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  • The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good
  • Daniel Walker Howe (bio)
The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good. By John Lauritz Larson. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 208. Cloth, $75.00; Paper, $20.99.)

In this model monograph, John Lauritz Larson explores the transformation of the American economy from independence to the eve of civil war, emphasizing its consequences for the population. A master of the subject, [End Page 520] Larson beautifully lays out not only the broad outlines of his theme but its complexities and subtleties in two hundred judicious, insightful pages. He manages to convey the sophistication of current scholarship in language accessible to students or any other curious, literate reader.

Larson here redeems the term "market revolution" from the treatment accorded it by Charles Sellers in The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (Oxford, UK, 1991). Sellers reified the market revolution, making it an actor in his story—indeed, its villain. Sellers's wicked "Market" ruined the lives of happy subsistence farmers, forcing their sons and daughters to become a proletariat in the service of a repressive bourgeoisie. By contrast, Larson shows how the market revolution was made by the people themselves, bit by unwitting bit. His own stance toward this process is richly ironic and nuanced; he never fails to point out ambiguities and paradoxes.

Larson punctuates his account with "interludes" on the Panics of 1819 and 1837, moments when the public were shocked by the miscarriage of their plans, but not sufficiently disillusioned to scrap their various projects of improvement and self-improvement which, eventually and unintentionally, added up to the "modernization" or "economic development" of the country. (These terms are used in a common sense rather than a technical sense.) Larson looks at the process from many points of view, including those of farmers, artisans, factory workers, entrepreneurs, black people, and women. The peculiarities of southern slavery in distorting the various developments are explained.

Larson follows conventional historical understanding in referring to the situation that preceded the market revolution in America as classical republicanism. Sellers portrayed the Jacksonian Democrats as defending classical republicanism against the Whig supporters of the market revolution. In his telling, the Jacksonians lost their struggle against the Market, even though they won their battle for white male political democracy. Larson presents a different take on the political debates of the antebellum period, a more accurate one in my judgment. In his narrative, the political conflict of the Second Party System wasn't between capitalism and classical republicanism; instead, the two parties endorsed rival versions of the market revolution. Neither side in the Second Party System actually wanted to maintain the old classical republicanism, though both of them enlisted it for rhetorical purposes. When all the ambiguities and subtleties in Larson's account are said and done, his Jacksonians supported [End Page 521] laissez-faire capitalism; his Whigs, government-sponsored economic development and diversification.

This analysis aligns the Jacksonians with Adam Smith, whose economic theory Larson presents at some length, and Smith's later American disciple William Graham Sumner. (It could have helped Larson make his point if he had thought to mention that Sumner was a Democrat.) So, in Larson's understanding, the Jacksonians win on both political and economic fronts: Mass-participation political parties and free enterprise each become the American norm.

Larson adds a delightful postscript on the Panic of 2008, which he compares quite aptly with the Panics of 1819 and 1837 in the momentary shock it delivered to our own society. It appropriately illustrates the relevance of Larson's history to our own day at a time when historians are being asked to show such relevance. Far from being an extraneous gesture, Larson's "Epilogue," besides providing an unusually lucid succinct account of the Panic of 2008, clarifies his interpretation of the market revolution and helps make its complexities cohere. Larson is making the point that the rules of the capitalist game are ones of human devising, not immutable natural laws. The market as we know it is a historical artifact, the product of decisions that started being...


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