U.S. Intellectual History Blog

My debts to Joyce Appleby

I would like to say a few words in memory of the late Joyce Appleby, a giant in our field of United States intellectual history. One of the great masters of the essay format, Appleby was at her best articulating compelling and pithy interventions in the historiography. What other scholars needed a book for, she could deliver in a tightly written, yet subtly argued, essay. Most famously, she pushed back against the republican synthesis historians (sometimes also known as neo-whig historians) and reclaimed a place for liberalism in the intellectual history of early America. Thus, Appleby’s work is indispensable to the way we currently view the composite ideologies of the revolutionary and early republic periods. In some ways Appleby’s polemic was so convincing and integrative that we no longer know what to argue about in early American intellectual history.

Appleby was the best kind of scholar one can hope for. She knew well her own agenda and was transparent about it, though her research often turned against itself, as any faithful historical account should—at least to some degree. In this regard the introduction to her collection of essays Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992) stands out as a superb piece of historiographical polemic.(1) In it she provides some of the most incisive critique of liberalism in American thought, even as she ekes out a place for its resurgence both in the historiography and in contemporary American life. Though I regard myself as a leftist, and do not fully agree with Appleby’s faith in liberalism as a way forward, I know of no better attempt to rescue it from its own shackles. In our field, liberalism has had few, if any, better advocates—and critics.

On a more personal note, Appleby first fully unravelled for me what I still regard as the most fundamental insight about the intellectual history of early America: its peculiar counter-intuitive irony. Especially her collection of essays Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (1984) remains for me the best piece of writing on early American political economy. This is where I go to when I want to remind myself how Americans of the period grappled with such ideas as freedom, nature, commerce, and more. Appleby had her fingers on the very pulse of American thought, and perhaps better than anyone else understood the contradictions at the heart of the brand of capitalism that developed in the early United States. She deftly captured the irony of a society whose attempts to avoid a reliance on the market economy conversely ended up drawing it deeper into the market’s grasp than any other society until then in history.

Furthermore, as intellectual historians we owe a special debt to Appleby as a pioneer for women historians in perhaps the most mansplaining field in our discipline: the intellectual history of the founding of the United States. As a white man—and all-too-often a mansplainer myself—I have had glimpses of how poorly the historiography would have fared without the path paved by women of her generation. Appleby’s passing is a reminder of how a generation of women historians offered us pathbreaking historical interpretations and in the process transformed our understanding of the past.

[1] It is also one of the best historiographical essays you will find on early American intellectual history.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Many years ago I had occasion, in this context as a casual ‘general’ reader rather than someone in the field, to read an essay or two of hers, maybe in Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. Very lucid and well written (though I can’t say I really remember any of the particulars, it was so long ago). Anyway, “one of the great masters of the essay format” sounds right.

  2. Eran–
    Thank you for this recognition of the importance of Joyce Appleby’s work and voice. I regret that many years ago, as an MA student at UCLA and before I knew who Appleby was or what the significance of her work was to the areas that came to be compelling to me, I missed the opportunity to take a class with her. She was well known in the history department in the 1980s for the interest she took in mentoring graduate students, and creating a graduate-student reading group–a group that read classics in social thought–Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Weber, etc.–as I recall. Later, when I came upon her essay on the future of the doctorate in history, written for a Carnegie Study in 2006, I was not surprised to find that she thought all students who studied history at the doctoral level should be exposed to the works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, et al. and the foundations of modern social thought. The texts you cite–Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, and Capitalism and a New Social Order–were personally important to me as well in my later intellectual development. I found that Capitalism and a New Social Order, because it was brief and provocative, was an excellent work to assign to undergraduates. I remember in particular the clarity of the ending: to paraphrase (since I don’t have the text with me)–Understanding the historical roots of the Jeffersonian principle of hope teaches us that at the end of the twentieth century we must look elsewhere for our own principle of hope. The point–that the liberating and egalitarian potential of an agrarian capitalism of small producers could not weather the changes wrought by the later forms of industrial and corporate capitalism seems to me to be a fine example of the kinds of uses of history for contemporary life. Appleby, in fact, was always concerned with the public role of historical knowledge. The book on historical epistemology she co-wrote, Telling the Truth About History, was one example of her concern, as was her action in helping to found the History News Network. And, as you indicate, she was a great stylist and essayist, who wrote with a kind of clarity that is enviable. Her discussion of Pocock and the Republican school, in Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, is still the clearest exposition of the significance and meaning of his work, to my mind. Anyway, I’ve gone on too long, but I appreciate your recognition of her significance as a figure in American intellectual historiography.

    • Thanks for this, Dan. I had no idea she was involved in the founding of HNN. I was under the impression that occurred solely because of Rick Shenkman.

      I read Appleby’s The Relentless Revolution several years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I need to return to my notes for a more thorough reflection on what I got out of it. – TL

    • Thanks for this, Dan. I didn’t know that she was an advocate for reading Marx, Weber, Durkheim et al., but it makes a lot of sense as she herself was better versed in these key texts than any other Americanist I have read.

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