Her research on England, France, and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has focused on how economic developments changed people’s perceptions of politics, society, and human nature. Her work on the founding era in the United States has concentrated on Thomas Jefferson and his legacy.
Appleby earned a B.A. at Stanford, an M.A. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University. She began teaching at San Diego State University in 1967. In 1981, she was appointed Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, a position she held until retirement in 2001. In 1990-1991, she served as the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University where she was a fellow of Queen's College.
In her dissertation, “An American Pamphlet in Paris,” Appleby studied the reception of an American political publication in the opening debates of the French Revolution, a project that encompassed the foreign service of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Her first book, Ideology and Economic Thought in Seventeenth-Century England, won the 1978 Berkshire Prize. In 1982, New York University invited her to give the Phelps Lectures which were published as Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Jeffersonian Vision of the 1790s. She gave the Becker lectures at Cornell in 1984.
Appleby’s abiding interest in the interacting economic and intellectual and history of the American revolutionary era led to the publication of Liberalism and Republicanism in Historical Perspective, a collection of essays that appeared in 1992. Moving beyond the revolutionary era, she studied the lives and careers of those Americans born after 1776. Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans came out in 2000. She has also written a presidential biography of Jefferson and edited a collection of extracts from autobiographies from the early nineteenth century, Recollections of the Early Republic.
The complex relationship of the American public with the country's professional historians has long fascinated Appleby. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society for the History of the Early Republic. As co-founder of the History News Service, she initiated a program for facilitating historians' writing op-ed essays for newspapers. Her opeds regularly appear in the Los Angeles Times. In her career as an historian of the founding era in the United States, she has worked to promote an understanding of the past that can help Americans deal more sanely with the present. As president of the Organization of American Historians, she won Congressional support for an endowment to send American Studies libraries to sixty universities worldwide. Chosen by a consortium of scholars, the 1,000 books represented the major scholarship on American history, literature, political science, sociology, and philosophy.
The challenge that postmodernism posed to historians became the central theme of Telling the Truth about History which Appleby wrote with Margaret Jacob and Lynn Hunt in 1994. At the same time, the Mellon Foundation funded Appleby’s proposal for graduate seminars in postmodern thought which led to the publication of Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective which she edited with Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider.
After retirement, she published in 2004 A Restless Past contains a collection of presidential addresses and essays. The Relentless Revolution; A History of Capitalism appeared in 2010. She has now completed a work on how curiosity became a major component of the culture of the Modern West.
At UCLA, Appleby established, through a Ford Foundation grant, the Social Sciences Cluster designed for first year students. Fulfilling the social science requirements of general education, the program integrated courses in history, anthropology, sociology, and political science around a central theme, such as revolution or utopia. It became the model for the current cluster courses. She gave UCLA’s sixty-seventh Faculty Research Lecture, "Clio in the Service of Patria: Writing the History of One's Own Country, “ in 1989. The College of Letters and Science awarded her the Distinguished Professor Award in 1993.
In 1980 Appleby was named to the Council of the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, acting as chair from 1983 to 1986. She served on the Smithsonian Institution Council from 1993 to 2001. She is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academic of Arts and Sciences, and the British Academy.
Appleby earned a B.A. at Stanford, an M.A. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University.