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Zachary K. Pearce Headshot

Building a "Civil Society" in the Young American Republic

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There is an overwhelming tendency, when studying the early American Republic, to focus on the political implications of the newly formed governmental institutions. What is not often looked at enough is the early American civil society.

Civil society is everything that exists outside of the government or public sphere. It is what theorists often refer to as the "private sphere." In order for the young, American Republic to be successful, it would have to have a civil society which would realize success in culture, nationalism, and identity. If the United States did not have evident aspects of each of these features, then it would not have been able to survive. Joyce Appleby writes of the early American civil society embedded within the first generation in her novel, Inheriting the Revolution. Appleby successfully presents supporting evidence of many of her core themes in being able to link "private ambitions to public norms."

Looking at the roots of American civil society is incredibly revealing. While today's political climate may lead one to worry about the future effectiveness of our government, especially the Congress, I choose to remain optimistic. One of the big reasons, I can use the word optimistic, is because of the strength of our civil society. While it may be easy to look at the contemporary dysfunction and be unable to shake an unrelenting feeling of pessimism, the truth is American civil society is strong. This is a necessary prerequisite when assessing democratization in the modern world. The United States continues to score among the freest countries in the world. In large measure, the reason this can occur is because the strength of our civil society.

Appleby divides her argument into three different categories, as previously noted. Within American culture, Appleby notes that Europeans of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century were in awe by the "presence of social order in America in the absence of social solidarity." However, I would argue that many Europeans of the time period were limited by their own life experiences, remember the American Republic was largely unprecedented at this time. What many Europeans could not see was the glimpses of American culture which existed across the pond. Appleby uses many different examples of American culture which reveal the ability of Americans to retain "social order." Perhaps my favorite example is the story of Emma Hart Willard who diligently studied the works of the great John Locke. Willard is one example, among others, which taken together, reveal an evident veneration for Locke among the erudite and even the commoners in the first generation.

Besides American culture, when considering the strength of civil society in the early American Republic, Appleby also analyzes both nationalism and identity. The first generation, while challenged to conceptualize and implement what it meant to be an "American," were never really daunted by the intangible task. While this question, of what it meant to be an American, may very well have been answered differently in the north versus the south, as the sectional divide of the time began to grow going into the antebellum period in American history, there was nevertheless a clear identity. For example, economics and the pursuit of wealth, was clearly evident in both sections of the country. In the north, merchants competed in a mixed-market-based economy. This would be a huge advantage for the North going into the American Civil War. In the south, the elite few pursued an agricultural-based economy which would lead to their control of political power through consolidating influence in state and local governments.

Appleby's historical discussion of the culture, nationalism, and identity among the first generation of Americans shows a clear strength in American civil society of the time. I believe that that strength has clearly carried throughout American history. I remain optimistic about today's political climate because I know Americans will remain united in the strength of our civil society. We will continue to raise money for good causes at our local American legions and continue to participate in our local bowling leagues; this is the strength of our civil society, this is the strength our numerous communities. In order to change the public sphere for the better, I'm confident it will be always be through traditional means, most often the ballot box. As long as civil society remains strong in the private sphere, then guidance of the public sphere will be in good hands, and the good of the former will always be able to correct the ills of the latter.