October 22, 2007


Vast Designs: How America came of age (Jill Lepore, 10/29/07, The New Yorker)

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.

Before the market revolution: Americans grew food and made things for themselves or to barter with neighbors; they were humble but happy, rallying around “enduring human values of family, trust, cooperation, love, and equality.” After: they grew food and made things to sell, for cash, to cold, unfeeling, and distant markets; they were frantic, alienated, untrusting, competitive, repressed, and lonely. “Inherent and ongoing contradictions between capitalist market relations and human needs” plagued the nation, as Sellers had it, and plague us still. For leading the anti-market struggle against the “business class” and attacking paper money and credit, Andrew Jackson served as Sellers’s hero, especially for having vetoed, in 1832, the charter for the Second Bank of the United States. But Old Hickory, and democracy, proved no match for the tyrannical business minority of bankers, merchants, and strivers, whose capitalist machinations made the poor poorer; the middle-class smug, pious, and bourgeois; and the rich richer. As Thoreau put it, “A few are riding, but the rest are run over.”

The literary scholar Perry Miller once said that “Walden” is “a manifesto of Yankee cussedness.” Sure, but, even if high-school sophomores forced to wade through “Walden” miss it, Thoreau can be very, very funny. “I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business,” he wrote, mischievously. “It is a good port.” His experiment was, of course, not a business but an anti-business; he paid attention to what things cost because he tried never to buy anything. Instead, he bartered, and lived on twenty-seven cents a week. At his most entrepreneurial, he planted a field of beans, and realized a profit of eight dollars and seventy-one and a half cents. “I was determined to know beans,” he writes in a particularly beautiful and elegiac chapter called “The Bean-Field.” He worked, for cash, only six weeks of the year, and spent the rest of his time reading, writing, hoeing beans, picking huckleberries, and listening to bullfrogs trumping, hawks screaming, and whip-poor-wills singing vespers. “Mr. Thoreau is thus at war with the political economy of the age,” one reviewer commented, after “Walden” was published, in 1854. But Thoreau wasn’t so much battling the market revolution as dodging it, “not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but to stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.”

What Thoreau tried to escape, historians studying his America have found in every sparrow’s fall. 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?”

One of the more hilarious mistakes the Darwinists make is to insist that economies, languages, etc., are not products of intelligent beings, though they have to do this in order to defend their core ideology.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 22, 2007 7:39 AM

The Howe book sounds good.

As for Howe's point that the "market" society came into existence much earlier, could Sellers have not read Rip Van Winkle in which Irving attacks the post-revolutionary America of the 1790s for crass commercialism?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 22, 2007 8:48 AM

Darwinists say language, economies etc. do not consciously arise from intelligent beings. How we employ certain phrases and language in general isn't because somebody, somewhere made the decision that we would.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at October 22, 2007 9:02 AM


quod erat demonstrandum

The notion that you aren't an intelligent being is pluperfect.

Posted by: oj at October 22, 2007 10:43 AM