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Freedom's Promise

INHERITING THE REVOLUTION The First Generation of Americans By Joyce Appleby; The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press: 322 pp., $26

May 14, 2000|FRED ANDERSON | Fred Anderson is the author, most recently, of "Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766."

In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur published "Letters From an American Farmer," in which he famously asked, "What, then, is the American, this new man?" Americans seeking to define their national character have wrestled with that question ever since, often with dubious results. At the least, they have tended to ransack the past for evidence of those characteristics that anticipate what they currently admire about themselves, thus underestimating the complexity and ambiguity of their ancestors' identity and flattening their own understanding of American history. Knowing that the Civil War ended in the destruction of slavery, for example, latter-day Americans have often assumed that Yankee attributes of egalitarianism and industriousness defined the "true" character of the nation as a whole and have ignored the fact that prewar Northerners happily profited from the slave system and shared without any particular qualms the racist opinions of their Southern contemporaries.

To read the past in such an essentially teleological and self-serving way is bad enough, but it also tends to sustain the fallacy of "exceptionalism"--the notion that American history serves the United States' special destiny as a beacon to lesser nations. Now Joyce Appleby, a professor of history at UCLA, has created a collective portrait of the generation of men and women born in the United States between 1776 and 1800, and on the basis of their lives and values ventures an answer to Crevecoeur's query that is intriguing, sophisticated and anything but exceptionalist. Anyone curious about how Americans came to understand themselves as a people would do well to read this book.

Appleby maintains that Americans first defined their national identity by infusing meaning into the Revolution to which they were heirs. That massively complex war had led to the exile of a hundred thousand American loyalists, the massive destruction and displacement of Native American populations and the harsh repression of American slaves who strove to claim liberty and equality for themselves. When the men and women born between 1776 and 1800 looked back on their lives in autobiographies and memoirs, however, they associated the Revolution not with exclusion, violence and oppression but with the release of creative potential in their lives and the life of the nation. These writers, mainly Northerners who had experienced some degree of success in life, believed that the striving, reforming, individualist, commercial, democratic spirit of the early republic fulfilled the promise of the Revolution. In their view, American economic and social progress both vindicated revolutionary ideals and justified the sacrifices of their parents' generation.

These contemporary assumptions, Appleby shows, had roots in reality. Enormous energies had been stored up in colonial British America as a consequence of the colonies' cultural diversity and dynamic demography, but monarchical political culture and hierarchical social relations had held them in check. When imperial constraints vanished, revolutionary republicanism provided a vocabulary that replaced privilege (the cornerstone of the old order) with equality and individual rights. This new ideal became the basis on which the Revolution's sons and daughters built their lives and described their achievements.

Had Appleby stopped there, she would in effect have put a scholarly foundation under the myth that the members of the post-Revolutionary generation were constructing--a story that identifies the United States as a nation uniquely chosen to lead all other nations to freedom. Exceptionalism is, however, no part of Appleby's agenda, and she goes on to demonstrate that the Revolution was in fact an event with many meanings, some of which were quite contrary to the enterprising individualism that her memoirists placed at the core of American identity.

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Indeed, she points out, the men who framed the new republic's institutions carefully designed them to allow slavery (and patriarchal white supremacy) to survive the Revolution. The Founding Fathers took special pains to endow slavery in the Southern states with no less claim to legal protection and constitutional legitimacy than the more open and egalitarian system that emerged in the Northern states during the early decades of the 19th century--the system celebrated by Appleby's mainly Northern memoirists. How an ambiguous Revolutionary tradition split into Northern and Southern halves and how the Northern version came to define what we tend to think of as America's "true" national identity form the heart of Appleby's narrative.

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