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The term “market revolution” is used to refer to a period in the first half of the 19th century associated with significant changes in global trade relations and the way Americans conducted business. Technological advancements and innovations played a major role in industrial progress in the country. As a result, throughout the 1820s and 1830s, independent artisans became superseded by large businesses focused on mass production (National Museum of American History n.d.). Besides that, governmental policies favored and promoted the rise of capitalism (National Museum of American History n.d.).
Such drastic changes affected society to a large extent, fostered the formation of new values, and were intended to offer new opportunities for individual growth and development. Nevertheless, even though the market revolution affected the very roots of the traditional American lifestyle and everyone involved, some social groups were privileged to gain benefits entailed by the changes than others. Women, African Americans, journeymen, and workers had fewer advantages than employers and business owners who were predominantly white males. The present paper will discuss the shifts in the position and status of these populations during the 1820s and 1830s.
Effects of the Market Revolution on Women
Industrialization and the rapid growth of various factories, in particular, induced substantial changes in the pre-industrial family relations. As a result, the social role of women, who traditionally carried out the functions of nurturers and caretakers, began to be transforming. As noted by Larson (2010), in the early 19th century, women slowly became viewed as “underemployed sources that might be harnessed to build up manufacturing” (117). Since during the market revolution, households grew more dependent on a regular income than their produce, women commenced performing a conventionally male function of a breadwinner as well.
Large factories and farms hired women and paid them for engagement in labor that they previously did without earning anything, such as sewing and milking (Larson 2010). In addition, many young, unmarried women started to earn money as “helpers” working inside the homes of others and doing such chores as cooking, cleaning, and so forth (Larson 2010, 117). Overall, it demonstrates that even though females became more commercially active, they still primarily engaged in traditionally feminine activities. Nevertheless, the fact that they began to receive money for their work can certainly be regarded as one of the advantages of the market revolution.
However, it is clear that cultural change during the 19th century was slow and society still had conservative, Victorian values that defined gender relationships and endowed men with greater freedom than women. For instance, the work that was usually performed by females, such as cooking and nursing, had no or limited “market value” compared to activities in which men could more easily engage (Larson 2010, 119). In addition, compared to men, women were normally paid less for the same job (Larson 2010). Another significant negative effect of the market revolution on women was the stimulation of the sex trade. Females living in unprivileged situations, without husbands’ protection and families’ support, frequently became prostitutes as this work provided more income and personal freedom (Larson 2010). Thus, the rise in sex commerce may be considered a direct result of increasing dependence on wages in the society that emphasized individualism yet continued to discriminate against women.
Effects on African Americans
It is valid to say that African Americans enjoyed even less freedom during the market revolution than females. The cotton industry that boomed in the South played a major role in the Atlantic economy and generation of capital for southern businessmen, and this economic development was substantially fueled by the unpaid labor of southern slaves (Egerton 1996). Noteworthily, Rockman (2005) observes that many antebellum slaveholders “scorned the competitive individualism associated with marketplace and instead fashioned identities of themselves as feudal lords or Biblical patriarchs” (8). Thus, not many things changed for African Americans living in the South during that period. Moreover, it is possible to say that they were exposed to more negative consequences of the market revolution than its benefits. For example, since market consideration required efficient allocation of labor, “calculating southern businessmen dragged their slave families west, or broke them up by sale” very often (Egerton 1996, 210). Overall, while black slaves produced enormous profits for their masters, they continued to live in harsh conditions and be exploited regularly.
Free African Americans living outside of the slave South had greater opportunities than the enslaved ones. As noted by Rael (2006), some of them had considerable wealth. However, Martin (2005) clarifies that African Americans “rarely possessed the luxury of unqualified middle-class status” because they were deprived of equal access to the economy (16). The main reason for that was a widespread racial prejudice originating from the early colonization era and Europeans’ view of non-white individuals as savages and inferiors (Harvey 2016). Therefore, business owners rarely hired free African Americans to perform duties that required skills and qualifications (Rael 2006). Similar to women, most of them engaged in activities with low market value such as domestic service. In this way, even though the market revolution was intended to improve the economic and social position of African Americans as citizens of the United States, it only proved that they are discriminated against and denied opportunities to prosper.
Effects on Workers
It is valid to note that male workers had a by far more privileged position during the market revolution than African Americans and women. Still, they had to bear significant disadvantages that a newly introduced wage labor system had to offer. As capitalism was gathering momentum in the country, the gap between business owners and hired workers continued to become wider. While the former individuals were becoming richer, often performing entrepreneurial and supervisory roles “out of sight of the workforce altogether,” laborers had to toil for small amounts of money (Larson 2010, 108). As a result, workers commenced seeing employers as “a new class of parasites” (Larson 2010, 108). It means that even white and male workers constituted an exploited class because, in attempts to reduce costs and maximize production, business owners often neither gave them generous wages nor aimed to improve their work conditions. In addition, as observed by Larson (2010), during industrialization, prices were rising sharply whereas the purchasing power of many journeymen was steadily declining. For this reason, workers enjoyed limited freedom and were bound to work long hours just to survive.
The described situation indicates that inequality is inherent in the wage-labor system and, during the 19th century, it was associated with particularly sharp contrast and income difference between employees and employers. As stated by Larson (2005), ambitious individuals gained access to resources after the American Revolution while the country was celebrating liberty and equality. Nevertheless, to a substantial degree, those resources remained in the hands of a few who exercised greater political and economic power (Larson 2005). Workers’ experiences during the first half of the 19th century show that the popular idea about economic equality and liberty was still far from its realization.
The major trend observed during the market revolution was the orientation towards individualism and belief in the power of a single person not only to maintain their sustenance but also to prosper. While American history abundantly supplied examples of self-made wealth and success, some especially vulnerable populations still had limited access to resources and opportunities for growth and economic independence. Women and racial minorities were particularly disadvantaged, and their unequal position was largely predetermined by the long-established dominant cultural values and beliefs that regarded white males as superior and gave them more active social roles.
When speaking of workers and journeymen who seemingly could have greater opportunities to generate wealth were exploited by their employers in the wage-labor system. Business owners availed themselves in all the results of their employees’ hard work and regarded them merely as means to an end for generating more profit. Thus, just a small minority of individuals indeed enjoyed the economic freedom that the market revolution hoped to produce for everyone. At the same time, a vast majority of people, and especially those who were discriminated against for a long time in the country, were suffering due to the negative consequences of increasing market competition the most.
Egerton, Douglas R. 1996. “Markets without a Market Revolution: Southern Planters and Capitalism.” Journal of the Early Republic 16 (2): 207-221.
Harvey, Sean P. 2016. “Ideas of Race in Early America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Web.
Larson, John Lauritz. 2005. “Foreword: The Market Revolution in Early America: An Introduction.” OAH Magazine of History 19 (3): 4-7.
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Larson, John Lauritz. 2010. The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Martin, Scott C. 2005. Cultural Change and the Market Revolution in America, 1789-1860. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
National Museum of American History. n.d. A Market Revolution. Web.
Rael, Patrick. 2006. “Free Black Activism in the Antebellum North.” The History Teacher 39 (2): 115-253.
Rockman, Seth. 2005. “Liberty Is Land and Slaves: The Great Contradiction.” OAH Magazine of History 19 (3): 8-11.