A treasure-trove of information about the early Republic, recreating an era that mixed cultural and emotional chaos with unprecedented opportunities at all levels of society.
Appleby (history/UCLA) paints the early 19th century as a time of tumultuous expansion of individualism, economic growth, and political engagement. The “first generation,” born in the decades immediately following the revolution, applied their parents’ idealistic challenges to authority to the reinvention of politics, commerce, and intimate relationships. Although Appleby’s purpose is to examine social contexts rather than anomalous individuals, the materials she uses vividly evoke the lived experience of real people. Drawn from hundreds of diaries, letters, memoirs, and records of the obscure as well as the famous, her panorama comprises men and women, African-Americans and Europeans, and rich, middle-class, and poor Americans. Appleby dramatizes daily life in a brand-new nation in which dueling was an accepted form of political discourse, counterfeit currency was nearly as valuable as genuine, and young men and women sallied forth to adventures and careers their forebears could not have imagined. In the South, slavery promoted the concentration of wealth and a rigid caste system; in the more progressive North, new avenues to prosperity opened up with technological innovations and the aspirations that motivated them. Revolutionary ideals of cultural egalitarianism helped to spread the desire for literacy and “refinement” throughout the population, creating new opportunities for work in the business of culture. But entrepreneurial enterprise valued flexibility and originality at the expense of familial loyalty and continuity with the past, fraying the relationships that had sustained earlier generations. Throughout the nation, the post-revolution generation reinvented the notions of religion, family, and destiny, forging an ideology that celebrated individual autonomy and elevated self-improvement stories to the status of myth.
Appleby presents the explosion of possibilities at the beginning of the 19th century in sparkling, jargon-free prose and vibrant detail, producing an indispensable guide to a fascinating, turbulent time. (Illustrations.)