The Market Revolution Reader

N. Currier, “The Propagation Society, More Free than Welcome,” 1855, via Library of Congress.

Introduction

In the early years of the nineteenth century, Americans’ endless commercial ambition—what one Baltimore paper in 1815 called an “almost universal ambition to get forward”—remade the nation. Steam power, the technology that moved steamboats and railroads, fueled the rise of American industry by powering mills and sparking new national transportation networks. More and more farmers grew crops for profit, not self-sufficiency. Vast factories and cities arose in the North. As northern textile factories boomed, the demand for southern cotton swelled, and the institution of American slavery accelerated. The market revolution sparked not only explosive economic growth and new personal wealth but also devastating depressions—“panics”—and a growing lower class of property-less workers. Many Americans labored for low wages and became trapped in endless cycles of poverty. Although northern states gradually abolished slavery, their factories fueled the demand for slave-grown southern cotton that ensured the profitability and continued existence of the American slave system. And so, as the economy advanced, the market revolution wrenched the United States in new directions as it became a nation of free labor and slavery, of wealth and inequality, and of new promise and peril. These sources illustrate how the market revolution transformed how Americans worked, traveled, politicked, and even loved.  

 

Documents

James Madison Asks Congress to Support Internal Improvements, 1815

After the War of 1812, Americans looked to strengthen their nation through government spending on infrastructure, or what were then called internal improvements. In his seventh annual address to congress, Madison called for public investment to create national roads, canals, and even a national seminary. He also called for a tariff, or tax on certain imports, designed to make foreign goods more expensive, giving American producers an advantage in domestic markets. 

A Traveler Describes Life Along the Erie Canal, 1829

Basil Hall, a British visitor traveled along the Erie Canal and took careful notes on what he found. In this excerpt, he described life in Rochester, New York. Rochester, and other small towns in upstate New York, grew rapidly as a result of the Erie Canal. 

Blacksmith Apprentice Contract, 1836

The factories and production of the Market Revolution eroded the wealth and power of skilled small business owners called artisans. This indenture contract illustrated the former way of doing things, where a young person would agree to serve for a number of years as an apprentice to a skilled artisan before venturing out on his own. 

Harriet H. Robinson Remembers a Mill Workers’ Strike, 1863

The social upheavals of the Market Revolution created new tensions between rich and poor, particularly between the new class of workers and the new class of managers. Lowell, Massachusetts was the location of the first American factory. In this document, a woman reminisces about a strike that she participated in at a Lowell textile mill. 

Alexis de Toqueville, “How Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes,” 1840

The French political thinker Alexis de Toqueville travelled extensively through the United States in gathering research for his book Democracy In America. In this excerpt, he described the belief that American men and women lived in “separate spheres:” men in public, women in the home. This expectation justified the denial of rights to women. All women were denied political rights in nineteenth century America, but only a small number of wealthy families could afford to remove women from economic production, like de Toqueville claimed.

 

Media

Abolitionist Sheet Music Cover Page, 1844

Jesse Hutchinson and B.W. Thayer & Co, “’Get off the track!’ A song for emancipation, sung by The Hutchinsons,” 1844, via Library of Congress.

Jesse Hutchinson and B.W. Thayer & Co, “’Get off the track!’ A song for emancipation, sung by The Hutchinsons,” 1844, via Library of Congress.

N. Currier, “The Propagation Society, More Free than Welcome,” 1855, via Library of Congress.

N. Currier, “The Propagation Society, More Free than Welcome,” 1855, via Library of Congress.

Irish immigration transformed American cities. Yet many Americans greeted the new arrivals with suspicion or hostility. Nathanial Currier’s anti-Catholic cartoon reflected the popular American perception that Irish Catholic immigrants posed a threat to the United States.