Ep. 32: Individualism vs The Market Revolution

The colonial period was one of booming production and commerce, a deeply commercialized culture noted by its fashions, ever changing tastes, and values.

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Between 1815 and 1845, the world changed more dramatically than in any other previous 30-year period. Humanity began to break the food trap which had kept hundreds of generations barely producing enough to feed the living, keeping almost nothing to provide for the future.

Further Reading:

Rip Van Winkle” on WikiSource

Feller, Daniel. “The Market Revolution Ate My Homework

Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991.

Stokes & Conway, eds. The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia. 1996.

Martin, Scott. Cultural Change and the Market Revolution in America, 1789-1860. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2005.

Transcript:

Anthony Comegna: Between 1815 and 1845, the world changed more dramatically than in any other previous 30-year period. Humanity began to break the food trap, which had kept hundreds of generations barely producing enough to feed the living, keeping almost nothing to provide for the future.
Political, social, economic systems all around either revolutionized, reformed, [00:00:30] disappeared or expanded to new heights of power and influence. Technologists and tinkerers unleashed invisible universal forces to empower human development, and even collapse space and time.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] A growing number of Americans felt the early pulse of a new world developing beneath their feet, and by their actions during these decades. Yet the roots of these changes ran deep in Atlantic and early modern history. The colonial period was one of booming production and commerce [00:01:30] too, a deeply commercialized culture, noted by its fashions, ever-changing tastes and bourgeois values.
During the 18th century, scientific learning and technical tinkering converged to shrink the globe as much as possible. But the pace of change started slowly, and sped up with time. As the world transformed, and new possibilities and problems surrounded people, the dislocating effects stretch from one generation to another. Across even modest leaps of time, the world looked completely different, [00:02:00] and this kind of change could be disorienting.
The classic example of history-driven existential crisis is Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle. Rip lived in an old Dutch community of late colonial New York. The countryside was dazzling and beautiful, stretching on forever and ever in every direction. But society presented certain challenges to men like Rip. He was lazy, slow, accustomed to easy work, and hen-pecked and overburdened at home.
Rip Van Winkle escaped [00:02:30] the demands of private life by entering the field of politics, always months behind the action in Europe, of course. The ancient local Dutch patriarchs gathered in their leader’s tavern to discuss the implications of policies made by men an ocean away. Delighted by their own wisdom and conversation, they sat and talked, but little else.

Speaker 2: A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker, by Washington Irving, 1819. Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle, as years of matrimony rolled [00:03:00] on. For a long while, he used to console himself when driven from home, by frequenting a kind of perpetual club of the sages, philosophers and other idle personages of the village, which held its sessions on a bench before a small inn, designated by a rubicund portrait of His Majesty George the Third. Here they used to sit in the shade through a long lazy summer’s day, talking listlessly over village gossip, or telling endless sleepy stories about nothing.
But [00:03:30] it would have been worth any statesman’s money to have heard the profound discussions which sometimes took place, when by chance an old newspaper fell into their hands from some passing traveler. How solemnly they would listen to the contents, as drawled out by Derrick Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, a dapper learned little man, who was not to be daunted by the most gigantic word in the dictionary. And how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place. [00:04:00] The opinions of this junto were completely controlled by Nicholas Vedder, a patriarch of the village, and landlord of the inn.
From even this stronghold the unlucky Rip was at length routed by his termagant wife, who would suddenly break in upon the tranquility of the assemblage and call the members all to naught. Nor was that august personage, Nicholas Vedder himself, sacred from the daring tongue of this terrible virago, who charged him outright with encouraging her husband in habits of idleness.
[00:04:30] Poor Rip was at last reduced almost to despair. And his only alternative, to escape from the labor of the farm and the clamor of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods.

Anthony Comegna: Hen-pecked even in his place of escape, Rip and his dog retire to wonder the Catskills wilderness. After some hours and many beautiful visions of the countryside, the two find a clearing with most unusual inhabitants. A number of small, leprechaun- [00:05:00] like woodspeople invite Rip to an impromptu gin-fest, and our hero drinks himself into a deep sleep. He awakens an unknown amount of time later, and does what any good colonial American would do.

Speaker 2: He looked round for his gun, but in place of the clean, well-oiled fowling-piece, he found an old firelock lying by him, the barrel encrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten. He now suspected that the grave roisterers [00:05:30] of the mountains had put a trick upon him, and having dosed him with liquor, had robbed him of his gun.
As he approached the village he met a number of people, but none whom he knew, which somewhat surprised him, for he had thought himself acquainted with every one in the country round. Their dress, too, was of a different fashion from that to which he was accustomed. They all stared at him with equal marks of surprise, and whenever they cast their eyes upon him, invariably stroked their chins. The constant recurrence [00:06:00] of this gesture induced Rip, involuntarily, to do the same, when to his astonishment, he found his beard had grown a foot long.
He had now entered the skirts of the village. A troop of strange children ran at his heels, hooting after him, and pointing at his gray beard. The dogs, too, not one of which he recognized for an old acquaintance, barked at him as he passed. The very village was altered. It was larger and more populous. There were rows of houses, which he had never seen before, [00:06:30] and those which had been his familiar haunts had disappeared. Strange names were over the doors, strange faces at the windows, everything was strange.
His mind now misgave him. He began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched. Surely this was his native village, which he had left but a day before. There stood the Catskill mountains, there ran the silver Hudson at a distance, there was every hill and dale precisely [00:07:00] as it had always been. Rip was sorely perplexed. “That flagon last night,” thought he, “has addled my poor head sadly.”
He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the village inn, but it too was gone. A large rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted, “the Union Hotel, [00:07:30] by Jonathan Doolittle.” Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on the top that looked like a red night-cap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes.
All this was strange and incomprehensible. He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe. But even [00:08:00] this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a scepter, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, General Washington.
There was, as usual, a crowd of folk about the door, but none that Rip recollected. The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm [00:08:30] and drowsy tranquility. He looked in vain for the sage Nicholas Vedder, with his broad face, double chin, and fair long pipe, uttering clouds of tobacco-smoke instead of idle speeches. Or Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, doling forth the contents of an ancient newspaper. In place of these, a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about the rights of citizens, elections, members of congress, liberty, Bunker’s Hill, heroes of ‘76, [00:09:00] and other words, which were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.
The appearance of Rip, with his long grizzled beard, his rusty fowling-piece, his uncouth dress, and the army of women and children at his heels, soon attracted the attention of the tavern politicians. They crowded round him, eyeing him from head to foot with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and drawing him partly aside, inquired on which side he voted. Rip stared in [00:09:30] vacant stupidity. Another short but busy little fellow pulled him by the arm, and, rising on tiptoe, inquired in his ear whether he was Federal or Democrat.
Rip was equally at a loss to comprehend the question, when a knowing, self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat, made his way through the crowd, putting them to the left and right with his elbows as he passed, and planting himself before Van Winkle, with one arm akimbo, and the other resting on his cane, his keen eyes and sharp [00:10:00] hat penetrating, as it were, into his very soul, demanded in an austere tone, what brought him to the election with a gun on his shoulder and a mob at his heels, and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village.
“Alas, gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him.”
Here a general shout burst from the by-standers. “A tory. A tory. A spy. A refugee. Hustle [00:10:30] him. Away with him.”
It was with great difficulty that the self-important man in the crooked hat restored order. And having assumed a tenfold austerity of brow, demanded again of the unknown culprit, what he came here for, and whom he was seeking.

Anthony Comegna: A young woman finally steps in on Rip’s behalf, and we learn that she is his daughter, and Rip has been lost, sleeping in the woods for a generation. The entire world has changed around him, and poor Rip Van Winkle is left [00:11:00] to wonder, hopelessly, how he will fit in, what he will make of himself, how he will get over what he’s lost, deeply bitter about the cruelty of time.
Washington Irving published Rip in 1819, right at the beginning of America’s sharp climb up the 19th century hockey stick, the explosion of economic productivity, usually called the industrial revolution. People of the day saw and understood these changes, but not their full implications. They could not, as it were, see beyond [00:11:30] the point of singularity, to imagine life after these immense changes happened.
In geometry, a singularity is a point on a circle, blocking a line of sight from the rest of the curve. In astronomy, it is a black hole that absorbs everything, including whatever light might allow us to see the hole. No one in 1815 knew exactly what was coming by 1845, but everyone knew it would be radically different. People knew something amazing, magical even, was happening before them, and [00:12:00] by their very hands.
Historians though, separated by 100 years and more, have often been perfectly content to treat these many hundreds and thousands of mini-transformations as singular lumps. There’s the 18th century agricultural revolution. George Washington read the same sorts of agricultural science and plantation organization manuals that Julius Caesar used on his own property. Two millennia separated them, but agriculture had really not changed much until inventions like the cotton gin, [00:12:30] and sciences like chemistry, entered the field.
There was the late 18th and early 19th century industrious revolution. Proper heavy industry did not exist before modern steel mills arrived in the 1860s and 70s. Instead, bourgeois middle class cultures of industriousness increased production in earlier periods.
Then we have a transportation revolution, in which steamships, turnpike roads, canals and railroads dramatically cut transit time, and shrank space beyond recognition. [00:13:00] There’s a market revolution, by which people previously confined to local markets are steadily knit together into national and global scale, impersonal marketplaces. We have a communications revolution, aided by transportation and markets, but including fantastic technologies like the telegraph, collapsing time and space together in a single invention.
And finally, the industrial revolution, with levels of capital investment far beyond the individual’s capacity, marked by [00:13:30] explosions of corporate charters, new kinds of labor, new forms of class consciousness, new politics, and staggeringly high amounts of output.
One after another, these revolutions seemed to absorb all events into themselves. And if the historian lets them, they easily become explanations for everything. Historians of all schools and stripes have been guilty of this sort of centralization of concepts, this constant dumping of history and human agency into the revolution garbage bins, [00:14:00] when literally everything can be neatly and cleanly explained with reference to the gargantuan, impersonal, disembodied market revolution.
We must ask, does this concept, or any of the others, actually help explain anything? Progressives and Marxists in the early 20th century, like Vernon Parrington, painted rather cartoonish divisions of agrarian heroes and bankster villains battling each other. They offered a rigid, wealth-based classed analysis, that [00:14:30] separated everyone and everything into its proper box, specially prepared for them by impersonal economic forces, like our flurry of revolutions.
During the more nationalist 1940s and 50s, the consensus school countered progressives with reference to the all-powerful data. Empirical history supposedly showed that class was insignificant, at least in America. Everyone was a solid Democrat and Republican here, either a capitalist, or a capitalist-in-waiting, with few exceptions. [00:15:00] Consensus school historians argued that our great revolutions pushed a democratic people inevitably toward the new deal historians love so much.
In the revisionist 1960s and 70s, the new social history revived the role of conflict in the social sciences, and the new left ran away with it. Historians in these generations argued that statistics must always be interpreted, and the historian’s job was uncovering human stories, subcultures, gendered and racialized perspectives on [00:15:30] the same events, and so on. If one stopped looking at the big books written by old, dead white men, even just for a little while, you might just see the world differently.
Today, historians have tried to synthesize these approaches to the past. They use statistics to illustrate the actions of real people. They recognize the importance of everyone, especially the marginalized, and they’re careful to note the limitations of any one interpretive framework, like the market revolution. They know that no [00:16:00] one concept can explain everything, and if it seems to, it’s probably not very useful.
But they still don’t quite know how to present the past in a meaningful way, without leaning on these big concepts as the prime movers of change. The best historians, then, are those who manage to present the past purely as the sum total of individual choices and actions. There are many, many historians out there, who basically write as individualists, they just don’t know it, or consciously [00:16:30] profess it.
In the modern Marxists, we can find history from below, and sensitivity to the marginalized. They challenge the status quo of powerful interests. In post-modernism, we can find scholars who study the agency of all people, without forcing on them an artificial class or national experience. Though they may fall into gender or race determinism from time to time, the best of these scholars show the immense complexity of individual experience.
And in the great mass of centrist [00:17:00] liberal historians today, we find dozens and hundreds, maybe thousands, of very good studies with solid methods, that make clear contributions. They are best when they treat individuals, and worst when they project new deal liberalism back into the past. The libertarian historian can corral all of these schools together, take what’s most valuable from each, add that secret element of methodological individualism, and produce robust, meaningful narratives of the past.
We can make [00:17:30] space for consensus. The marketplace, after all, coordinates billions of changing preferences pretty well. We can make space for conflict. People with power tend to abuse it, and those whose liberty is violated tend to resist. We can make space for market revolutions. Something, many, many somethings, did dramatically change about the way people lived their lives between about 1815 and 1845. But the humble, yet fundamental libertarian insight, [00:18:00] is that individual human beings with agency as such, made those revolutions happen.
It was everywhere and always, individual people, their interests and ideas that made change happen. People chose to act and live differently. [00:18:30] They chose to use scientific knowledge to manipulate their environment. They chose to think and live according to new principles. They desired to collapse time and space, and manifested their wishes with deliberate action.
Don’t get me wrong. People by no means choose all of the constraints they are under, but no change ever happens without individual choice, and no market revolution ever chose anything. It’s a simple [00:19:00] point, but we’ll see, simple points of departure can often make all the difference.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.