in memoriam: Joyce Appleby

Source: ucla.edu

Source: ucla.edu

It was recently reported that Joyce Appleby died a little over a week ago. Appleby was a well-respected historian of English and American history. Like anyone who works on US political economy, I was impressed with and influenced by her work. But I truly appreciate her for the role that she played in getting my book published.

A Commercial Republic was an extension of my dissertation. That dissertation featured a chapter on the influence of civic republicanism in the early national period. Republicanism was the idea that the best government would be one that guarded against the tendency of individuals to put themselves, rather than the republic, first. Thus it stood in opposition to Liberalism, which says that political arrangements should seek to maximize the freedom enjoyed by its citizens. Most Americans think of the framers as being devout Liberals who inherited their love of liberty from Locke. (Among students of American history and politics, the most significant exponent of this idea is Louis Hartz.) But historians of the United States began to question this idea in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Led by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, these writers described civic republicanism to an audience that knew little of it. They argued that it was the animating idea on which the American republic was founded. Soon this way of looking at the founding era became the most prominent model of the period among intellectual and political historians.

But here's the problem: I graduated in 2006. In the intervening three decades or so, scholars had mounted significant challenges to the claim of republicanism's preeminence among the founding generation. The most articulate and forceful of these challenges had come from Joyce Appleby. I had read some of Appleby's work before but had not appreciated the historiographical significance of her observations. (I often wish that historians would write more like philosophers, who are not shy about saying, "and that is why Professor Jenkins is wrong." Sometimes the historical idiom is too subtle for me.) So I wrote a chapter on Alexander Hamilton's views of government economic intervention that situated these ideas in what I now know is an embarassingly out-of-date republican context.

Somehow this slip up escaped the notice of my committee and I was allowed to graduate. I spent the next couple of years polishing the dissertation into a book manuscript. When I submitted this fine jewel to the University Press of Kansas, the press's readers did not take long to notice the error. They insisted (kindly, but firmly) that the chapter was missing some important perspectives and that I would need to get up to speed on the newer work and rewrite that chapter. In the process of rewriting, then, I went back to Joyce Appleby. I finally noticed (with the help of some secondary literature) the extent to which she had been complicating, rather than merely supplementing, the republican narrative. Appleby did not reject this scheme completely by returning to the Hartzian idea that the framers had never thought of anything but Liberalism, nor did she deny the influence of republicanism. Instead, she noted that during the relevant period neither tradition had been developed enough to truly present a contradiction to the other. The American revolutionaries, she wrote, "had at their disposal not one social theory, but two: the ornate concept of constitutional balances and civic virtue of classical republicanism, and the simple—simplistic even—affirmations about human nature" that characterized Liberalism.

So the chapter rewrite largely became the process of giving Joyce Appleby's work its due, and then letting things fall into place from there. I turned in the new version, feeling quite pleased with myself. When I got the reports back, one reader was as excited as I was with the results. But the other was not; that reader thought (I believe) that I was still too beholden to republicanism. The reader no longer wanted to be associated with the project. Despite this disapproval, the reader had actually done me a favor: had he/she written a bad review, it would have been over. But by stepping down, the reader had allowed the press to get a replacement. Still, I was not in a good position. Were the book to go forward, the second reader report would have to be strong enough to overcome the fact that someone had voluntarily left the project rather than be associated with it.

My editor, Fred Woodward, told me that he had a replacement in mind about whom he thought I would be very excited. I was quite curious as to who this person might be, but could not even hazard an informed guess. Some time later, the comments from the new reader arrived. They were generally quite positive, even on the heretofore controversial first chapter. And Fred had been right about my reaction to the identity of the reader. I was, indeed, thrilled to learn that she was none other than Joyce Appleby. It was fantastic to have an historian of her stature associated with my book. Additionally, this whole affair had shaken my confidence. Appleby signing off on my treatment of the thorny issue of republicanism in the early national period gave me a bit more courage about sending the book off into the wide world.

Later Professor Appleby blurbed my book and I sent her a note of thanks. She never responded, which is understandable. She and I never had any sort of exchange and I am certainly not trying to give the impression that I knew her. Other than her influential body of work, all I know about Joyce Appleby is that she agreed to serve as a reader on my book. But someone with whom we have no personal relationship can still affect us in a very personal way. Joyce Appleby's willingness to help out an unknown scholar spoke well of her and I will be forever grateful.