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The Market Revolution Ate My Homework
Melvyn Stokes and Stephen Conway, eds. The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious Expressions, 1800–1880. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996. viii + 351 pp. Notes and index. $55.00.
Charles E. Brooks. Frontier Settlement and Market Revolution: The Holland Land Purchase. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. xii + 239 pp. Maps, tables, notes, and index. $42.50.

The idea of a nineteenth-century market revolution is now all the rage. Historians have acknowledged a post-1815 “transportation revolution” ever since George Rogers Taylor coined the term in 1951. But as Melvyn Stokes points out in his astute introduction to The Market Revolution in America, and as the book’s subtitle reveals, the current concept goes much further. Built on the merger of two fashionable notions, the social “transition to capitalism” and the political change from “republicanism” to “liberalism,” the market revolution has quickly grown to take in economics, law and politics, class relations, gender roles, slavery, religion, ideology—in short, just about everything. In Charles Sellers’s epic synthesis, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (1991), the market revolution bestrides the narrative as an omnipresent It, both a pervasive (and insidious) process and the crux of political, cultural, social, and religious controversy. Other works put Market Revolution in capitals and stretch its dates to bring an entire century’s history under its sway.

In 1994 some leading historians gathered in England to discuss this new concept. Their essays, revised and expanded in The Market Revolution in America, reveal its breadth of possibilities while also exposing some weaknesses. Christopher Clark’s chapter on the North and Harry L. Watson’s on the South, Amy Dru Stanley’s on gender, and Eric Foner’s and John Ashworth’s on free labor ideology probe the market revolution’s ramifications and consequences. 1 Donald J. Ratcliffe, Richard E. Ellis, and Michael F. Holt apply the market-revolution idea to politics. Daniel Walker Howe and Richard Carwardine question its application to religion, and Sean Wilentz (writing on [End Page 408] Jacksonian antislavery) ignores it altogether. Charles Sellers has the last, pungent word.

What is tantalizing, indeed nearly irresistible, about the market revolution is its explanatory breadth and integrative power. Here, it seems, is the key to reconstituting the American past as a unified whole and thus creating a ground broad enough for all historians to stand on. The present volume offers proof: a few years ago scholars writing on political, social, cultural, gender, and religious topics might not have felt they had much to say to each other. Here is the synthesis we have all been looking for. 2

Or is it? The question remains of what exactly is new in the market-revolution idea, and whether what is new is true. Does invoking the market revolution produce more convincing narratives and explanations than we had before, or does it substitute mere novelty in expression for improvement in understanding? Just what was the market revolution, and how does the label further our comprehension of events?

The diversity of usages in The Market Revolution in America should put readers at once on their guard. Contributors wield the term in varying and contradictory ways. Some attach it to specific events within a narrow focus; others deploy it as a loose surrogate for all major social and economic change. It would seem that much of the allure of the market revolution is the versatility that comes from vagueness: it can be trotted in to explain nearly anything because it can mean nearly anything itself.

Consider the essays by Ellis, Ratcliffe, and Holt, all of which try to pinpoint the moment when the market revolution erupted into national politics. Ellis says this happened in 1819, at the end of a decade that created “a truly national economy” (p. 159). Rejecting this view, Ratcliffe argues that only with the banking crisis of the mid-1830s did the market revolution displace sectional rivalries as the dominant national issue. Holt pushes the market revolution’s political impact back still later, linking it to the solidifaction of party alignments after the Panic of 1837.

A term that can denote this many...