The historian Joyce Appleby passed away last month. She was a major contributor to our understanding of early American history and the traditions of liberalism and republicanism that preceded and formed it.
Appleby was born in 1929 and began her PhD at the age of 32 after working as a journalist. She raised three children while pursuing her doctorate. Along with publishing several books and many articles, she taught at San Diego State and UCLA, and also served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. In 1996, she helped set up the History News Service, an effort to get historians more engaged in public discussion though opinion pieces in newspapers. Her last book was published when she was 84.
Among many stimulating articles, “The Intellectual Underpinnings of American Democracy” stands out. Appleby wrote that “the core beliefs necessary to the widespread acceptance of American democracy” were that “ordinary men could take care of themselves without firm direction of ministers, magistrates, and fathers; that this capacity to look out for oneself is part of the human endowment and hence universal and equal; and that social change was part of an evolutionary process that over time would enhance the entire human prospect.”
These were not the core beliefs of the Federalists, and that’s what created the great divide between Hamilton and Jefferson and their allies in the 1790s. In many ways, that divide has never been bridged; those are two distinctly different views of human nature and the role of government. Hamilton believed that ordinary people could not be trusted and needed to be overseen by the rich and educated; Jefferson thought “people were naturally self-regulating if given the chance to cultivate their reason through the exercise of free choice.” Of course, Jefferson did not include women or people of other races here, but the optimism of his philosophy has inspired others expand the narrowness of his view.
In an earlier article, Appleby claimed “history can help one think better, live more richly, and act more wisely.” History in her reading is a moral project, not a scientific one. Yes, there are facts—names, dates, and the like—but there are also narratives and interpretations. Historiography, the history of history, is never static. Appleby gives an excellent synopsis of major currents running through American history over four decades, from the new social history of the 1960s to the postmodern perspectives of the 1980-1990s. She wrote that histories that began to included laborers, women, slaves, Native Americans and others traditionally left out of the story “dug into the American psyche like a dentist hygienist and found a sore spot.”
Revisionism, relativism, and what she calls “a radical defamiliarizing of the past” have upset and scared some who yearn for the return of old verities. But the truthfulness of those old lessons is precisely the point. Appleby said being “self-conscious about our assumptions, our forms, our voices” makes for better historians. And, one guesses, citizens as well.