But over and above these specific issues, workers’ language of protest drew on older ideas of freedom linked to economic autonomy, public-spirited virtue, and social equality. The conviction of twenty New York tailors in 1835 under the common law of conspiracy for combining to seek higher wages inspired a public procession marking the “burial of liberty.” Such actions and language were not confined to male workers. The young mill women of Lowell walked off their jobs in 1834 to protest a reduction in wages and again two years later when employers raised rents at their boardinghouses. They carried banners affirming their rights as “daughters of free men,” and, addressing the factory owners, they charged, “the oppressive hand of avarice [greed] would enslave us.” Freedom, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary declared in 1828, was “a state of exemption from the power or control of another.” The labor movement asked how many wage earners truly enjoyed such “exemption.”
Some labor spokesmen, like Langdon Byllesby of Philadelphia, went so far as to describe wage labor itself as the “very essence of slavery,” since dependence on another person for one’s economic livelihood was incompatible with freedom. The idea that permanent wage work bore some resemblance to slavery was not confined to labor radicals. In Herman Melville’s short story The Tartarus of Maids, workers in a New England paper mill stand by their machines “mutely and cringingly as the slave.”
Rooted in the traditions of the small producer and the identification of freedom with economic independence, labor’s critique of the market economy directly challenged the idea that individual improvement— Emerson’s “self-trust, self-reliance, self-control, self-culture”—offered an adequate response to social inequality. “Wealth and labor,” wrote Orestes Brownson in his influential essay “The Laboring Classes” (1840), were at war. Workers’ problems, he went on, must be understood as institutional, not individual. They had their root in “the constitution of society,” and their solution required not a more complete individualism, but a “radical change [in] existing social arrangements” so as to produce “equality between man and man.”
“We are free,” wrote Peter Rodel, an immigrant German shoemaker, “but not free enough.... We want the liberty of living.” Here lay the origins of the idea, which would become far more prominent in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that economic security—a standard of life below which no person would fall—formed an essential part of American freedom.
Thus, the market revolution transformed and divided American society and its conceptions of freedom. It encouraged a new emphasis on individualism and physical mobility among white men, while severely limiting the options available to women and African-Americans. It opened new opportunities for economic freedom for many Americans, while leading others to fear that their traditional economic independence was being eroded. In a democratic society, it was inevitable that the debate over the market revolution and its consequences for freedom would be reflected in American politics.
1. Identify the major transportation improvements in this period and explain how they influenced the market economy.
2. How did state and local governments promote the national economy in this period?
3. How did the market economy increase the nation’s sectional differences?
4. Explain how the market economy promoted the growth of cities in the East and along the frontier.
5. What role did immigrants play in the new market society?
6. What were the main changes in American law during this period?
7. As it democratized American Christianity, the Second Great Awakening both took advantage of the market revolution and criticized its excesses. Explain.
8. What was the “cult of domesticity” and how was it a result of the market revolution?
1. Explain how the growth of the Cotton Kingdom benefited planters and other slaveowners, but reduced the liberties of poorer southern farmers and African Americans.
2. How did the growth of the factory system limit the traditional freedoms of American artisans, and how did they respond?
3. The market revolution added new terminology to the American lexicon. Explain how each of the following concepts is related to a change in individual freedom: wages, clock time, self made man, privacy, and middle class.
4. The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary defined freedom as “a state of exemption from the power and control of another.” Using this definition, assess the impact of the market revolution on the freedoms of white women, African Americans, immigrants, and wage workers.
5. Explain how the market revolution changed the meanings of American freedom, both by reinforcing older ideas and creating new ones.