A very useful, though flawed, challenge to the republican synthesis in early American history.

In Capitalism and a New Social Order, Appleby argues that Jeffersonian Republicans in the 1790s championed a liberal capitalist — not agrarian republican — vision for the United States.They advanced this position against the visions of the Federalists, who adhered to classical republican values that privileged the political activity of the traditional elite.The crushing political triumph of the Republicans in the early nineteenth century, therefore, was the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy in the United States.However, the nineteenth century saw the rise of a form of industrial capitalism that the Republicans had not foreseen; they expected American capitalism to be based primarily on agriculture carried out by independent landholders, not by wage slaves in factories.

Appleby's argument, which loops a bit, proceeds the following way.In the early eighteenth century, she writes, the American colonies were both republican in outlook and class-stratified.Civic authority was in the hands of a supposedly virtuous elite.However, as the century progressed, America became more socially European; there was a general increase in prosperity and a concomitant increase in the numbers of the landless.When the Revolution took place, it was led by members of that traditional provincial elite, who initially were complacent about their continuing authority in the state. However, the Revolution was based on a brew of contradictory English traditions: classical republicanism (civic leadership by the virtuous few), constitutionalism (conservation of legal privileges), and Lockean liberalism (rational agreement among individuals in society).It was the French Revolution of 1789 that pushed Lockean liberalism into the forefront of American discourse.(More on that in the paragraph after next.)

In this political setting, Appleby argues, modern economic theory, with Adam Smith leading the way, offered the Republicans a new way of imagining the "natural" social order.Traditional English economic ideas were based on scarcity of resources and therefore prescribed austere distribution under a watchful public eye.The new economic ideas, in contrast, promised increasing and more evenly distributed prosperity thanks to individual initiative.In America, furthermore, the new ideas about commerce took on a distinctive aspect.America's place in the world market increasingly depended on the export of food and other staples, and Americans had ample access to land.Accordingly, the new economic ideas seemed compatible with the image of the virtuous yeoman farmer.(According to Appleby, the Republicans drew their voting strength from "cosmopolitan" trading areas of the country where many citizens were on the make.Federalists, on the other hand, saw wealth primarily in an older light, as a way to confirm traditional class distinctions.)

The French Revolution, especially in its radical phases, brought to light these basic differences between Federalist and Republican thinking.Americans took different sides on the question of the French Republic.The Federalists were alarmed by the French Revolution and by the French military struggle against the old European monarchies.As it turned out, the Federalists embraced a classical republican version of British elitism; they believed in a fixed social order based on hierarchy.The Jeffersonian Republicans, on the other hand, cheered on the French revolutionaries.They embraced French (even Jacobin) values of classlessness and equal participation in government.

The fact of the matter was that Republicans were optimistic about the future that America and France were entering.They saw in the free commercial economy an alternative to traditional forms of paternal authority, as well as an opportunity for the "widespread enjoyment of comforts" by all men.The "natural" economy, as defined by Adam Smith, promised to replace government and liberate the individual.That was the promise that the Republicans pursued in the 1790s, while Federalists tried vainly to shore up old privileges with paternal federal authority.


Because this book comprises a set of synthetic lectures, it is sometimes light on sources, and the sources used are mostly secondary sources, selectively applied.Unfortunately, I question the reliability of Appleby's information about Republican voting patterns; her sources are few, but she relies very heavily on them in making the claim that Republicans drew their electoral strength from rising commercial areas.However, Appleby does use primary sources to good effect, citing statements on political economy by the likes of Hamilton and Jefferson as well as influential treatises like Thomas Cooper's Political Arithmetic.Her interpretations of these sources are sensitive and subtle, and she manages to capture a lot of the overlap that existed in the classical republican, constitutionalist, and Lockean liberal traditions.It is on this question that her work is most valuable.

The most important conceptual weakness is a common one: Appleby conflates capitalism and commerce.Although it is true that Americans, like Adam Smith, frequently linked these ideas at the time, they are not synonyms.And "capitalism" itself is an ambivalent concept even today; sometimes, it refers to the production of physical goods, but sometimes it refers to development of abstract forms of wealth.

In other words, Appleby is conflating ideas that enjoyed a fruitfully ambiguous relationship in the 1790s, in the thought of Federalists and Republicans alike.In doing so, she leaves unexamined the contrasting Federalist and Republican ideas about credit and manufactures.Although Appleby does imply that a difference existed regarding manufactures — she correctly notes that Republicans assumed that agriculture, not industry, would have pride of place in the "natural" economy — she needs to do more with this fact in order to capture the truth about Federalist and Republican differences.She is wrong to imply that the development of nineteenth-century factories, with their vast disparities between employers and workers, took Republicans by surprise.Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the Republicans anticipated precisely this development as a result of Federalist fiscal and financial policy.So to say that Republicans were sanguine about liberal capitalism is misleading, insofar as "liberal capitalism" usually refers (in our day) to an industrialized economy lubricated by banking.That is not the economy that the Republicans had in mind.