Recollections of the Early Republic
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
Recollections Of The Early Republic: Selected Autobiographies, edited by historian Joyce Appleby, consists of significant extracts from the autobiographies of ten Americans, in circumstances ranging from slave to governor, who lived in the United States in the early nineteenth century. I found the autobiographies to be not just entertaining, but addictive. How will each person deal with his or her circumstances? What will happen next?
All of the autobiographers were born immediately after the Revolutionary War; Appleby describes them as the "firstborn Americans." She also explains that they were not exactly ordinary people: "by no means typical" yet "representative of those Americans who left the place of their birth to try their hand at something new." Still, for me the stories evoked the drama and complexity of ordinary lives, especially in America, where personal choice, mobility, and reversals of fortune are indeed typical.
Most of the autobiographies showed a fascinating range of experience. Yet some of the highlights for me included:
John Ball (1794-1884). How the youngest of ten children on a remote mountain farm in Vermont pleaded to go to school; eventually he attended Dartmouth College and became an attorney. On a visit to Washington D.C., he casually "presumed to call on" President Andrew Jackson "without any introduction." Ball wrote, "He however received me kindly."
Daniel Drake (1785-1852), an Ohio doctor. He recounts in detail his childhood on a backwoods Kentucky farm: the hard solitary farm work and the hard-drinking communal work, such as the "corn-husking" party followed by dinner. "Either before or after eating, the fighting took place," he wrote.
Julia Anne Hieronymous Tevis (1799-1879). How a penniless schoolteacher in backcountry Virginia married the handsome young Methodist circuit-rider minister.
Allen Trimble (1783-1870), governor of Ohio. How, as a teenager, he drove pigs six hundred miles from his parents' Kentucky farm to Richmond, Virginia; his narrow escape from a gambling den there; and his verification in Virginia that his father's criticisms of slavery were accurate.
Charles Ball (1785-1837), African-American. His determined and dramatic escape from slavery in Georgia to return to his wife in Maryland. Appleby accurately characterizes his "shrewd comments on Southern mores, African traits, the class system of the white people, and contrasts between the Deep South and the border states."
I learned much about the early United States, including, for example, about backwoods farming, the controversy about slavery, the difficulty of making a living. But it was the immediacy of their own words, from people now dead, that bridged the distance of almost two hundred years.
Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro