Study Guide

The Market Revolution Introduction

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The Market Revolution Introduction

America's economic transformation story really got started in the first half of the 19th century. 

After all and first off, big cities are much more likely to thrive if there's a way to get to them. And better transportation meant easier movement of people and goods, improved trade, and solidification of the North's role as the commercial center of the nation.

Since we were still centuries away from hoverboards, transportation looked more like feet and horses, so you can imagine the novelty of paved roads and canals.

Historians called this era of establishing better connectedness the "market revolution." Basically, it included the expansion of the marketplace that occurred in early 19th-century America, prompted mainly by the construction of these new roads and canals to connect distant communities together for the first time. 

Turnpikes, the oldest version of the paved toll road, made transportation much easier, and people were willing to pay the tolls that corporations charged for the maintenance of these roads. On top of roads, the Erie Canal—we promise it wasn't as sinister as it sounds—was an engineering marvel that had a dramatic effect on the growth of the economy. 

It also made canal building crazy popular.

Turnpikes, canals, and last but not least, railroads linked the North to the rest of the country and, uh, paved the way for a nation-wide transportation, communication, and economic makeover. 

In fact, the market revolution also refers to a new approach adopted by farmers and manufacturers to their work. With distant but lucrative markets now accessible, they now produced "for the market," rather than for personal consumption, and they engaged in elaborate calculations designed to maximize their profits in these markets.

On the flip side, the market revolution meant merchants needed to be more savvy about "working the market"—how to secure capital, arrange transportation, advertise and distribute goods—so the market revolution diminished the economic fortunes of others. Small craftsmen were driven out of business by "merchant capitalists," and skilled workers and small shop owners were reduced to wage earners with little hope for occupational mobility.

Even among those who succeeded under the new conditions, the rapid and sweeping changes that occurred in American labor relations and gender roles caused a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety inspired a wave of experimentation in areas as diverse as labor organization, health, and religion.

Hey, can't win 'em all, right?

What is The Market Revolution About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever been ripped off on eBay? Or misrepresented an item on Craigslist? 

The internet has turned our homes into global marketplaces, so millions of buyers and sellers are just a click away. But can we always trust them, or even trust ourselves?

What if you could only sell goods to people that you knew? Would that ruin your chances of selling fake handbags? Would you find this sort of marketplace limiting or reassuring?

Until the early-19th century, most Americans participated in markets that were local and familiar. They did business with people they knew and every exchange was embedded within a larger web of relationships. For instance, your buyer belonged to your church or your seller's daughter was married to your cousin. 

The basic rule governing these local markets was simple: be fair. If you ripped somebody off, it would be talked about by your neighbors for a long while.

But during the market revolution, new roads and canals allowed people to exchange goods in distant markets with complete strangers. It wasn't exactly eBay, but for people accustomed to markets that were familiar and local, it was just about the same—both exciting and unnerving. 

While many embraced the new opportunities provided by the new market conditions, others sought refuge from the chaos in new religions. While some abandoned their old markets and old ways and began to think like businessmen, others tried to slow the forces of change. 

It's tough to tell how we'd respond since there are many buffers—anonymity, delivery trucks, and huge corporations that don't have your number memorized (or do they?)—but if you'd been kickin' it in 1820, would you become an entrepreneur or would you become a Shaker?

The Market Revolution Resources


Robert Dalzell, Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made (1980)
In this book, Dalzell explores the decision made by the founders of the Boston Manufacturing Company to shift their family resources from trade to manufacturing. Not just an introduction to Francis Cabot Lowell's innovative leadership among New England entrepreneurs, Dalzell also discusses the familial and social concerns that shaped the founding and development of New England's textile industry.

Paul Gilje, Wages of Independence: Capitalism in the Early American Republic (1997)
In this collection of essays, early national historians explore various aspects of economic development occurring in the half century after the Revolution. Gilje provides a sort of nuts-and-bolts introductory discussion that students will find useful, and other essays explore shifting economic patterns among craftsmen, women, Northern farmers, and Southern planters.

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)
Hatch views the Second Great Awakening as a genuinely democratic movement in sync with a broader attack on authority running throughout America after 1800. He therefore focuses on popular evangelists like Lorenzo Dow and John Leland rather than moderating figures like Charles Finney.

Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (1978)
In this short, nicely written example of the "new social history," Johnson explores the impact of the Erie Canal on the manufacturing sector of Rochester, New York. Early chapters provide a straightforward but interesting description of the structure of work and residence in a traditional local economy. In later chapters, Johnson explores the role played by Charles Finney and revivalism in reconstructing communal ties.

Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (1991)
The book is more than a narrow discussion of changing market conditions; instead, Sellers traces the interwoven economic, social, political, and cultural threads of Jacksonian America. Authoritative and elegantly written, readers interested in a comprehensive introduction to the period should begin with this book.


Industrial Spy, Entrepreneurial Genius
Francis Cabot Lowell

Modern Technology
The power looms and their women operators at the Lowell Mills

Henry Clay
The Kentucky statesman and advocate of the "American System"

"The Marriage of the Waters"
This 1905 painting by C.Y. Turner commemorates the completion of the Erie Canal; New York Governor DeWitt Clinton pours water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Erie Canal
An 1830 watercolor of the Eric Canal painted by John William Hill

Charles Finney
The most influential evangelical preacher of the Second Great Awakening

Religious Enthusiasm
Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank (c. 1839) depicting a camp meeting of the Second Great Awakening

Father of the Erie Canal
New York Governor DeWitt Clinton

Movies & TV

The Mormons (2007)
This four-hour PBS documentary explores the history of Mormonism as well as some of the contemporary challenges facing the church. Plus, this companion site offers timelines, links, access to discussion groups, and teacher lesson plans.

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns made this documentary as part of the PBS American Stories series. This companion site includes useful links and a timeline of Shaker history.


The Erie Canal
This is an interesting little site dedicated to the history of the Erie Canal. It hosts a particularly useful collection of maps and historical images.

Religion and the Republic
The Library of Congress has put together an online exhibit entitled "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic" that includes summaries and images useful in studying the Second Great Awakening.

19th-Century American Religion
The National Humanities Center hosts a site on "Divining America: Religion in American History" that contains several useful essays on early 19th-century religion.

Video & Audio

"Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal"
Bruce Springsteen sings about the Erie Canal in a song written by Thomas Allen in 1905.

Power Loom Demo
See and hear what it was like to work in a textile mill during the 1820s.

Historical Documents

Mill Life in Lowell
The Center for Lowell History, sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Libraries, maintains a site dedicated to the region's history, including a page dedicated to "Mill Life in Lowell: 1820–1880." Company records, letters written by mill girls, images, diaries, and factory rules are among the primary sources made available on this site.

Charles Finney
A website dedicated to Charles Finney, the most important figure of the Second Great Awakening and the formation of American evangelicalism, includes numerous Finney sermons and writings.

Sylvester Graham
Several works by Sylvester Graham, the health and diet reformer, are available here.

Clay's American System
Henry Clay's Senate speech, "In Defense of the American System," is available here.

Lowell Offering
The Lowell Offering, a literary magazine produced by the women operatives of the Lowell Mills between 1840 and 1845, is available here.

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