The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846
Charles Sellers, 1991

“History’s most revolutionary force, the capitalist market, was wresting the future from history’s most conservative force, the land.” 

Although published by the Oxford University Press, this account of early American commerce seemed more to me like a popular history. I could deal with the slight determinism Sellers brought into his arguments from Karl Marx. The thing I really objected to was the fuzzy theology. The “centuries [of] peasant animism” he described sounded remarkably like Carolyn Merchant, whose
Ecological Revolutions was the first volume cited in Sellers’s bibliographical essay. Similarly, “Protestantism’s antipodal heresies” of antinomianism and arminianism were never clearly shown to be a cause or an effect. Sellers simply said the Great Awakening "had an ultimately profound political effect by undermining deference,” without really explaining the sources of the Awakening. Sellers wavered between a sort of determinist conspiracy theory where “Lawyers were the shock troops of capitalism” and a religious drama where Jonathan Edwards’s “revolutionary New Light, as finally modulated to the stresses of capitalist accommodation by Finney’s genius, nerved Americans for the personal transformation required by a competitive market.” Neither conclusion was satisfying, but along the way there was plenty of interesting information I could look into further.

The Jeffersonians were not the heroes in Sellers’s story. In 1802, he said, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin “convinced Congress to allocate land revenues from the new state of Ohio for a National Road connecting it with the Potomac via southwestern Pennsylvania, where his own investments were concentrated.” The “Fourteenth Congress, convening in prosperous peace in December 1815, was filled with enterprise-minded lawyers” who took credit for “saving the republic from the military ineptitude of penny-pinching, old-fogy Republicanism.” The transition from the Jefferson to the James Madison Republicans, and then to the younger generation (John Quincy Adams, etc.) was interesting and probably had some insights and story ideas in it. Monroe “falling thousands of dollars in debt to the [Second] Bank’s chief promotor, John Jacob Astor, who regularly subsidized his habit of living beyond his means,” was also interesting. But it got a bit weird when he said, “The Adamses epitomized both the fruits and human costs of the self-repressive effort exacted by capitalist transformation. The sublimation of psychic energy that fueled the country’s astonishing surge of production also generated the emotional intensity that John Quincy Adams displaced onto his beloved republic.” I agree Adams was a bit nuts, but seriously, what do these sentences mean? I think the story flowed much more smoothly where Sellers described events like “the dramatic reversal of Republican tradition” where in President Madison’s words, Republicans were “reconciled to certain measures and arrangements which may be as proper now as they were premature or suspicious when urged by champions of Federalism.” Sellers has a keen sense of irony: this was a beautiful explanation of the role of parties in American politics.

In another ironic passage, Sellers described Senator John Taylor (“of Caroline”) and his 1814
Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the United States. Taylor’s analysis of “capitalist exploitation of American agricultural labor” anticipated Marx, Sellers suggested. But it was also absurd. “This doomed aristocrat, elaborating the labor theory of value while slave labor supplied his every want,” Sellers said, “epitomized the contradictions of the capitalist transformation.” Well, maybe not, unless we throw away Eugene Genovese and the whole idea that the South wasn’t really capitalist in the Marxist sense of the word. But Sellers was right; there was a huge irony here. This is the tension I always notice when reading Eric Foner. Was it possible for a group as off-the-charts wrong as Southern Congressmen were, to articulate a credible indictment of Northern wage-based industry? And if not, was part of the tragedy of the antebellum period the fact that there was no one in a position to say what needed to be said about the way capitalist institutions were developing? Is that the lesson of American politics in this period: that both sides were so compromised that there was never any pure ground to stand on, so you made your choice of the lesser evil? Did people at the time “get” this? “Rotation in office” became the “spoils system” under Andrew Jackson -- was anyone surprised?

Sellers said, "it is not surprising that the state banks, most having suspended specie payments during the war, were reluctant to resume redeeming their notes in gold or silver coin on demand. With specie payments suspended, new banks could open on no other capital than stock loans and a little borrowed cash, and then force their notes into circulation by lending freely. Established banks could earn dividends of 12 to 20 percent by extending loans and note issues far beyond their specie reserves. The resulting uncontrolled inflation threatened sound growth."

But of course it seemed like a good idea at the time, to each person who took the notes or loans from their eager local banker. The question Sellers didn’t really address was, how was it these banks were
allowed to do this? There was more going on than just an old fashioned culture that didn’t understand what was happening. The type of society where Jefferson cosigned his friend Nicholas’s loan and lost his fortune. Wasn’t there?

In 1818, “with Henry Clay as its well-rewarded supervising attorney, the [new] national Bank [began] ruthlessly stripping its western debtors of their property. Most of Cincinnati fell into its hands.” As a result, “General William Henry Harrison, popular hero of Tippecanoe, bank director, and longtime grandee, was hard run for the state senate by an upstart radical lawyer and hero of the city’s working class.” Sellers didn’t give the challenger’s name, but it sounds like an interesting story. As does the idea that image politics began in 1828, when “Farmers and workers were baffled as well as threatened by the abstraction and complexity of the interests and issues that engaged calculating elites,” and as a result “Jackson’s charisma froze voters into a pattern of party identifications favoring his entourage.” Were the issues that difficult? Were the people that dim? Who, then, was the intended audience for “self-taught mechanic/intellectual” William M. Gouge’s 1833
Short History of Paper Money and Banking?

And when Jackson vetoed the Second Bank of the United States recharter, was he leading or following? The rhetoric was right on target: “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes...Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress.” But if the “Bank War was the acid test of American democracy,” how was it that no one in Jackson’s administration understood what throwing control back to unregulated state banks was going to do to the money supply? It’s hard to see how anyone believed that without some other controls, the result would be a return to metallic “real” money. I have to conclude that either part of the story is missing, or people weren’t honest. “Legislatures chartered over two hundred new banks in three years, pushing the total over six hundred. As the money supply (bank notes, deposits, and circulating specie) swelled from $172 million in 1834 to $276 million in 1836, prices shot up 50%.” Sellers forgot to mention credit notes, which functioned as cash. Thomas Hart Benton complained “I did not join in putting down the Bank of the United States, to put up a wilderness of local banks...I did not join in putting down the paper currency of a national bank, to put up a national paper currency of a thousand local banks.” What had he expected?

The Specie Circular was overturned by Congress in December 1836 by a combination of Whigs and “Conservative Democrats,” and “Jackson’s last official act was a pocket veto sustaining his hard-money policy against the bipartisan dismay of politicians.”  Jackson had come to Washington at least partly as a result of the Panic of 1819, and he left after setting off the Panic of 1837. Sellers said, “Economic disaster and multiplying immigrants--from 38,914 in 1838 to 104,565 in 1842--soon brought plebeian nativism to a boil” and launched America on its irrevocable path toward urban industrial capitalism. Really? The US census in 1840 totaled 17,069,453. The 1842 tsunami of immigration amounted to less than one percent of the total population. Even if the immigrants had all arrived in and remained in New York City (they didn’t), they would have made up only about 25% of that city’s population. A little more engagement with nuts and bolts, and a little less psychodynamics, would have made this a more readable and persuasive book.

But they didn’t ask my opinion. In 1992, the
Journal of the Early Republic invited a panel to participate in a Symposium on Market Revolution. (Somehow, the Journal also managed to not invite a number of social historians who had been working on the market revolution for the previous two decades. Kicking off the symposium was Richard Ellis, a former student of Sellers who said that although the book did “not pay the careful attention to detail” that people had come to expect from Sellers, “his comprehensiveness [and]...aggressive presentation of meaningful and provocative generalizations...will act as a catalyst for numerous doctoral dissertations.” Mary Blewett hinted that social historians had already moved well beyond Sellers and said they would likely be frustrated and disappointed by his synthesis. Joel Silbey subtly suggested that Sellers was simply following a line of argument “so well explored and synthesized previously by Harry Watson (who, in his blurb, had called the book a “brilliant achievement... Combining vast scholarship with vivid, trenchant prose). In his turn at the symposium, Watson reminded readers that resistance to the market transition had already been discussed in the terms Sellers used by Henretta, Clark, Kulikoff, and others.

In his defense, Sellers admitted that the “theologisms” were daunting, but said that was the way it had to be. He reiterated his belief that “the Protestant tension between antinomianism and arminianism was the central tension in early American life.”   Religion was important and “demands the special attention of historians because through it, as through politics, the largest numbers of people most visibly register their reactions to their circumstances.” This was probably my biggest issue with Sellers’s approach. Politics was an imperfect mirror of regular people’s ideas about life and society, because they most often were choosing from a set menu (between the giant douche or the turd sandwich, to put it in
South Park terminology). But at least there were no institutional barriers to political participation. Regular people were at least theoretically eligible to play. This was not the case with religion. The whole point of the religious game was control from above. Even where the message was individual, internal salvation through grace, the medium was still an elite white guy in the pulpit, whom the “lay” people were indoctrinated to believe and follow. “Nothing could be more liberating for American historians,” Sellers said, “than recognizing our own embeddedness in the liberal ideology we should be subjecting to critical analysis.” I agree, but the same goes for Sellers’ own embeddedness in theology.