly because the newly affluent bought books, and partly because of the freedom people had to publish their opinions). The author covers many aspects of the era including the split between north and south, the prejudices against African-Americans, the rise of the Baptist church, the rise of the temperance movement, and westward expansion of the nation. Many other aspects are only brushed over, such as the bloody conflicts with native Americans on the frontiers. The book barely touches on the maritime activities that brought the United States into the forefront of maritime nations (see Charles Tyng's autobiography, "Before the Wind," for an interesting account of that), and only briefly mentions the War of 1812 which occurred during that period. It is not an easy reading book as the author seems wrapped up in rhetoric and sometimes writes with an echo, i.e., repeating information or points previously made. The overly long introduction can leave a reader glassy-eyed.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2000
An excellent historical analysis of post American Revolution cultural and character regional developments responsible for much of the future general nature -- religous, economic, and social -- of both male and female Americans. It gives what might be considered a "true" picture of early 19th century U.S. history, not one that has been "cleaned up" to protect ancestry. It is a profound, in-depth work of the true scholar and historian to be thoroughly enjoyed. One learns much from such historical preparation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2007
Joyce Appleby's Inheriting a Revolution: The First Generation of Americans examines a post-Revolutionary America that looked differently than many founders had imagined. The focus of Appleby's book is the altered political, social, economic, and familial environment in which Americans who came of age after 1790 had to live--and in which many prospered. Appleby is prudent, however, to illustrate that not everyone flourished in the new America. Chroniclers recorded the American way of success as the qualities of the period's successful northern white men. "A new ideal character was created: the man who developed inner resources, acted independently, lived virtuously, and bent his behavior to personal goals" (11). White women, enslaved Africans, besieged Native Americans, and white men who did not adapt do not factor into this analysis.

The Revolution bequeathed the first generation of Americans a society awash in opportunity. In the eyes of post-Revolution Americans, "Independence made possible the creation of a distinctive American society that honored individual initiative, institutional restraint, and popular public participation" (5). The subjects of Appleby's study seized new opportunities and recorded their stories of challenge and success in diaries and memoirs. Appleby credits four post-Revolution phenomena for facilitating early national success and growth. First, she continues the discussion of the radicalizing of politics, which Gordon Wood brilliantly began in The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Men of different classes and occupations found new voices in local, regional, and national politics. "Twelve years after the ratification of the Constitution, a national elite, established with such high hopes for forming a stabilizing center, had been ousted and with it went that union of social and political power essential to ruling class" (52).

The second phenomenon which helped to shape the American social landscape was a revitalization of religion. As Nathan O. Hatch's excellent The Democratization of American Christianity also details, Christian revivalists, many of whom held little education--in an outright rejection of established church structures--preached of love and redemption in Christ. Religious movements brought together men and women of different backgrounds--including Africans--and inspired the establishment of voluntary religious associations. No one could "have predicted that the cool, rationalist attitudes of the Enlightenment would be overwhelmed by the warm passions of religious awakening" (8).

The third important element for early America's success was new opportunity for the young. The availability of land, access to credit, and increased literacy rates prompted young people to take risks with their career ambitions. More importantly, young men departed rural areas in search of jobs and entrepreneurial experience. Family relationships changed dramatically as boys who would have once stayed at home to carry on his father's name and occupation traversed the expanding country in search of money and adventure.

The fourth and most prevalent aspect of Appleby's study is the abolition of slavery in the Northern states. The decision to outlaw slavery by 1800 freed the North of the task of defending the bondage of humans in a post-Revolutionary America and it challenged the region to diversify its economic practices. Artificially cheap labor became a commercial crutch for the South. In addition, "the new distinction of free and slave labor with all its social entailments divided the United States in ways that could not have been imagined at the time of the Revolution" (8). Relations between those on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line became and remained frictional for decades.

In Appleby's view, the North is the true winner following the Revolution, and the South's decision to hang on to slavery retarded its political, social, economic, and cultural development. This part of her argument, which is prominent throughout the book, may affront some southern historians. Her not-so-generous view of the South does, at times, reach beyond objectivity. Appleby's zeal of argument, however, should not cause scholars or general readers, from North, South, East, or West, to hesitate to engage a brilliantly-formed and eloquently-reasoned thesis of how first-generation Americans understood their world in the wake of the Constitution. Inheriting the Revolution rightfully places the early national period at center stage, rather than treat it as a footnote.
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on October 15, 2013
Professor Appleby's book studies the nature of the American revolution, not by examining the founding documents and the abstract principles upon which they were based, but rather by telling us how the revolution transformed the lives of the next generation. because she draws heavily in her study on the lives of several thousand people born between the years 1776 and 1800 the reading is sometimes hard going as one person after another is presented to us, but this very technique gives confidence that she is leading us where the facts take us, rather than beginning with some preconceived interpretation and fitting the facts to support it.

The founders envisioned empowering an educated elite like themselves; instead they empowered ordinary men and women to make changes in their lives that no one could have imagined beforehand. The two or three decades after the revolution saw the emergence of phenomena that have characterized American life ever since: geographical and social mobility, entrepreneurship, consumerism, and religiosity. America became a geographically mobile society as individuals and families left their homes in the east to settle in the newly acquired lands to the west to establish farms, towns, even small cities. They became occupationally mobile as the ingenuity of mechanics, artisans, and farmers improved on old ways of doing things or invented new ones. New goods were produced, old ones improved, and new ways were found to get products to market. With a burgeoning population commerce flourished. Ordinary folk were able to buy goods that made life more comfortable. The consumer society characteristic of America to this day was born, with commercially made shoes, mechanical clocks and machine-produced fabrics being the I-phones and the laptops of their day.

The disestablishment of churches which resulted from he founders' commitment to religious freedom led, not to the falling of religious observance but the reverse. There was an outpouring of deep and fervent piety and a proliferation of new Christian denominations. Churches were built, Sunday Schools opened and wildly popular revival meetings held. To this day America is more religious than any other industrialized country. Nowadays it is not politically correct to emphasize the influence of Christianity on the formation of American society, but evangelical Christianity actually contributed to the democratization of America. Because the Bible was so important, churches opened schools to make sure parishioners could read; the spread of literacy led to the growth of newspapers, journals, pamphleteering. Women and African-Americans, excluded from public life otherwise, took an active and even leading role in preaching and missionary work. Religion was the inspiration behind movements to reform the treatment of the insane, criminals, and Christians were the backbone of the anti-slavery movement.

I highly recommend this book to those who want to learn how America got to be the way it is; to those who want to understand what the real American revolution was about.
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Joyce Appleby, currently a Professor Emeritus of History at UCLA, in this historical narrative of the years following the American Revolution explores the many social and economic difficulties that Americans faced and how they might shape their newly formed country. "As one contemporary said in 1789, Americans now had a roof for a new United States; it remained for those coming of age to fill the walls and furnish the rooms" (pp. 25).

Professor Appleby has written extensively about American and English 18th and 19th centuries, lived, written and studied abroad and has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians (1991) and the American Historical Association (1997). At the time of publishing, very few works on these aspects of the post- Revolution time frame had been written apart from works on politicians and American aristocracy and Appleby has contributed a substantial amount to this subfield of United States history.

Borrowing primarily upon the autobiographies of those who grew up during and amidst the aftermath of the break from England, the Americans that Appleby writes of did not fight the Revolution, rather they are those who were bestowed with the power to shape the nation into what it becomes during the 19th century and eventually what it is today. This generation was born both into a revolutionary and republican tradition but faced immense questions.

"The premise of Joyce Appleby's book is simple and arresting: Americans after 1789 possessed political independence and a constitutional blueprint for nationhood, but they possessed neither national political and social forms nor a national identity." By utilizing over two hundred autobiographies of those in this new generation, Inheriting the Revolution is a well documented work. Those individuals looked at range from all walks of life, social status and castes "who did something in public- starting a business, invented a useful object, settled a town, organized a movement, ran for office, formed an association, or wrote a publican, if only an autobiography" (pp. 7-8)

By examining Appleby's previous published books and articles, she is well versed in the concepts of a Jeffersonian America and ties these concepts and ideals into Inheriting the Revolution often. Jefferson, for example, was a slave owner but loathed its existence, during his administration territorial expansion remained important but Native American and foreign governments occupied land on the frontier and government's role in citizens' daily lives remained issues and are discussed throughout in an analysis of these autobiographies and various sources.

Economic life is cited and credit to America's new enterprises are shared between ordinary men who made the right choices, weathered economic storms, and financed these risky ventures. A new middle class emerged and Appleby spends a fair amount of time on careers such as lawyers, doctors, writers, teachers, and artisans and how education influenced social life, classes and professions. Stories of religion, family life and morality are also discussed and their bearing on issues of slavery, expansion, public life and politics. Appleby appears to side with the North in that it was the true champion of the American Revolution socially, economically and in cultural development, claiming slavery to have slowed the South's development.

At times Appleby does appear to be very optimistic of the changes that took place in the 19th century and an attempt to retain an uncritical stance. Very few autobiographies utilized are pre-1850 making the title of the book slightly misleading. It is difficult to be critical of Professor Appleby as she covers nearly every facet of American life, economics and politics in the post-Revolutionary era. The myth of the celebrated new national identity is fully explained in that nearly all Americans- all white women, slaves, Native Americans, free blacks and some white men were excluded from many of the processes that shaped the country. However, Inheriting the Revolution provides a fine analysis blending primary sources with a well written account and offers a fresh look into a generation of Americans that played a large part in the establishment of America offering a substantial contribution.
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