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1 A New World
2 Beginnings of English America, 1607–1660
3 Creating Anglo-America, 1660–1750
4 Slavery, Freedom, and the Struggle for Empire, to 1763
5 The American Revolution, 1763–1783
6 The Revolution Within
7 Founding a Nation, 1783–1789
8 Securing the Republic, 1790–1815
9 The Market Revolution, 1800–1840
10 Democracy in America, 1815–1840
11 The Peculiar Institution
12 An Age of Reform, 1820–1840
13 A House Divided, 1840–1861
14 A New Birth of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861–1865
15 “What Is Freedom?”: Reconstruction, 1865–1877
16 America’s Gilded Age, 1870–1890
17 Freedom’s Boundaries, at Home and Abroad, 1890–1900
18 The Progressive Era, 1900–1916
19 Safe for Democracy: The United States and World War I, 1916–1920
20 From Business Culture to Great Depression: The Twenties, 1920–1932
21 The New Deal, 1932–1940
22 Fighting for the Four Freedoms: World War II, 1941–1945
23 The United States and the Cold War, 1945–1953
24 An Affluent Society, 1953–1960
25 The Sixties, 1960–1968
26 The Triumph of Conservatism, 1969–1988
27 Globalization and Its Discontents, 1989–2000
28 September 11 and the Next American Century

Chapter 9: The Market Revolution, 1800–1840

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Harriet Martineau on Chicago (1837)

In 1837, the British writer Harriet Martineau published this account of a youthful, bustling Chicago in her book entitled Society in America. As you read her account, consider what she found most remarkable about this growing city in the American hinterland. Did she approve or disapprove of what she saw? How would such an account have been received by Americans, especially those who hoped the nation would remain peopled by virtuous yeoman farmers? Which picture was closer to the reality of American social life?


Chicago looks raw and bare, standing on the high prairie above the lake-shore. The houses appear all insignificant, and run up in various directions, without any principle at all. A friend of mine who resides there had told me that we should find the inns intolerable, at the period of the great land sales, which bring a concourse of speculators to the place. It was even so. The very sight of them was intolerable; and there was not room for our party among them all. I do not know what we should have done, (unless to betake ourselves to the vessels in the harbor,) if our coming had not been foreknown, and most kindly provided for. We were divided between three families, who had the art of removing all our scruples about intruding on perfect strangers. None of us will lose the lively and pleasant associations with the place, which were caused by the hospitalities of its inhabitants.

I never saw a busier place than Chicago was at the time of our arrival. The streets were crowded with land speculators, hurrying from one sale to another. A negro, dressed up in scarlet, bearing a scarlet flag, and riding a white horse with housings of scarlet, announced the times of sale. At every street-corner where he stopped, the crowd flocked round him; and it seemed as if some prevalent mania infected the whole people. The rage for speculation might fairly be so regarded. As the gentlemen of our party walked the streets, storekeepers hailed them from their doors, with offers of farms, and all manner of land-lots, advising them to speculate before the price of land rose higher. A young lawyer, of my acquaintance there, had realized five hundred dollars per day the five preceding days, by merely making out titles to land. Another friend had realized, in two years, ten times as much money as he had before fixed upon as a competence for life. Of course, this rapid money-making is a merely temporary evil. A bursting of the bubble must come soon. The absurdity of the speculation is so striking, that the wonder is that the fever should have attained such a height as I witnessed. The immediate occasion of the bustle which prevailed, the week we were at Chicago, was the sale of lots, to the value of two millions of dollars, along the course of a projected canal; and of another set, immediately behind these. Persons not intending to game, and not infected with mania, would endeavor to form some reasonable conjecture as to the ultimate value of the lots, by calculating the cost of the canal, the risks from accident, from the possible competition from other places, &c., and, finally, the possible profits, under the most favorable circumstances, within so many years' purchase. Such a calculation would serve as some sort of guide as to the amount of purchase-money to be risked. Whereas, wild land on the banks of a canal, not yet even marked out, was selling at Chicago for more than rich land, well improved, in the finest part of the valley of the Mohawk, on the banks of a canal which is already the medium of an almost inestimable amount of traffic. If sharpers and gamblers were to be the sufferers by the impending crash at Chicago, no one would feel much concerned; but they, unfortunately, are the people who encourage the delusion, in order to profit by it. Many a high-spirited, but inexperienced, young man; many a simple settler, will be ruined for the advantage of knaves.

Others, besides lawyers and speculators by trade, make a fortune in such extraordinary times. A poor man at Chicago had a pre-emption right to some land, for which he paid in the morning one hundred and fifty dollars. In the afternoon, he sold it to a friend of mine for five thousand dollars. A poor Frenchman, married to a squaw, had a suit pending, when I was there, which he was likely to gain, for the right of purchasing some land by the lake for one hundred dollars, which would immediately become worth one million dollars.

There was much gaiety going on at Chicago, as well as business. On the evening of our arrival a fancy fair took place. As I was too much fatigued to go, the ladies sent me a bouquet of prairie flowers. There is some allowable pride in the place about its society. It is a remarkable thing to meet such an assemblage of educated, refined, and wealthy persons as may be found there, living in small, inconvenient houses on the edge of a wild prairie. There is a mixture, of course. I heard of a family of half-breeds setting up a carriage, and wearing fine jewellery. When the present intoxication of prosperity passes away, some of the inhabitants will go back to the eastward; there will be an accession of settlers from the mechanic classes; good houses will have been built for the richer families, and the singularity of the place will subside. It will be like all the other new and thriving lake and river ports of America. Meantime, I am glad to have seen it in its strange early days.


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