Study Guide

The Market Revolution Analysis

  • Gender

    Male Models

    In the years following the Revolution, George Washington rose above all others as a general and statesman. 

    To early Americans, he was the quintessential man, the role model for American boys. But in sermons, speeches, toasts, and eulogies, it was Washington's service to the nation, not his martial valor or political skill, that was most praised. More celebrated than his victory at Yorktown was his dutiful response to the call to military service. More frequently lauded than his presidential legacy was his willingness to serve, yet again, when his nation asked him to sit as president.

    By 1840, Americans had discovered new and very different heroes. Real-life figures like Daniel Boone and fictional characters like Natty Bumppo were celebrated as archetypal American men: rugged, independent, and self-defined. 

    While not altogether indifferent to public duty, they could be critical, even contemptuous, of human society. More comfortable alone than surrounded by people, indifferent to the standards set by civilized life, they offered American boys a very different model for masculine achievement.

    We often think that certain things are constant, and that certain values don't change over time. But history reminds us that the opposite is true—that even fundamental beliefs are responsive to broader transformations in the world. It should, therefore, not be a surprise that the market revolution had a dramatic impact on gender roles and beliefs. As the sweeping social and economic changes unleashed by the market revolution worked their way through society, both men and women re-conceived their places in the household economy, and men, in particular, were forced to reconstruct the meaning of manhood.

    Manhood in Transition

    In the years surrounding the Revolution, manhood was linked to citizenship and public service. Men were praised for their "usefulness" to God and country. The real man set aside his personal ambitions and submitted himself to the will of God and the demands of his country, community, and family. 

    These standards for male behavior were linked to understandings of society, and really the entire universe, as rigidly hierarchical. All things were arranged on a vertical axis—God and man, superior and inferior, man and woman. Upon this axis, all beings held obligations to those above and below. Being a man meant accepting these obligations even when contrary to one's immediate, personal interests.

    But within the more liberating context of the market revolution, manhood took on a less communal character. The extended market freed men from traditional patterns of work and exchange and allowed men to build new networks across extended distances. Consequently, the traditional praise for communal sacrifice gave way to a new celebration of the self. To a certain extent, the vertical axis of the universe was made flat, and society was re-defined as a community of equals. Men were encouraged to cultivate the talents that God gave them and commit themselves to a program of self-improvement. 

    "Self-advancement" was no longer discouraged. It was praised. And the highest accolade was to be labeled a "self-made man."

    Of course, self-cultivation didn't mean self-indulgence. The residues of America's Puritan and republican traditions would never tolerate a too self-centered set of values. Instead, they demanded that self-advancement be linked to self-mastery—that is, the subordination of the more base elements in man's character to the dictates of prudence and reason. Men were told to discipline their characters, root out the influences of unproductive and wasteful urges. Real men aimed at success that was self-defined, but also dependent on self-mastery and self-control.

    Yet, even this disciplined obsession with the self was antithetical to the values of previous generations. 18th-century Calvinists would have viewed this self-preoccupation as the most arrogant of sins, a ghastly substitution of man's puny interests for the far more glorious work of God. 

    18th-century statesmen, raised in the philosophical tradition of republicanism, would have similarly judged this elevation of personal interest as dangerous to the health of the body politic. But within the changing social and economic context of the market revolution, this refocusing on the self represented a necessary adaptation of cultural values to the new realities of work and commerce.

    Alternatives for the Unsuccessful

    Of course, not all men could excel in this new market economy. Not all men could realize their personal ambitions or become self-made men, and for these men, a different sort of adjustment was necessary. 

    Working-class men, in particular, found social and occupational advancement more difficult. Their likelihood of moving up the occupational ladder from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman or independent shop owner was increasingly slim; their likelihood of becoming "self-made" men was small. They looked toward a future of wage labor in the factory or in a large shop owned by another. And consequently, their ability to measure up to the new standards of "manhood" through their work appeared impossible.

    These men needed to construct an alternative conception of manhood, and a number of historians have argued that they did so by creating a "sporting male culture" that celebrated values attainable by men outside of the workplace.

    Elliot Gorn, for example, has argued that the search for alternative routes to manly self-satisfaction explains the popularity of emerging working-class pastimes such as bare-knuckle prize fighting. While traditional patterns of production and exchange continued to guide their husbands, women developed cottage industries that could earn profits in the marketplace. 

    Spinning and home crafts, milk, egg, and butter businesses all generated profits for women independent of the household's primary livelihood. It was these profits, moreover, that often enabled households to transition toward more full participation in the new market economy. Money earned by a woman's egg business, for example, could be used to purchase additional land on which to raise a cash crop.

    Other women took on work as sewers and fitters in the new large-scale shoe and clothing operations owned by merchant capitalists. They became part of the decentralized manufacturing plants that replaced the small shops owned by master shoemakers and tailors. Previously barred from these occupations by traditional understandings of the craft, women found work within the fragmented production processes of the new "putting-out" systems. 

    And as they filled these roles within the emerging industries, Boydston continues, women faced fewer psychic challenges than men. 

    While working-class men bristled under the demoralizing demands of the new production processes, and while they wrestled with the loss of status that accompanied their transformation into permanent wage earners, women faced fewer challenges to their sense of self. More accustomed to subordinate positions, they accepted the limitations inherent in the new economy more easily. In fact, unburdened by traditional conceptions of social mobility, they could embrace the new opportunities offered by the expanding market with less anxiety.

    The market revolution had a different impact on middle-class women. In fact, to a large extent it created the stereotypic "middle-class woman." As small shops were replaced by large-scale manufacturing operations, as more men found work in sales, finance, and transportation—work that was less directly engaged in the production of goods—the workplace and the home grew increasingly distinct. Where people worked and where people lived became geographically and psychically separate spaces. For those of middling affluence, the separation of work and home also meant the creation of separate spheres for men and women. 

    Men dominated the world of work and were assigned attributes better suited to that world—cunning and competitiveness, prudence and self-discipline. Women were designated custodians of the home and were assigned attributes best suited to that domestic sphere—maternal nurture, and moral and spiritual insight.

    Historians disagree on the full character of the woman's sphere, of course. Some argue that it radically reduced the power and influence of women. Whereas in the past, they'd shared more equally in the household economy, they now were reduced to auxiliaries—support staff for their husbands and children, filling the important, but less essential, tasks of domesticity. Others have argued that women turned their confinement to the home into a source of power. While their "female attributes" were deemed ill-suited to the world of business and commerce, they conferred on women increased power over family and child-rearing decisions, and a moral authority that could be applied to certain arenas, like philanthropy and social reform, outside of the home.

    There is probably a degree of truth in both arguments, and regardless of where we apply the interpretive emphasis, it's certainly true that the roles and perception of middle-class women changed as profoundly as did those of working-class men. Furthermore, both men and women saw their places in society reconceived and the definitions of manhood and womanhood reconsidered. 

    The market revolution clearly did more than expand American commerce. It redefined gender and the relations between the genders in American society.

  • Economy

    The "Market Revolution"

    Historians have described the economic expansion that occurred in America between 1815 and 1840 as a "market revolution." It's a bold term that conjures up images of radical transformation within the American economy. But what exactly does it mean? 

    • What was and was not different about the American economy after 1815?
    • Did new technologies, new resources, and new methods of production transform the American economy?
    • And why do historians couple "revolution" with "market?"
    • To what sort of market do historians refer and how did it change?

    What Wasn't New in 1815: The Cotton Gin

    We can begin by identifying what wasn't new or revolutionary in 1815—that is, we can begin by identifying the critical pieces of the American economy that were already in place by this date. And this list begins with the development of the cotton gin.

    When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, the South desperately needed a new crop. Tobacco profits were thin, sugar and indigo faced heavy competition from the West Indies, and rice, although lucrative, was labor intensive and not well-suited to the small farmer. 

    Cotton was also profitable. Britain's emerging textile industry demanded more cotton than Americans produced. But the long-staple cotton that could be efficiently processed could grow only along the coast. Short-staple cotton, on the other hand, could be planted throughout the South, but this variety was so densely packed with seeds that it couldn't be processed efficiently.

    Whitney's cotton gin changed all of this. By introducing a technology capable of efficiently removing the seeds from short-staple cotton, Whitney enabled farmers, large and small, to plant cotton throughout the South. In 1790, Americans produced 3 million pounds of cotton. In 1815, they produced 93 million pounds.

    The Market Revolution

    The importance of all this to the expansion of the American economy can't be understated, but the creation of this more extended market would have meant little if American producers and consumers hadn't embraced its opportunities with so much enthusiasm. 

    In fact, the real key to the "market revolution" was the ideological and behavioral shifts that accompanied the construction of the commercial infrastructure. Americans began thinking in more extended and elaborate ways about the markets for their goods. No longer limited to local markets, no longer bound by traditional patterns of exchange, Americans engaged in a new sort of calculus about costs and benefits. 

    • Where was the best price available?
    • What were the transportation costs?
    • If New York City was paying 27 cents a bushel more than Erie for wheat, was it worth it to haul the crop the additional 450 miles at 1.7 cents per ton per mile?

    Producers used these calculations to make other decisions about what to grow or make. If a farmer in Rochester could make the most money by selling corn in Albany, why waste land and time growing alfalfa for his stock animals—especially if alfalfa, grown near Syracuse, could be purchased at an affordable price?

    So, the extension of the market altered the vary nature of certain occupations: it turned craftsmen and farmers into businessmen. People who'd been raised within an economic culture tied to one type of market—local and familiar—were now participants in a much larger market with an entirely new set of conditions and rules.

    New Markets, New Worries

    Of course, not everybody enthusiastically participated in the new market economy. Many, in fact, found the new conditions unsettling. 

    They knew and understood the old local networks of exchange, but these new markets were unfamiliar. Moreover, people worried over the rules, if any, governing this new marketplace. In the old market, people bought and sold goods among their neighbors and friends. Commercial exchanges couldn't be separated from a broader set of relationships and obligations. Your buyer might belong to your church. Your seller could be related to your son-in-law. And every exchange was accompanied by the understanding that you couldn't escape further contact with the person on the other end of the deal. 

    But in the new market, a batch of unknown, faceless persons lay on the other side of the transaction. Could they be trusted? Could the sellers even trust themselves?

    The market revolution was therefore part structural and part philosophical and behavioral. It built upon new technologies and new production processes. It drew upon the resources of new financial institutions and was made possible by the construction of an extensive network of roads and canals. But the market revolution was also more than this. It was a new set of ideas about profit seeking and risk, and a new body of laws that encouraged development and exchange. It was a whole new approach to production, and a new set of calculations about costs and benefits. The market revolution turned "ways of life" into businesses, and farmers and craftsmen into entrepreneurs. 

    Not everyone liked all these changes, and not everyone benefitted from them. But like it or not, America's economy was permanently transformed.

  • Society

    The Erie Canal

    After decades of planning, the Erie Canal opened in 1825. As early as the 1790s, visionaries had recognized that the relatively level corridor between the Hudson River and the Lake Erie made a water route between New York City and the Great Lakes a possibility. 

    But the Governor of New York, De Witt Clinton, wasn't able to convince the state legislature to finance the project until 1817. Although ultimately costing the state $7 million, it was money well spent. Toll revenues in the first year alone generated a half a million dollars, and freight rates for interior transport fell dramatically. Prior to the canal's completion, shippers paid $100 per ton to move cargo from Lake Erie to New York, but after 1825, they paid only $9 per ton.blank">George Pullman would introduce a modified version of Francis Lowell's vision outside Chicago in 1880, but this plan would also fail. There was simply no going back: within the manufacturing processes unleashed by the market revolution, recovering the paternal labor relations of the 18th century proved impossible.

  • Politics

    Henry Clay and Sylvester Graham: Fellow Travelers

    Through the 1820s and into the 1830s, Henry Clay was a leading force in congressional politics. Sometimes called "the greatest man never to become president," Clay represented Kentucky in the House of Representatives for 11 years, the Senate for 14 years, and served as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams from 1825 to 1829. 

    Among his legislative legacies was a bundle of initiatives labeled the American System. Not all of these proposals met unqualified success, but his triad of tariff protection, internal improvements, and conservative land policies represented the most coherent plan for national economic development since the 1790s.

    In 1832, Sylvester Graham, upon learning that Europe's cholera epidemic might soon reach America, launched himself on the lecture circuit with a recipe for good health. The centerpiece of his prescription was a strict diet of coarse grain bread and vegetables. Coffee was forbidden, as were most spices, meat, and alcohol. The "Graham Diet" acquired a huge following, as Graham Clubs formed across America and the "Graham Cracker" became an American staple.

    As far as we know, Clay wasn't a Grahamite and Graham was non-political, but both were engaged in a similar enterprise: they offered prescriptions for good health—social and physical—amid the dynamic (some thought chaotic) conditions let loose by the market revolution.

    Clay's American System

    The first piece within Clay's American System was a series of tariffs on European goods. American manufacturers had enjoyed a welcome period of market monopoly during the international crises that culminated in war between 1808 and 1815. So, with European goods largely shut out of American markets, young American industries were able to get started without foreign competition. 

    But as soon as the War of 1812 ended, British manufacturers dumped goods by the boatload into American markets. In 1814, foreign exports—primarily British—to America totaled $13 million, and in 1816, they jumped to $151 million with devastating results for American industries.blank">Thomas Jefferson, for decades.

    Cheap western lands not only drained the cities of their needed labor, but they also drew too many farmers into the business of producing food. This led to a glut of food stuffs in the market which led to declining prices and inevitable economic collapse in the West. The recent Panic of 1819 only confirmed Clay's fear that unless more carefully managed, America's western domain would pass through cycles of boom and bust—rapid over-expansion followed by economic failure. 

    The only way that a healthy agricultural economy could be sustained was by ensuring that western migration was controlled. In addition, this limited population of Western farmers had to be provided with large urban markets to feed. Here, the tariff and land policy elements within Clay's vision came together beautifully. Higher land prices would keep people in the cities, providing both a necessary source of labor to urban industries and a necessary market for western foods.

    The final piece of Clay's plan, internal improvements, was the connector that brought these two economies together. Through the construction of a coherent system of roads and canals, the carefully contained western agricultural economy would be linked to the now competitive urban manufacturing economy—and a truly American national economy would be achieved.

    Tariffs, Roads, and Graham Crackers

    So, what does all this have to do with Sylvester Graham?

    Well, maybe it's a bit of a stretch. But on a certain level, Graham and his followers were similarly concerned about the potential for social chaos lying within the emerging market economy. Abundant western lands, new opportunities in distant markets, and the erosion of traditional patterns of exchange were unsettling for many Americans. As older ties of community were weakened by the more fluid and seemingly boundary-less conditions of the new market economy, people wondered what exactly would hold people together and keep people under control. 

    Graham was just one among many commentators and theorists who offered up a plan based on the same solution: self-control. As the traditional forms of communal regulation broke down, health theorists, ministers, and educators articulated the same solution. People must learn to manage themselves.

    Graham's advice may have centered on diet, but it drew more fully on a set of ideas about self-mastery and self-regulation—it's not easy to live on bread and vegetables alone. More fully, he advised people to exercise moderation in all of their activities, from work to sleep to sex. Like many pseudo-scientific theorists of the period, Graham believed that good health was dependent on preserving and balancing the body's fluids. If discharged recklessly or imprudently, the physical toll would be costly. A person's physical and psychic health was dependent on mastering all of one's impulses. Immoderation in any area would lead to physical and psychic disaster.

    Clay's American System was similarly informed by concerns about unregulated, undisciplined economic development. He worried that unless the federal government exercised more regulatory control, America's industries would fail against foreign competition and its cities would decline into swamps of poverty and vice, America's western lands would pass through cycles of over-expansion and collapse, and its infrastructure would be an unintegrated and wasteful mess. 

    There were even moral and social anxieties feeding Clay's vision that brought him that much closer to people like Graham. He believed that under current indulgent policies, cheap western lands drew urban riff-raff to the West with pie-eyed expectations of easy profits. Rather than the sober and disciplined breadbasket of America, the West was fast becoming the home of the shiftless and the immoderate.

    So, just maybe there was a common subtext within the American System and the Graham Diet. The opportunities unleashed within the new market economy could be exciting, but they also threatened disorder and social chaos. Unless Americans, collectively and individually, learned how to impose order, and unless they developed systems that provided discipline and moderation, the American body would become dissipated and weak, and its physical and moral character would degenerate.

  • Religion

    The Religious Revolution

    On rooftops scattered across the northeast, "Millerites" don "ascension robes" and wait for the Second Coming of Christ.

    In small communities in New York and Ohio, Shakers live communally and celibately, also in anticipation of the end of the world. 

    A young prophet named Joseph Smith builds a following preaching universal salvation and polygamy. 

    Itinerant preachers travel America's roads and canal with a message emphasizing individual religious authority. 

    And business owners and wage laborers join together in raucous revivals that declare individuals responsible for their own salvation.

    The first decades of the 19th century weren't just about profit seeking and economic growth—the period was also filled with religious enthusiasm and creativity. A series of revivals swept the country during these decades, boosting church membership and generating new denominations. Many contemporaries believed they were living through a spiritual awakening, a cosmic event signaling the final days of history. Others believed religious zealotry was running amok. 

    But some historians have argued that the Second Great Awakening should be explained in sociological rather than religious terms. They argue that the religious enthusiasm was both a consequence and a reaction to the market revolution; it relied on the distribution networks and methods of the emerging national marketplace while also offering alternatives to the centrifugal forces let loose by the market revolution.

    Grassroots Revivalism

    The most powerful and widespread expression of the period's religious energy was the wave of revivals that swept America after the turn of the century. 

    Across the country, itinerant preachers, most without seminary training, built followings among common people anxious for a new and more vital religious message. In camp meetings and spontaneous gatherings, these evangelists preached that God's grace was freely available to man and could be achieved through human effort. Salvation was not "pre-determined," or set aside for a tiny few, nor was it wholly beyond man's ability to claim. Fervent prayer and a penitent heart would convince God to extend his saving mercy to any petitioner.

    These revivals turned established denominations on their heads. Members bolted from the churches in which they'd been raised and joined new churches. Often, when they grew tired or dissatisfied, they changed churches again. In other words, just as the market revolution freed people from traditional webs of exchange and obligation, the religious revolution unleashed by revivalism freed people from their traditional church affiliations and commitments.

    Nor was this the only way that revivalism paralleled the market revolution. In both movements, the status of the individual was elevated. Personal needs, ideas, and experience were declared legitimate and worthy of pursuit even at the expense of the community. Evangelical preachers argued that every man was his own religious authority, and he didn't need a preacher to interpret the Bible. In fact, seminary training was more likely a hindrance than an aid in the pursuit of truth. Individual analysis and individual religious experience were as authoritative as the conclusions drawn by overeducated and spiritually dry clergy.

    Like the more independent and self-directing participants in the market revolution, followers of the revivals charted their own religious futures. They consumed new religious messages and built new networks of religious exchange. 

    Religious vendors, moreover, utilized many of the same distribution methods employed by producers of commercial goods. They traveled the same roads and canals, and they discovered the range and influence of inexpensive print. The cylinder press and machine-made paper that made newspapers and advertising a critical tool in the dissemination of commercial information were also utilized by preachers and churches in marketing their particular religious goods. 

    Established denominations, operating out of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were among the first to recognize the power of the press, but grassroots evangelicals quickly followed their lead. By 1830, more than half of all religious publications were produced west of the Alleghenies.blank">Sylvester Graham. And like them, at the heart of her health philosophy was a formula for self-regulation and control.

    In other words, while Miller's appeal may have rested in part on his apocalyptic solution to the unnerving conditions of the market economy, the church he ultimately fathered offered a prescription for self-mastery within a stress-filled world. 

    In this sense, White did for Miller what Finney did for the raucous grassroots evangelicals of the Second Great Awakening. She turned a more radical vision into a religious prescription that suited the needs of more moderate communities—she helped transform a message of apocalyptic withdrawal into a formula for social accommodation and even success.

    Of course, White would have scoffed at the notion that she or her followers were influenced by temporal rather than spiritual concerns. Finney also would have denied that he was advancing social stability as much as advancing God's work on earth. And the motivations of believers are too complex to be reduced to one-dimensional analyses. 

    Yet, within the various religious movements of the period, evidence of the market revolution can be found. Revivals, fresh revelation, and new churches may have spoken to people's spiritual needs, but they also reflected and addressed America's turbulent economy and society.

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