HNN Doyen: Joyce Appleby

tags: HNN Doyens

Ms. Goodman was the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. Her blog is History Musings.

What They're Famous For

Joyce Oldham Appleby is professor emerita from UCLA and retired in 2001 after teaching there 21 years. She is one of the United States' foremost historians of the early republic. Appleby is at the pinnacle of her profession through her powerful engagement with important ideas and controversial issues. Throughout her 40-year career, her scholarship has examined the formation of an 'American' political ideology, with particular focus on the connections between the history of ideas and the history of economic institutions, policies and practices. 

Her books include "Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s," "Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans," "Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination," "Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England" and a recently published presidential biography of Thomas Jefferson. Appleby is past president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the Society for the History of the Early Republic.

 Personal Anecdote

Perhaps because I began teaching at a university underfunded for research and overly funded with students with modest academic aptitude, I learned early in my career that the key point of teaching is to move students from one intellectual level to a higher one. What the study of history offers above all is an opening to the complexity of human experience. I devised ways to make complicated matters more accessible rather than simplifying the complexity. 

Since we toss around complex with the same abandon as nuanced, I'll define how I think of complexity in history. Complexity in human affairs arises from the fact that human beings are never single-minded in their efforts and decisions, and events never slide along a predictable cause and effect continuum. Getting across this point has always been more important to me than raising consciousness about past injustices or rallying students to the heroism of dissenters and reformers. For this reason, I may have been perceived as conservative, even though in my extraprofessional, political life I have always been a left-leaning liberal with libertarian undertows.

History offers students an opportunity to think and discuss sophisticated topics. For this words are needed, so I felt keenly the importance of habituating them to a larger vocabulary - one big enough to get at those nuances, complexities, and subtleties. I was astonished when I came to UCLA in my 15th year of teaching to run into a program in which the counseling staff monitored lectures in introductory classes with the idea of locating words that students could not be expected to know. This nefarious [in my view] enterprise ended with the production of a list of words that the monitors had found UCLA lecturers using which were deemed beyond the ken of the students. All that I cam remember from that list is the word, sovereignty. This is the dumbing down approach to education which still enchants some educators. I believe in the intelligencing up of students. From my point of view one of the greatest legacies of a college education is an expanded vocabulary. This may seem "small potatoes" to educational reformers, but not to me. One can not think of subtlety or complexity without the words to express their defining qualities.

All of this is by way of introducing one of the most satisfying moments in my teaching career. It happened at San Diego State University in a lower division class with students more interested in getting a requirement out of the way than learning American History, much less participating in my "intelligencing up" project. The class size was limited to 40 because the department had committed itself to class discussions of the assigned primary texts that venerable collection, The People Shall Judge. The students sometimes let me know that my vocabulary was not theirs, but I insisted that it was the vocabulary of educated discourse. And during the semester, I noticed that some began to integrate new words when they spoke. During the final, one of the members of the class, a young man somewhat ragged around the edges, came up to me and softly asked how to spell, benign.

I've remembered this moment all these years because it captured how studying a subject plunges one into a conceptual universe which soon becomes one's own. In this new universe he had discovered a word that he wanted to use in his exam answer. He knew the meaning; he just lacked the spelling, because he had only heard it. He had to get the spelling because he couldn't express his thought without it. There in a nutshell was evidence of learning. I've always wondered if he continued using benign.

How I got involved in the History News Service

Having begun my career working for Mademoiselle magazine in New York and the Pasadena Star-News in California, I was familiar with the world of journalism. When I was elected president of the American Historical Association years later, I saw a chance to create a link between historians and newspapers with historians writing oped pieces that provided historical perspectives on contemporary events. Receiving a go-ahead at my first AHA Council meeting, Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, ran this notice in its October, 1996 issue.

"AHA Seeking Volunteers to Write Articles: The AHA is looking for volunteers for a committee to promote the writing of feature articles and op-ed essays in the popular press. There are very few public issues that do not have a historical dimension, but the public rarely learns it. We would like to form a committee that would address this need by generating topic ideas and identifying appropriate authors within the profession as news stories break. Committee service would require a commitment of several hours a week and access to e-mail. Suggestions for committee members and ways to respond to this challenge should be sent to Joyce Appleby at Appleby@histr.ssnet.ucla.edu."

The AHA Council decided that its sponsorship of a group distributing opeds could involve the association in unnecessary controversies, so HNS, not yet really an entity, was hived off from the AHA. By that time, I had received the most important response to my notice: James Banner wrote that he not only wanted to write for HNS, but would like to help me launch the enterprise. The offer of expert help could not have arrived at a better moment as I was about to enter my presidential year. I readily accepted his offer, and he set about developing an organization for HNS while I contacted newspapers, eventually finding more than 200 willing to look at our opeds.

The oped writers nominated themselves by emailing submissions to both of us, now the HNS co-directors. Having hit our stride by the 2000 election, we learned that both prospective oped authors and the public thought about history in a time of crisis. More than two dozen opeds flooded into our in-boxes during the long, Florida stand-off. Jim and I wrote a pro and con piece on the Electoral College which appeared in some 20 newspapers, and elicited many, angry responses from both sides of the for or against divide. Our normal pace is a weekly distribution of one oped with six or seven papers (and many more web sites) picking it up, including the supportive History News Network. 

A tribute to the internet, all of our writing, revising, and distributing is done through email; any payment goes directly to the writer; anyone may use HNS pieces after they have been posted. Writers and members of the HNS steering committee are volunteers. We share the same goal: building bridges to the public by using our expertise and responding to our civic commitment to enhance the quality of public discourse.

Quotes By Joyce Appleby

From Joyce Appleby in "The Power of History," January 9, 1998 Presidential Address, published in the American Historical Review , 103 (February, 1998) and reprinted in "A Restless Past," Lanham, Maryland, 2005, pp.. 145-48.

"There is a pervasive notion abroad in the land that somehow the past lingers on to force the hand of those who reconstruct it. Yet we know that the past as a series of events is utterly gone; only its consequences have infiltrated the present. Some remnants remain like litter from a picnic, but these material leftovers never speak for themselves. In fact they are inert traces until someone asks a question that turns them into evidence. We need to converse about the vital connection of curiosity and inquiry in scholarship, because one effect of the attacks on western knowledge has been to popularize a skepticism detached from its critical roots. Ours is a knowledge dependent society, yet people are quick to believe that knowledge changes in arbitrary ways, even that cabals of like-minded academics exist to poison the well of truth. We live in an age without consensus where paradoxically men and women all over the world are gravitating to the same opinions. Joyce Appleby JPG History can minister to both perplexities, not only by preserving the endangered diversity of the human experience, but also by nurturing an understanding of how learned opinions are formed. Whether we meet our audience gathered in the classroom, at museum exhibits, reading our books, or in public forums, we need to offer an alternative to cynicism by making accessible how we reconstruct the past. And since our work is similar to the construction of all knowledge, learning how historical truths are put forward and tested possesses a protean utility?

History is powerful because we live with its residues, its remnants, its remainders and reminders. Moreover, by studying societies unlike our own, we counteract the chronocentrism that blinkers contemporary vision. That's why we cannot abandon intellectual rigor or devalue accuracy. History has an irreducible positivistic element, for its subject is real, even if that reality is evanescent and dependent upon texts. Historical writing creates objects for our thoughts, making audible what had become inaudible, extracting latent information from the objects that men and women have constructed. This materiality of historical evidence does restrain us. Imagine a willful forgetting of the Holocaust had the Nazis won World War Two. Eventually someone would have picked up the trail of clues or stumbled over the contradictions in the documents created by the victors. Texts would then replace texts, but the impetus for the change would have come from the past itself just as scholars reconstructing the succession of post-Columbian demographic disasters had lots of evidence to go on, once their curiosity turned in that direction. The concreteness of history is what gives it the power to compel attention, to stretch imaginations, and to change minds?

A hundred and fifty years ago, historians exalted the nation's commercial values as proof of democratic vigor; since the Progressives they have focused more upon those groups that failed to benefit from a profit-driven economy. Perhaps now, as the twentieth century closes, we may be ready to explore the social complexity of our entrepreneurial system while shedding the celebratory and compensatory burdens of our predecessors. 

The power of history is liberating. The last four decades have demonstrated it, if proof be needed. First social historians located and analyzed group experiences which had been ignored by earlier historians. Then investigations of ideologies and paradigms, followed by postmodernist critiques and cultural studies, plumbed the depths of society's shaping hand in organizing human consciousness through models, discourses and language's insinuating codes. Today as teachers, exhibitors, preservers, and researchers of the past, we have been forced to think through the acts of appropriation and remembrance. We can no longer plead ignorance of their effects. We're self-conscious about our voices, our genres, our assumptions. If we can live with this indeterminacy, pursue its implications, contend over meaning, give repeated witness to the magnificence of the human effort to understand, and share these acts with the public, we can be certain that history - the quintessential Western discourse - will have no end.

From Joyce Appleby in "Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans"

"From the Springs of ardor and enthusiam issued a powerful mythabout America that metamorphosed ordinary labor into extraordinary acts of nation building. It also attached personal virtue to a narrative about human progress and claimed for liberty the protean capacity to sustain economic development and main maintain democratic vigor. Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans JPG In the simplicity of this national narrative there was little room for alternative constructions of reality, no place for failures, scant concern for diverging truths, and insufficient attention paid to prophetic voices. Only one division could not be printed and papered over-that between the Northern and Southern States that was leading inexorably to dividing the house that had gone in escrow at Philadelphia.

The American Revolution had not produced its own reactionaries. The Southern gentry had applauded the break with Great Britain with even more fervor than Northern leaders. What they disdained to share was the interpretation of America's revolutionary heritage as a call to innovation, enterprise, and reform. The sucess of Noretherners in fashioning this understanding of their jopint inheritance led to a new North that spoke for the nation and an old South that clung to values that pushed them apart. what was happening in the United States in its first fifty years-the elaboration od democratic institutions, the hardening of racist lines, the openess of oppotunity, thinning of intellectual traditions, and reconfiguring of Northern and Southern states into the North and the South-could not be comprehended within a unifying story, yet this did not prevent those in the first generation most concious of the nation from claiming their story for the whole. Rather than abandon the cherished object of an American truth, they accepted the half loaf of a half truth wrapped in a covering myth about the land of the free."

From Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball in "Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings"

Thomas Jefferson JPG "The most talked-about president in America's history, Thomas Jefferson commands both praise and condemnation. He is regularly quoted when people speak of natural rights, but the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence's evocation of 'the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' and its author's being a slave-holder troubles us more than ever before. Looking at Jefferson's presidency helps us to understand this puzzle as well as his amazing accomplishment in washing out the elite traditions of the nation's colonial past from the expansive democracy he so decisively shaped." 

About Joyce Appleby

Martha Saxton reviewing "Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans"

Joyce Appleby's provocative and wide-ranging new book joins a growing group of works interested in the construction of our myths and how we remember our past. Appleby, long a scholar and admirer of Jefferson, has looked at how the generation of Americans, beginning to exert their power at the time of his election in 1800, gave meaning to the Revolution. She isolates America's proverbial defining moment, crystallizes the ideas it produced, and indicates some it left behind. She consulted over 200 published autobiographies and memoirs in addition to myriad other accounts of this generation. Appleby's group of Americans "did something in public," and she acknowledges that failures did not get voices in her story. As a result, the tone often bears a strong resemblance to Tocqueville's enthusiastic report of a country, brash and strong, expanding in every direction, a people serious, untutored, egalitarian, and pleased with themselves. Both writers find much to celebrate in tracing the effects of a democratic revolution on the character and practices of Americans. But Appleby's primary story is not only about how these Americans construed their experience but also how that related to historical reality.... Appleby's brilliant earlier work on the social construction of the liberal, economic man and the long preparation Americans had for the rapid penetration of the market lays the groundwork for her economic analysis.... While Appleby claims too much in some cases for the Revolution, her artful unfolding of the history of 1789-1830 and its participants' simultaneous interpretation of it is a great achievement. In the end, as Appleby knows, it has mattered considerably less to most Americans exactly what historians believe the Revolution accomplished compared to what its legatees ascribed to it. Examining the gap between our reassuringly heroic revolutionary tradition and reality is an invaluable project, no matter what its precise measurements turn out to be. 

Edward Countryman reviewing "Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans" in the NYT

Joyce Appleby deals with two themes in this book: the historical experience of the generation after the American Revolution and conflicts within American identity. The result is Whitmanesque, both in its complex but coherent vision and in its elegant expression. 

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: 

San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, assistant professor, 1967-70, associate professor, 1970-73, professor of American history, 1973-81, associate dean of College of Arts and Letters, 1974-75;
University of California, Los Angeles, professor of history, 1981--.
Visiting associate professor, University of California, Irvine, 1975-76;
visiting professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1978-79.

Member of board of fellows, Claremont Graduate School, 1970-73;
fellow commoner, Churchill College, Cambridge University, 1977-78;
summer fellow, Regional Economic History Research Center, Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, 1979;
visiting fellow, St. Catherine's College, Oxford University, 1982;
Phelps Lecturer, New York University, 1982;
Becker Lecturer, Cornell University, 1984;
Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University, and fellow of Queen's College, 1990-91.
Institute of Early American History and Culture, member of council, 1980-, chairperson, 1983-86.

Area of Research: 

Seventeenth and eighteenth century America, economic thought in early modern England, and the intellectual origins of capitalism.

Stanford University, B.A., 1950;
University of California, Santa Barbara, M.A., 1959;
Claremont Graduate School, Ph.D., 1966. 

Major Publications:

● Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England, (Princeton University Press, 1978).

● Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, (New York University Press, 1983).

● (With Joseph Cropsey and Forrest McDonald) Understanding the United States Constitution 1787-1987: Three Bicentennial Lectures, (Colorado College, 1988).

●  Without Resolution: The Jeffersonian Tension in American Nationalism: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 25 April 1991, (Oxford University Press, 1991).

●  Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, (Harvard University Press, 1992).

●  (With Lynn Avery Hunt and Margaret C. Jacob) Telling the Truth about History, (Norton, 1994).

●  (With Alan Brinkley and James M. McPherson) The American Journey, (Glencoe/MacGraw-Hill, 1998).

●  Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans, Belknap Press, 2000.

●  (With Noble E., Jr. Cunningham), Jefferson and Monroe, (University of North Caroilina, 2003)

●  A Restless Past: History and the American Public, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005)

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

Materialism and Morality in the American Past: Themes and Sources, 1600-1800, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1974.(With others) Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective, (Routledge, 1996).Recollections of the Early Republic: Selected Autobiographies, (Northeastern University Press, 1997).(With Terence Ball) Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

DoyenAppleby2.jpgContributor to books, including The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, edited by Margaret Jacob and James Jacob, Allen & Unwin (Boston, MA), 1983; and Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, edited by Jack P. Green and J. R. Pole, Johns Hopkins Press (Baltimore, MD), 1983. 

Contributor to numerous journals, including American Quarterly, Business History Review, Civil War History,Journal of American History, and Past and Present. William and Mary Quarterly, member of editorial board, 1980-83, chairperson, 1981-83. Member of editorial board of Intellectual History Group Newsletter, 1981--, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 1982--, Journal of the Early Republic, 1982--, American Historical Review, and Encyclopedia of American Political History.

Awards and Grants:

Berkshire Prize, 1978, for Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England.
1993, Annual Distinguished Faculty Award of the UCLA College of Letters and Science;
1995, Guggenheim Fellowship for her project on the intellectual origins of liberalism; 
She has received support from the Mellon Foundation to train advanced graduate students to offer undergraduate seminars on current trends in historical theory.

Additional Info:

Appleby co-directs with James Banner, the "History News Service," an informal association that distributes op-ed essays written by historians to over 300 newspapers weekly.
She also writes op-eds and book reviews for the news media, including the "New York Times," and has done commentary on the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer, anf recently appeared on C-Span2, Book TV "In Depth" show discussing her life, career, and writings.
Memberships: American Antiquarian Society, American Historical Association (member of Chester Higby Prize committee, 1982; member of council, 1982-85; president, 1997), Organization of American Historians (member of program committee, 1982; president, 1991).

comments powered by Disqus