Essay on American History from the Colonial Period to the Civil War: Westward Expansion and Market Revolution

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The Market Revolution was a period of monumental economic transformation and considerable technological advances. Innovations had now opened land West for settlement that made it far easier for large factories to sell their products in small cities. Westward expansion and the Market Revolution deeply affected the lives of all Americans. There was a shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial market system that forever changed the production of goods and services from the traditional to the mass produced, mass consumed.

The Market Revolution was a fundamental transformation to the North in the United States, in terms of the exploitation of manual labor. The South a slaveholding class, generally opposed to industrial development but in the North, set in motion a change that would transform the region into a cohesive economy of commercial farms and manufacturing factories. The skilled craftsman who once made their entire product unaccompanied from home was now being replaced by giant factories. These factories used workers to replicate in minutes or hours, work that would require a skilled worker days to complete. Factories were highly controlled and created strict schedules around factory life, that firmly separated leisure life from work life. The urban factories demanded workers to follow their schedules, thus abandoning any sense of freedom they had left. In the document “Complaint of a Lowell Factory Worker (1845)” female factory workers cry out associating themselves and their freedom to a slave. “Slaves in every sense of the word! Slaves to a system of labor which requires them to toil from five until seven o’clock, with one hour only to attend to the wants of nature” (54). Demeaning to their sense of freedom, female factory workers continued to criticize that factory owners care little for what the lower-class worker desired and asked “shall the worthy laborer be awed into silence by wealth and power, and for fear of being deprived of the means of procuring his daily bread?” (54). The female workers ideas of freedom had been controlled and suppressed as they were subjected to constant supervision by their employers and a relentless pressure for greater productions. Slavery and labor had been mixed together with a Market Revolution and the outcome was slave labor workforce controlled by upper-class factory titleholders.

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Unlike in the colonial period, many Americans believed individuals should pursue their self-interest and to not rely on the government. There was a separation believed in which individuals and governments shouldn’t intervene in the private life the individual. In the document “Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)” Henry Thoreau believed that the energetic and competitive world of the Market Revolution led many of America's citizens to identify a new definition of freedom that believed in a Westward expansion and new market relations that would extinguish old land and social limitations of the past. Thoreau believed life can be simple only when your wants as a human are simple. He asserted we create many of our own problems and issues because we want things that we don't really need. Thoreau wanted America citizens to gain an understanding about the simplicities of daily life. He believed that simplicity was the key and that “genuine freedom he insisted, lay not in the accumulation of material goods, but within” (58). Thoreau emphasized that individuals must rely on themselves and unlike writers at the time who praised the Market, Thoreau called for Americans to appreciate that they needed to rely on themselves as individuals. He wanted the citizens to understand that the government should not meddle in the realm of the private self-individual. Thoreau was a proponent of individualism that favored the freedom of action for individuals over collective and state control and a need to find one’s own way rather than following the crowd.

Popular religious revivals had begun to sweep over the nation during the Market Revolution. Charles Finney in the document “Charles G. Finney “Sinners Band to Change Their Own Hearts (1836)” Finney was a reverend who encouraged Americans to use their faith as an instrument of motivation to actively work to stop the evils he saw within American society. Like Thoreau, Finney claimed that American society was too materialistic and too dependent on European thinkers to direct their own individual thoughts and actions. Finney held month long religious revivals during the Second Great Awakening that added a religious aspect to the idea of individualism. He held revivals to vigorously warn American of hell and the promise of salvation if they would end their sinful traditions. Finney rejected the notion that man was naturally sinful and predetermined to go to heaven or hell and that individuals had the free will to live in their sin or reach heaven by doing good things. “Every person, Finney insisted, was a moral free agent, that is, a person free to choose between a Christian life and a life of sin” (183). Finney maintained that anyone can go to heaven or to hell and that this decision is based on whether a person wants to worship God or worship in the devil's ways.

The era of the Market Revolution was a period that transformed and divided American society in its conception of freedom. The Market Revolution had shown that American society had become too materialistic and reliant on European thinkers and that they themselves have forgotten how to be individual free thinkers. Henry Thoreau insisted in his document that “modern society stifle individual judgment by making men “tools of their tools” (178). Thoreau was criticizing how a Market Revolution had been degrading both Americans values and the natural environment. Many scholars however, called for Americans to believe in their freedom and to make their own individual judgements over the existing institutions and traditions of the past. The individual had reawakened in American society and the Market Revolution had played a significant role in bringing the individual out of its deep trance.


  1. Foner, Eric. Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
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