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Market Revolution, pt 2

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Interviewer: You write that a "market revolution" occurred in the early decades of the nineteenth century. What do you mean by that, and what was its significance? How inclusive was the market revolution?

Eric Foner: Historians refer to a series of economic changes that took place between, let's say, 1800 and 1840 or so as the "market revolution." This includes many things: it includes great improvements in transportation, the steamboat, the building of canals, eventually the railroad, which made possible the much more rapid transportation of goods throughout the country. It also refers to a shift in economic activity where more and more farmers and city craftsmen were producing goods for the market rather than for their own subsistence. In 1800 most American farmers basically grew foods for their own families. Those near cities or rivers would sell their goods, and of course the southern plantations were selling goods to Europe, but the small farmers were basically growing foods for their own family. By 1840 the large majority of them were producing goods for the marketplace. Now, as they did that their lives changed. There were no longer crafts that used to exist at home; now you bought those things from stores, and factories began to produce things like woven cloth, which used to be made at home. So, everybody was affected by the rise of market relations. Some men gained greater independence by working in the market; some of them lost their economic independence. They had to go work in factories, where they worked under the economic dictation of someone else. Women's work changed. No longer were women producing essential goods in the home. They were still working, of course, very hard, but they were not manufacturing goods in the home for the family. Some women went out to work in the new factories. So the market revolution really changed the nature of economic life for just about all Americans.

The cotton kingdom

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Interviewer: What was the impact of the rise of the cotton kingdom in this period?

Eric Foner: Between 1800 and 1860 the most dynamic element in the American economy was the expansion of cotton production based on slave labor. Cotton became the most important crop in the world economy, the most important item in international trade, because the early industrial revolution was based on factories producing cloth out of cotton, and there was an immense demand for cotton as a raw material. So to meet that demand slavery expanded westward. When the Revolution took place, slavery was basically along the Atlantic coast, in Virginia, South Carolina, etc., but in the early nineteenth century you got the opening of what's called the "cotton kingdom": Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, eventually Texas. Cotton production spread westward; new cotton plantations, or so-called cotton belts or black belts, arose there, and this became the source of tremendous wealth for southern planters. Cotton became the major export for the whole United States, and a large number of northerners benefited from this, even if they were not slaveowners. Northern ships carried this cotton; northern insurance companies insured it; northern shipbuilders built the ships; northern merchants were making the money by transporting the cotton. So it was really a national phenomenon, even though geographically it was located deep in the South.

Westward expansion in the 19th century

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Interviewer: How did the West emerge as a region in this period?

Eric Foner: Well, of course westward expansion had been going on ever since the first settlers landed and began pushing inland, and the American Revolution, which broke the power of the Indians in the Northwest and pushed the British out, opened up vast new lands to western settlement. So westward expansion of population was going on throughout the first part of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the boundaries of the country were also expanding westward. Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana doubled the size of the country, and later on the war with Mexico added a whole new area of land to the United States. So the country was expanding westward; people were moving westward. The West began to emerge as a sort of self-conscious region of the country different from New England, different from the middle states, different from the old southern states. Politicians rose to power by being spokesmen of the West: Henry Clay was a spokesman of the West; later Steven A. Douglas was a spokesman of the West. The West became a very critical element in American political and social life.

The abolitionist movement

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Interviewer: You mention that the abolitionist movement moved beyond an antislavery stance to become a movement for "the rights of every freeman." Could you explain that?

Eric Foner: The abolitionist movement is a critical moment in the expansion and development of the ideas of freedom in American history. Because the abolitionists (the modern abolitionist movement begins in the late 1820s, early 1830s) put forward this demand not only for immediate abolition of slavery, but also for the incorporation of black people as full and equal citizens of the United States. So they put forward a different vision of American society than the one which was commonly held by most people at that time; a vision of a multiracial society in which everybody enjoyed the same basic legal rights. That established a principle which applied not only to blacks, but later on to immigrants, to other groups; and many abolitionists extended it to women as well. It was out of the abolitionist movement that the early movement for women's suffrage and basic rights of women developed. So the abolitionists create this very broad image of an American society of equal citizens, all enjoying the same rights regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of national origin, and this is a significant step forward in the conceptualization of liberty in our history.

The Mormon phenomenon

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Interviewer: Another historical moment that is registering with the public today is the development of Mormonism as an American and global phenomenon. Would you comment on this?

Eric Foner: Well, Mormons, or the Church of Latter Day Saints have in the presidential election of 2012 the first Mormon nominated for national office, which is a remarkable step in the expansion of religious liberty in this country, whether you agree with Romney’s politics or not. Mormons, when they began, were subject to intense hatred and opposition. In upstate New York where they were founded, Mormons were driven out. Joseph Smith had to take them to Missouri and Illinois. He, himself, the founder of the church, was killed by a mob. They made the trek out to Utah. In other words, they could not find a safe place to live in the United States. Fast forward 150 or so years and I think it’s a sign of growing toleration in this country that a member of the church could be nominated as a candidate for president.

The Mormons were one of many religious groups that arose out of the Great Revivals of the pre-Civil War period. They actually arose in upstate New York, the so-called Burned Over District, which was an area of every conceivable kind of social movement: abolitionism, prohibition, women’s rights, etc. Religious groups of all kinds kind of sprang up and the Mormons were one of them. Joseph Smith was one of many prophets who gathered around him a set of followers who adopted his particular religious belief. But the Mormons were different from many others because they had certain ideas which powerfully offended mainstream society, particularly polygamy. That is to say the right of men to marry more than one woman. In fact, Joseph Smith had about thirty wives over the course of his life. Mainstream Americans found this offensive and unacceptable. Eventually the Mormons would reject or transcend that practice, which is no longer part of Mormon theology.

I think they proved very successful. They founded their own society out in Utah, grew very dramatically, were very hard working and devoted to building up their society. Today, I think the Mormon Church is the fourth-largest church in the United States. And they have followers all over the world. They proselytize and send missionaries out to spread the Mormon belief. So the Mormons are an indication of the strength of religious diversity in this country and of the opportunities available for new religions to emerge. They also show the checkered history of religious liberty. On the one hand, they were not accorded religious toleration at first. There were long battles, for example the so-called Mormon War of the late 1850s when the federal government tried to impose its authority over Utah. But today I think they are pretty much fully accepted as a part of American life.