Daniel Walker Howe, Charles Sellers, C. Vann Woodward: Was there or wasn't there a market revolution in 19th century America?

Historians in the News

... Daniel Walker Howe’s ambitious new book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (Oxford; $35), chronicles every development that Thoreau despised, many that he admired, and a great deal about which the man in Walden’s woods cared not one whit. Between 1815 and 1848, the United States chased its Manifest Destiny all the way to the Pacific; battled Mexico; built thousands of miles of canals, railroads, and telegraph lines; embraced universal white-male suffrage and popular democracy; forced Indians from the South and carried slavery to the West; awaited the millennium, reformed its manners, created a middle class, launched women’s rights, and founded its own literature. “What Hath God Wrought” is both a capacious narrative of a tumultuous era in American history and a heroic attempt at synthesizing a century and a half of historical writing about Jacksonian democracy, antebellum reform, and American expansion.

Howe’s book is the most recent installment in the prestigious Oxford History of the United States. This would not be worth mentioning except that the book that was initially commissioned to cover this period, Charles Sellers’s “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846,” was rejected by the series editor, the late, distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward, and it is Sellers against whom Howe argues, if with a kind of gentlemanly diffidence. (Oxford did publish Sellers’s book, in 1991, just not as part of the series.) Sellers, a historian at Berkeley, claimed that the greatest transformation of the first half of the nineteenth century—indeed, the defining event in American and even in world history—was no mere transformation but a revolution, from an agrarian to a capitalist society. “Establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics, and culture, the market revolution created ourselves and most of the world we know,” Sellers wrote.

Sellers’s energetic, brilliant, and strident book may not have reached readers outside the academy—perhaps Woodward anticipated this—but among scholars it enjoyed a huge influence, not least because “The Market Revolution” was published just after many of the nation’s best historians had written essays sounding urgent calls for synthesis in American historical writing. During the nineteen-sixties and seventies, historians had produced longer and longer monographs on smaller and smaller subjects. A decade in the life of a town. A year in the life of a family. Dazzling studies, many of them, but pieces of a puzzle that no one had been able to put together. “The great proliferation of historical writing has served not to illuminate the central themes of Western history but to obscure them,” Bernard Bailyn complained, in 1981, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association. There followed similar, heartfelt laments by Eric Foner (“History in Crisis”), Herbert G. Gutman (“The Missing Synthesis”), and Thomas Bender (“Making History Whole Again”). Sellers’s paradigm seemed to offer an answer; he had dumped all the pieces out of the box, and put them together, joining decades of meticulous empirical research about Western farmers, Eastern bankers, Southern slaves, artisans, immigrants, politicians, everyone....

Sellers’s was the thesis that launched a thousand dissertations; evidence of the market revolution seemed to be everywhere; it seemed to explain everything. In “The Market Revolution Ate My Homework,” a thoughtful essay published in Reviews in American History in 1997, the historian Daniel Feller observed that “a monograph that presupposes a market revolution will certainly discover one.” His caution went unheard.

So it is a rare and refreshing kind of heresy that Daniel Walker Howe, who studied briefly under Sellers at Berkeley in the nineteen-sixties, and who is best known for his 1979 book, “The Political Culture of the American Whigs,” refuses to use the term “market revolution” in his grand synthesis. (Signalling his quarrel with the other recent sweeping interpretation of this period, Sean Wilentz’s pro-Jackson “The Rise of American Democracy,” Howe dedicates his book to the memory of John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s political nemesis, and avoids using the phrase “Jacksonian America,” on the ground that “Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people.”) Howe has three objections to Sellers’s thesis. First, the market revolution, if it happened at all, happened earlier, in the eighteenth century. Second, it wasn’t the tragedy that Sellers makes it out to be, because “most American family farmers welcomed the chance to buy and sell in larger markets,” and they were right to, since selling their crops made their lives better. Stuff was cheaper: a mattress that cost fifty dollars in 1815 (which meant that almost no one owned one) cost five in 1848 (and everyone slept better). Finally, the revolution that really mattered was the “communications revolution”: the invention of the telegraph, the expansion of the postal system, improvements in printing technology, and the growth of the newspaper, magazine, and book-publishing industries.

Howe offered an early version of his critique of Sellers at a conference held in London in 1994, in which he demurred, “What if people really were benefitting in certain ways from the expansion of the market and its culture? What if they espoused middle-class tastes or evangelical religion or (even) Whig politics for rational and defensible reasons? What if the market was not an actor (as Sellers makes it) but a resource, an instrumentality, something created by human beings as a means to their ends?” Sellers summarized Howe’s argument as “Market delivers eager self-improvers from stifling Jacksonian barbarism” as against his own “Go-getter minority compels everybody else to play its competitive game of speedup and stretch-out or be run over.” Fair enough. “Where Howe’s assumptions suggest that I undervalue capitalism’s benefits and attractions,” Sellers continued, “my assumptions suggest that he underestimates its costs and coercions.” Again, fair enough. But Sellers attributed these “warring assumptions” not to different evidence, methods, theories, or strategies of analysis but to the two historians’ different values. Howe writes from “within the bourgeois middle-class culture,” Sellers scoffed, while his own (presumably more Waldenesque) life had taught him that “relations of capitalist production wrench a commodified humanity to relentless competitive effort and poison the more affective and altruistic relations of social reproduction that outweigh material accumulation for most human beings.” In other words, money talks, but it can’t buy you love....

Read entire article at Jill Lepore in the New Yorker

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Thomas Fleming - 11/3/2007

Neither Jill Lapore nor Charles Sellars etc seem aware of Richard Buel's book In Irons, the best recent description of the American economy before and during the American Revolution. If this wasn't a market economy, what was it? Philadelphia alone exported tens of thousands of tons of wheat to Europe and the West Indies each year.When Washington's army ran out of shoes at Valley Forge, two merchants offered to set up a factory that would produce shoes for the whole army. On average, every farmer with enough acres to be above the subsistence line expected to sell a third of his crops for profit.

Tim Matthewson - 11/3/2007

As should be apparent from this essay, the culture wars persist. There are those historians who write about subjects such as race, class, and gender and those who adhere to the view prevalent in the 1950s called the consensus school. The question is whether conflict has played a role in American history and whether that role has been positive or negative. The debate has long been there but in the 1960s it exploded, paralyzed many history departments across the US, deeply divided others to the point of internecine fueding, and led to the destruction of many academic careers. As was apparent from an article published in HNN, the Harvard history department stagnated for about three decades, as they kept doing the same things, the same way, feeling self satisified enough to serve as the last bastion of conservativism, while the Yale department embraced the new history and its themes of race, class and gender, and sponsored some of the best historical writing every produced by American historians. The Harvard administration eventually decided to side step its history department which was completely intransigent and instead created new departments such as black studies that produced stellar studies that have revealed how fool hardy intransigence is when faced by innovative scholarship.