The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good (review)
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The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good. By John Lauritz Larson. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 208. $75.00 cloth; $20.99 paper)

John Lauritz Larson's The Market Revolution in America synthesizes a large body of scholarship published during the last twenty years on the penetration of market relations into every corner of nineteenth-century American life. Larson provides a useful and readable introduction to the market revolution that covers the economic, political, and social ramifications of expanding market forces for a variety of Americans. At the core of this enterprise lies Larson's fascination with the "intersection of capitalism and democracy" that, he notes, has bedeviled him over a productive career of thirty years (p. xi). To explore this intersection, Larson organizes the book with four chapters on various aspects of market change, two "Interludes" that examine the panics of 1819 and 1837, and an epilogue that locates the economic debacle of 2008 in the context of America's nineteenth-century embrace of market capitalism. After a brief introduction that notes the difficulty of imposing a coherent narrative on a complex process that remained "practically invisible" to most Americans until, "in hindsight, they recognized the difference between their future and a cherished past," Larson proceeds to a discussion of the United [End Page 398] States immediately following independence (p. 11). Americans enjoyed access to an enormous tract of public land rich with natural resources. These advantages, combined with Alexander Hamilton's neomercantilist financial policy, set the stage for the "liberalization of American political and economic culture" that emerged in the American legal and legislative systems (p. 23). Liberalization spawned westward expansion, produced the widespread availability of cheap land, and stimulated cotton agriculture, the growth of racial slavery, and that vanguard of the industrial revolution, textile manufacturing. It also produced an era of "marvelous improvements" in all areas of American life (p. 46). New, more efficient manufacturing techniques, innovative products, and improvements in transportation and communication seemed to promise material comfort and unlimited progress. The cost of all this, Larson reminds us, was the abandonment of earlier notions of fairness, justice, and independence, inaugurating a society dominated by "heartless markets" that benefited some while impoverishing others. Entrepreneurs, the wealthy, and those situated to take advantage of economic change prospered, even as many artisans, laborers, women, and ethnic and racial minorities suffered. What emerged, in Larson's view, was a betrayal of the society envisaged by the Revolutionary generation. The "promise of American liberty," he lamented, had been distilled into a "free-labor ideology that equated freedom with wages and the hope of owning property, but very little else—not property itself, not independence, not self-sufficiency, not even self-defense" (p. 140). Larson's closing discussion of the recession of 2008 as another consequence of the commitment to "free" markets that became dogma during the nineteenth century confirms his verdict on the downside of the market revolution.

The Market Revolution in America reaffirms John Lauritz Larson's position as a preeminent authority on early-nineteenth-century U.S. economy and society. The book demonstrates his mastery of early national U.S. historiography and exhibits his facility for clear and pointed historical analysis. It would be useful for advanced undergraduate or [End Page 399] beginning graduate courses, as well as general readers interested in American economic life. Larson's obvious, and forthright, hostility to many of the effects of market capitalism on American society may make readers expecting an "objective" stance uncomfortable, particularly since he seems implicitly to be comparing the market capitalism that actually resulted with a more just and humane society that is left unspecified and undefined. Larson's incisive account of how, when, and why Americans came to regard market relationships as forces of nature, however, more than compensates, making The Market Revolution in America a significant contribution to the social and economic history of the early American republic.

Scott C. Martin

Scott C. Martin is chair of the history department at Bowling green State University in Bowling green, Ohio. He is the author of Devil of the Domestic Sphere: Temperance, Gender...


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