Ironies abounded in the era’s “individualism” (a term that first entered the language in the 1820s). For even as the market revolution promoted commercial connections between far-flung people, the idea of the “sovereign individual” proclaimed that Americans should depend on no one but themselves. Of course, personal independence had long been associated with American freedom. But eighteenth-century thinkers generally saw no contradiction between private happiness and self-sacrificing public virtue, defined as devotion to the common good. Now, Tocqueville observed, individualism led “each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends... [leaving] society at large to itself.” Americans increasingly understood the realm of the self—which came to be called “privacy”—as one with which neither other individuals nor government had a right to interfere. As will be discussed in the next chapter, individualism also helped to inspire the expansion of democracy. Ownership of one’s self rather than ownership of property now made a person capable of exercising the right to vote.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson,

“The American Scholar” (1837)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps the most prominent intellectual in mid-nineteenth-century America. In this famous address, delivered at Harvard College, he insisted on the primacy of individual judgment over existing social traditions as the essence of freedom.

Perhaps the time is already come, when . . . the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close....

In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,-free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom.... Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. They are the kings of the world who give the color of their present thought to all nature and all art....

[A] sign of the times ... is the new importance given to the single individual. Everything that tends to insulate the individual,-to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state:-tends to true union as well as greatness. T learned,’ said the melancholy Pestalozzi [a Swiss educator], “that no man in God’s wide earth is either willing or able to help any other man.” Help must come from his bosom alone....

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. . . . The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant. See already the tragic consequence. The mind of this country taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. Young men... do not yet see, that if the single man [should] plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. ... We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.

From “Factory Life as It Is, by an Operative” (1845)

Beginning in the 1830s, young women who worked in the cotton textile factories in Lowell, Massachusetts, organized to demand shorter hours of work and better labor conditions. In this pamphlet from 1845, a factory worker details her grievances as well as those of female domestic workers, the largest group of women workers.

Philanthropists of the nineteenth century!—shall not the operatives of our country be permitted to speak for themselves? Shall they be compelled to listen in silence to [those] who speak for gain, and are the mere echo of the will of the corporations? 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? Shall tyranny and cruel oppression be allowed to rivet the chains of physical and mental slavery on the millions of our country who are the real producers of all its improvements and wealth, and they fear to speak out in noble self-defense? Shall they fear to appeal to the sympathies of the people, or the justice of this far-famed republican nation? God forbid!

Much has been written and spoken in woman’s behalf, especially in America; and yet a large class of females are, and have been, destined to a state of servitude as degrading as unceasing toil can make it. I refer to the female operatives of New England—the free states of our union—the states where no colored slave can breathe the balmy air, and exist as such;— but yet there are those, a host of them, too, who a re in fact nothing more nor less than 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, allowed— slaves to the will and requirements of the “powers that be,” however they may infringe on the rights or conflict with the feelings of the operative—slaves to ignorance—and how can it be otherwise? What time has the operative to bestow on moral, religious or intellectual culture? How can our country look for aught but ignorance and vice, under the existing state of things? When the whole system is exhausted by unremitting labor during twelve and thirteen hours per day, can any reasonable being expect that the mind will retain its vigor and energy? Impossible! Common sense will teach every one the utter impossibility of improving the mind under these circumstances, however great the desire may be for knowledge.

Again, we hear much said on the subject of benevolence among the wealthy and so called, Christian part of community. Have we not cause to question the sincerity of those who, while they talk benevolence in the parlor, compel their help to labor for a mean, paltry pittance in the kitchen? And while they manifest great concern for the souls of the heathen in distant lands, care nothing for the bodies and intellects of those within their own precincts? ...

In the strength of our united influence we will soon show these drivelling cotton lords, this mushroom aristocracy of New England, who so arrogantly aspire to lord it over God’s heritage, that our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity; that we WILL not longer submit to that arbitrary power which has for the last ten years been so abundantly exercised over us.


1. How does Emerson define the freedom of what he calls “the single individual”?

2. Why does the female factory worker compare her conditions with those of slaves?

3. What does the contrast between these two documents suggest about the impact of the market revolution on American thought?

Outing on the Hudson, painted by an unknown artist around 1850. The steamboat, pictured in the foreground, made it possible for dtp dwellers to enjoy rural excursions such as this, although, as the tree stump suggests, they were not experiencing unspoiled nature.

Looking back from the 1880s, Emerson would recall the era before the Civil War as a time when “social existence” gave way to “the enlargement and independency of the individual,... driven to find all his resources, hopes, rewards, society, and deity within himself.” In his own life, Thoreau illustrated Emerson’s point about the primacy of individual conscience in matters political, social, and personal, and the need to find one’s own way rather than following the crowd. Like other transcendentalists, he did not approve of the way individuals in a market economy engaged in this pursuit of happiness. Thoreau became persuaded that modem society stifled individual judgment by making men “tools of their tools,” trapped in stultifying jobs by their obsession with acquiring wealth. Even in “this comparatively free country,” he wrote, most persons were so preoccupied with material things that they had no time to contemplate the beauties of nature.

To escape this fate, Thoreau retreated for two years to a cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, where he could enjoy the freedom of isolation from the “economical and moral tyranny” he believed ruled American society. He subsequently published Walden (1854), an account of his experiences and a critique of how the market revolution was, in his opinion, degrading both Americans’ values and the natural environment. An area that had been covered with dense forest in his youth, he observed, had been so transformed by woodcutters and farmers that it had become almost completely devoid of trees and wild animals. In one famous passage, Thoreau noted how his enjoyment of nature was disturbed by the distant sound of a locomotive whistle—a symbol of how it seemed impossible to escape the market revolution. Thoreau appealed to Americans to “simplify” their lives rather than become obsessed with the accumulation of wealth. Genuine freedom, he insisted, lay within.

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