|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
May 30, 2000
MARGARET WARNER: The book is "Inheriting the Revolution: The First
Generation of Americans." The author is Joyce Appleby, a professor
of history at UCLA. Drawing on hundreds of autobiographies and unpublished
memoirs, she tells the story of the post-independence generation, those
Americans born immediately after the revolutionary war-- men and women
who, from 1790 to 1830, created a brand-new nation and society.
MARGARET WARNER: What intrigued you about this generation?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think just what you said. I was very interested in what... Who constructed this revolutionary heritage, because we think of ourselves very much as a nation that starts with a revolution, and I'm a historian of the revolution and the Constitution, and I was curious as to how it was interpreted by those people who had no contact with the colonial era, who had never been subjects of the king, who had none of the sensibilities and mores that their parents had.
MARGARET WARNER: And was it...did the fact of independence really make that big a difference?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Yes. It made... Yes, it made an enormous difference. There are two levels: One, because it created the... a sense that they had to do something with their lives and with the society, that was almost as if it were a gift, but it was a gift with a lot of strings attached to it. And then the other reason why it's important is because there were other developments that had nothing to do with the United States, per se-- economic developments, cultural developments-- which played out very differently for an independent nation than they would have had the Americans still been under Great Britain.
MARGARET WARNER: Give me one example.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think the economy is probably as interesting an example as any, because the economic... The colonial economy had been organized around what Great Britain wanted, and there were restrictions on manufacturing, and the colonies were all separate. With independence, Americans could pioneer new trades. They went to China for the first time. The first millionaire in America was made in the China trade. But most importantly were the experiments in manufacturing, and they were largely unimportant rural lads who had an idea and took advantage of the water power in all the streams, and rivers, and rivulets-- mainly in the North-- and pioneered inventions and manufacturing schemes.
MARGARET WARNER: And all these young men became entrepreneurs?
JOYCE APPLEBY: All these young men became entrepreneurs. But it wasn't just manufacturing, it was also, it was a time of... you know, what people refer to now, as a "print revolution." There was an acceleration in the number of things that could be published, and an increase in literacy, and reading became just a passion for people. And American leaders realized that reading would help knit the country-- which was pretty scattered in its population-- would help knit them together around a common set of references, really. And little did they know that the American public was going to be dying for anything to read. So that was something they could do in independence-- totally create their own reading materials, and organizations that relied on print.
MARGARET WARNER: One of the fascinating things, I thought, in your book was that you described how many of the qualities that we, today, think of as essentially "American" really took shape then.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Yes. I think it was a charter generation, and it was because it was the first generation to live with this revolutionary inheritance, but also because it was the...very self-consciously being different in the world. The society was democratizing, it was becoming more liberal. There was an outpouring of religious enthusiasm, and many new denominations were formed, so the... Learning to live in this newly-created public space was what this generation did, and they, sort of, blocked out the areas that we're still living with.
MARGARET WARNER: On the economic front, you pointed out that the idea of the independent self-made man was not a concept that was either European or colonial. It really started now.
JOYCE APPLEBY: That's true, and of course, one of the reasons it started is because there was an attack on hierarchies of all sorts. Obviously, the revolution was an attack on the British hierarchy, but after the revolution, there were... these religious reformers attacked the old-line churches and their authoritarian ways. Young people-- boys, but even women-- had a chance to leave their homes and their fathers and strike out on their own. And so this idea of being independent and autonomous was able to fulfill itself, because authority in general was deeply weakened by the revolution and its aftermath.
MARGARET WARNER: And that was even true in the family.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Mm-hmm, probably most true in the family. It's really fascinating. One of the things I discovered, to my surprise, is how much conflict there was between young men and their fathers. Their fathers wanted to still maintain the control that they were used to having over their adult children, but there were so many opportunities that young men could leave the farm and do something else, that there would be this breakup in the family.
MARGARET WARNER: When you say "young," too, one of the statistics or observations which really struck me was that, I think it was 1820, 58% of all Americans were under the age of 20.
JOYCE APPLEBY: I know. It was very... And comparably young people were given a great deal of responsibility. I have lots of stories of 14- year-olds, you know, traveling 100 miles to cash a check, and ensigns in the Navy who were 14. It was quite fascinating.
MARGARET WARNER: And the huge... and the great mobility that they felt they had.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Of course, they did have it, because there was now land that they could move to, and they could move to the city. It was the array of possibilities that characterizes this period. Even for enslaved people, there were some possibilities. There was more of an opportunity to liberate oneself. There, of course, was the abolition movement in the North. There were the first really significant free black population in America from this period.
MARGARET WARNER: But you do make the point that for both women, and, at least, enslaved blacks, this was not the same kind of opportunity at all.
JOYCE APPLEBY: No, no. Oh, in no way. It was much constricted, though it's fascinating to me that you cannot liberate that large of a population and not have it rub off on those that are not officially invited to be a part of the citizenry, so they did get ideas.
MARGARET WARNER: And then finally, in your book, I found... You know, it's disheartening. We know what happens with the Civil War, but really this new generation did, as you put it at one point, really create two different countries. I mean, not just economically, but in sensibility, in the North and in the South.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Yes. That is what happened, and that was a surprise to me to see how soon and how many different influences pour in to differentiate the north from the south, and create "the North" and "the South," so they could have a Civil War.
MARGARET WARNER: Why was the institution of slavery so powerful in shaping these differences? I mean, because as you pointed out, they weren't just economic.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think one of the reasons is, because slavery was coming under criticism, not just in the United States, but in England and France, and the north took advantage of its having fewer slaves. Reformers were able to abolish slavery in the North. But this threw the South on the defensive. You know, people could be anti- slavery, and deal with it as a philosophical subject. This was something practical and real; they had abolished it. And that meant that the South anticipated anything that was going to threaten slavery long before the threat had even materialized. So they were not very interested in schooling for everyone. They suppressed publications and circulation of information, because there were secret threats in almost all of the developments that are going on in the North that we see as modernizing.
MARGARET WARNER: Which then quashed the kind of entrepreneurialism that you might have had in the north.
JOYCE APPLEBY: And the freedom for young people. Even teaching, teaching was a wonderful bridge from young people to get out of the farm and find out about a larger world. But there were many fewer school districts in the South. Teaching was associated with radicalism.
MARGARET WARNER: So, based on your research, do you think the civil war was inevitable?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I do think it was inevitable. As near to inevitable as you could say. I think, perhaps... It's hard to say "inevitable." Certainly, you can imagine something that could have..
MARGARET WARNER: But almost determined.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Almost over-determined, yes. Because... Just because this existence of a free section and a slave section. Because, see, in the revolution, there was no free section, but after it there was, and just the existence of those two powerful differences played out in dozens and dozens of ways during the early decades of the 19th century.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Joyce Appleby, thanks very much and good luck with your book.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Thank you.