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NY Times, Jan. 6 2017
Joyce Appleby, Historian of Capitalism and American Identity, Is Dead at 87
By SEWELL CHAN
Joyce Appleby, a distinguished historian and author who argued that
ideas about capitalism and liberty were fundamental in shaping the
identity of early Americans, died on Dec. 23 at her home in Taos, N.M.
She was 87.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, her daughter, Ann Lansburgh
Dr. Appleby, a former journalist who began her Ph.D. training at 32
while caring for three children, rose to the top ranks of the
discipline, serving as president of the Organization of American
Historians, the American Historical Association and the Society for
Historians of the Early American Republic.
She wrote several books, contributed to others and edited several more;
she was 84 when her final book, “Shores of Knowledge: New World
Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination,” was published.
She was also a scholar of Thomas Jefferson and wrote a brief biography
of him, published in 2003.
Dr. Appleby was part of a generation of historians who examined the
ideologies and beliefs that animated the American Revolution. These
scholars took seriously the ideas of the founding generation, breaking
with Progressive Era historians like Charles A. Beard, who had dismissed
revolutionary ideas as rhetorical cover for the founders’ economic
interests. But the scholars were not united in their interpretation.
Following a path laid by Caroline Robbins, historians like Bernard
Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood emphasized civic republicanism, a set of
beliefs that focused on the threat of power to liberty and the need to
put the common good above personal self-interest. They traced the
Americans’ revolutionary beliefs to the so-called radical Whigs of
17th-century England, thinkers like Algernon Sidney and James
Harrington, who feared a slide toward despotism.
Dr. Appleby challenged this view.
“The classical republican convictions that Bailyn ascribed to America’s
founders drew on a vocabulary of political pathology to predict tyranny,
chaos, usurpations and conspiracies,” Dr. Appleby said in a 2012
lecture. “Locke was turned into an eccentric figure, the center now
being held by an inherited way of interpreting events harking back to
Renaissance fears about power lusts.
“Classical republicanism involved several propositions: that change
generally brought degeneration, or worse, and that history pointed to
the instability of all political orders. Civic virtue, where leaders put
the common good above their own interests, formed the only bulwark
In books like “Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision
of the 1790s” (1984) and “Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical
Imagination” (1992). Dr. Appleby argued that the revolutionaries were
more individualistic and optimistic than they had been given credit for.
John Locke and Adam Smith had as much influence on founders like
Jefferson as the radical Whigs — if not more, she said. In her view, the
revolutionaries believed that the public good would arise out of the
harmonious pursuit of private interests in a market economy.
“For me, liberalism had entered American consciousness as a potent brew
blended from 17th-century entrepreneurial attitudes and the
Enlightenment’s endorsement of liberty and reason,” Dr. Appleby said in
the 2012 lecture. “Because nature had endowed human beings with the
capacity to think for themselves and act on their own behalf,
representative government seemed the perfect fit for them.
“Rather than classical republicanism’s fixation on social traumas,
liberalism was optimistic, moving forward with the rational,
self-improving individual who was endowed with natural rights to be
exercised in a widened ambit of freedom.”
Or, as she put it in a 2007 essay on the intellectual underpinnings of
American democracy, “Fear moved aside to make room for hope.”
The debate between liberalism and republicanism, especially active in
the 1970s, eventually subsided. A new generation of social historians
analyzed the concerns of marginalized groups — workers, women, free and
enslaved African-Americans, and Native Americans, among others. Later
still, a new cohort of scholars, influenced by postmodernism and
cultural studies, looked at how human consciousness is shaped by language.
Dr. Appleby did not reject postmodernism and multiculturalism out of
hand, but she feared that they had taken history too far toward
relativism. In “Telling the Truth About History” (1994), she and the
historians Lynn Hunt and Margaret C. Jacob waded into the “culture wars”
over what should be emphasized in museums and textbooks.
They agreed that claims of the “absolute character” of scientific truth,
and the supposed triumph of Enlightenment reason, needed to be
challenged. But they argued that some thinkers had gone too far in
arguing that there can be no historical truth at all, only opinion,
ideology or myth.
The notion of truth, they argued, makes possible science itself, as well
as the self-criticism necessary for democratic society. They turned to
19th-century American thinkers like John Dewey and Charles Sanders
Peirce to argue for “pragmatic realism” — for history that is aware of
philosophy but that is also grounded in empirical data.
Dr. Appleby was born Joyce Oldham on April 9, 1929, in Omaha, the
youngest of three children of Junius G. Oldham and the former Edith G.
Cash. Her father, a World War I veteran and a salesman for the United
States Gypsum Corporation, came from a Democratic family; his father had
been a friend of William Jennings Bryan. Her mother, a homemaker, was
the daughter of a Republican land speculator.
After graduating from Stanford in 1950, Dr. Appleby won a contest to
work in the advertising department of Mademoiselle magazine in New York.
The publishing executive Harold W. McGraw Jr. offered her a job, but she
felt compelled to return to California to get married, as her friends
She worked for a time at Restaurant Reporter, a trade magazine based in
Beverly Hills, laying out pages, delivering copy and sending out
subscription notices. After her first child was born and the family
moved, she was the South Pasadena stringer for The Star-News, a local
newspaper, but concluded that she “didn’t have the brassy spirit to be a
She eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. program at what is now Claremont
Graduate University — because it was close by — and set about studying
the impact of American nation-building on French and English politics
early in the French Revolution. “It was a topic I could handle from
Escondido, Calif., after two weeks of document-gathering in the East,”
She began teaching in 1967 at San Diego State University and later moved
to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she taught until her
retirement in 2001. Her book “Inheriting the Revolution: The First
Generation of Americans,” published that year, looked at memoirs and
autobiographies to reveal how Americans born between 1776 and 1830
reinvented themselves and their society.
Her first marriage, to the art historian Mark Lansburgh Jr., ended in
divorce. Her second husband, Andrew Bell Appleby, a scholar of British
social history, died in 1980. In addition to her daughter, she is
survived by two sons, Mark Lansburgh and Frank Bell Appleby, and four
Later in her career, Dr. Appleby returned to the study of capitalism,
the topic of her first book, “Economic Thought and Ideology in 17th
Century England” (1978), and of her penultimate book, “The Relentless
Revolution: A History of Capitalism” (2010).
In a 2001 essay in The Journal of the Early Republic, she argued that
capitalism, “viewed as a cultural, rather than an economic, phenomenon,”
was like “an invisible social engineer.” She added:
“Because it affected access to both wealth and power, its success
provoked the outrage of successive groups of moralists, aesthetes and
traditionalists. We do not need to take sides in these battles to do
justice to their histories.”
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