ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Industrial Revolution

*The American Revolution did not just bring the United States political independence from Great Britain, but also offered the chance for economic independence as well.  Not only could the United States now trade with all parts of the world, unfettered by British mercantilist laws, but Americans could now also freely copy Britain’s industrial revolution, whose secrets had been carefully guarded against all outsiders, even Britain’s own colonists.

*In the 1600s, and especially the early 1700s, new farming methods were developed in Europe, particularly in Britain.  This Agricultural Revolution allowed a smaller number of farmers to produce more food more cheaply, which drove many farm workers to seek other work.  Some found work in towns or in small cottage industries—the beginning of factory work.

*A factory literally means a place where things are made (to manufacture actually means to make by hand).  Many industries had originally been based in the home, and now more came to be through the new method of piece-work.

*In piece-work, people (usually women and children) were paid to make one piece of a finished product, and those pieces were collected and taken somewhere else to be assembled.  It required less skill and lower pay than having a skilled craftsman do it.  This was the beginning of mass production.  It allowed more people to work, but at lower wages and (it was said) with less satisfaction, because they did not get to see their projects through from beginning to end.  Adam Smith described division of labour through the example of pin-making, but the invisible hand of the laissez-faire economic system he described made this more efficient and more profitable practise succeed.

*In the 1800s, the development of interchangeable parts by Eli Whitney expanded the idea of division of labour, as different workers and even different factories could easily make simple things that could be used together and assembled by anyone, making it even easier to break things down into simple steps that could be accomplished by unskilled labour.

*Cottage industries were threatened by technology, too.  Since 1712 the British had used steam engines to pump out flooded coal mines (and used that coal to power more engines).  In 1769, James Watt patented a new type of steam engine that could drive machinery, much as water wheels had done in the past.

*These new methods of powering machinery and the new machinery itself started an Industrial Revolution in Britain.  This new machinery was first used in the textile industry. 

*The flying shuttle (invented 1733) allowed weavers to weave so quickly that spinners could not make enough thread for them to weave cloth out of.  In 1762, Richard Arkwright's Water Frame let them spin even faster through the application of water power.  In 1764, James Hargreaves's Spinning Jenny began making thread more quickly—it was basically several spinning wheels in one.  In 1779, Samuel Crompton's Spinning Mule combined the Water Frame and the Spinning Jenny into one machine. 

*Britain now produced the best and the cheapest cloth in the world and jealously guarded its technological innovations, making it illegal to share the designs of its textile mills with foreigners, and actively discouraged the development of industry in its colonies, intending to keep them as captive markets for its manufactured goods, and would later discourage the development of industry in Latin American countries which purchased British-made goods.

*In 1789, though, Samuel Slater, born in Britain and trained in its textile mills, immigrated to America at the age of twenty-one, having memorised as much as he could about the machinery he had seen in Britain.  He went to work for a company in Rhode Island and designed British-style spinning and weaving machinery for them, which began operations in 1791.  He later founded his own successful company.  Andrew Jackson later called Slater the Father of the Industrial Revolution, while the British called him ‘Slater the Traitor.’

*The next major innovation in the textile industry was actually developed in America by a man from Massachusetts visiting the South named Eli Whitney.  At that time, not much cotton was grown in the South.  While long-staple cotton that was easy to clean and spin was grown in a few places along the coast, the short-staple cotton that could be grown in many parts of the Deep South was too much trouble to work with.  Its short fibers could not be spun quite as easily and it was full of seeds that were difficult to pick out.

*Seeing the potential in short-staple cotton, Whitney developed a Cotton Engine (or ‘gin’ for short) that could clean and comb short-staple cotton fifty times as quickly as could be done by hand.  This gave the South a highly profitable crop and gave the North (and also Britain) a source of fibers for the textile industry, but it also led to increased demand for slave labour, so that slavery, which had seemed to be in decline in the two decades since the Declaration of Independence, suddenly became profitable again, and, as Southerners sought ever more land in the west to turn into cotton plantations, the controversy over the spread of slavery would grow more and more dangerous to the United States.

*With cheap cotton to spin and weave, New England, and later other parts of the North built more and more textile mills (while the South invested most of its spare money in land and slaves to grow that cotton).

*During the Napoleonic Wars, particularly during Mr Jefferson’s Embargo and then during the War of 1812, American industry grew rapidly to make up for the loss of British imports.  Although the British dumped cheap goods on the American market after the Treaty of Ghent was passed, Congress responded with a mildly protective tariff in 1816, and growing American demand also helped American industry survive.

*In 1823, a group of Boston businessmen built a textile mill on the rapid Merrimack River, which was already the site of some early water-powered industries.  In 1826 they incorporated the community as the town of Lowell, named for one of their late business partners who had memorized mechanical designs on a trip to Britain.

*The Lowell mills combined spinning and weaving in one factory, and later cutting and dying as well, making the major parts of the cloth-making business better coordinated and more efficient.  Later, the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe in 1846 (later improved by Isaac Singer) made sewing easier and clothing factories even more productive.

*The owners of the Lowell Mills also built company-owned housing, perhaps creating the concept of a company town, and put their workers up away from their homes and families. 

*Most of their workers were young unmarried women, or ‘Lowell Girls’ who were excited to be out on their own, happy to earn their own wages which were about half of what men made for the same work, but which they kept under their own control, and relieved to be away from the unending toil of farm work—although they might work a 14-hour day, at least they got several breaks and the work did end eventually. 

*The families of the Lowell Girls also appreciated that their lives were closely supervised to preserve their moral character.  After all, most factory girls, at least at first, only worked a few years in the early twenties before getting married and taking their place in the cult of domesticity.

*Furthermore, at least at first, factory wages at Lowell were pretty good (and better than those at other factories that opened later) as the owners took a paternalistic approach to their employees, until the Panic of 1837 led to a drop in wages and increased resentment against the factory owners. 

*As economic conditions worsened, many workers began to describe themselves, especially the children working in the factories, as ‘wage slaves.’  Many turned to the party of the Common Man in opposition to their aristocratical bosses, voting Democratic in a world where propertyless workers could now vote.

*This resentment also led to the rapid growth of increase in the formation of labour unions.  The first major one was the General Trades Union of New York City, formed in 1833, and in the 1830s they began to demand better treatment. 

*Striking was illegal in many places, unions were often regarded as criminal conspiracies, and the good pay enjoyed by skilled labourers had meant that they had not felt the need to strike before.  In the mid-1830s that began to change, although the economic problems of the late 1830s and the 1840s led to a decline in union activity as workers did not dare risk their jobs, particularly as a rise in immigration meant there was more competition for work.

*However, 1842 did see an important case in the Massachusetts Supreme Court dealing with unions.  The case of Commonwealth v Hunt ruled that labour unions were not inherently illegal conspiracies, although it did not otherwise give them much power or authority, or recognise any right to strike.

*Despite the problems faced by the American working class, there was a safety valve:  cheap western land meant that people unsatisfied with factory work could move west and start over.  Furthermore, new technologies also facilitated this.

*The American mid-west contains some of the most fertile soil in the world.  However, this soil was so thick that it stuck to the wooden or iron ploughs commonly used by Americans, and in the Great Plains the roots of the thick sod completely snagged the plough blades and stopped them completely.  In 1837, though, John Deere, an Illinois blacksmith, built a plough of steel.  This stronger, smoother, lighter plough stayed clean in thick soil, cut through thick roots, and was light enough to be pulled by horses rather than oxen.  This let famers put more land under the plough, and later opened the Great Plains to farming.

*It was also possible to harvest the crops grown on this extensive farmland, because of the work of the Virginian Cyrus McCormick, who, along with his sons, developed a mechanical reaper in the 1830s.  These machines were drawn by horses, and cut wheat at five times the rate that men working with sickles or scythes could.  About the same time, improved (and even combined) threshing and winnowing machines made it possible to process the harvested wheat.  Machinery to harvest corn was later developed, too.

*These inventions constituted a new Agricultural Revolution and expanded commercial farming of food crops significantly, making food cheaper and farmers richer, although it also began to expand farmers’ debt, as they bought more land and better equipment to farm it, so that they had to keep producing more to keep up with falling crop prices.  This cheap food was sold to the plantations of the South, to the growing cities of the East, and eventually even overseas.

*Selling food produced in the Midwest was possible thanks to another revolution, a Transportation Revolution. 

*In the 1700s, transportation in the United States was very slow.  It could take weeks or months to travel across the country.  It was faster and more common to travel by water, and coastal communities in different states had more in common with each other socially and economically than coastal communities did with the backcountry towns in their own states.

*Roads in many of the states were maintained by county governments, with work done by local citizens who were obliged to work on the roads a certain number of days each year, or pay a fine.  In general, these part-time road-builders were not very good at it, and many chose to simply pay the fine and eventually it was just made part of local property taxes or some other form of tax that did hire professionals to build and maintain roads.

*In the 1790s, though, the privately-owned Lancaster Turnpike opened in Pennsylvania, connecting Philadelphia with Lancaster, 62 miles away.  It was a wide road with a hard surface built by a private company that made its money back by charging a toll.  Once the toll was paid, a barrier, or pike, was turned back, giving such roads the name ‘turnpike.’ 

*This turnpike was very profitable, and in a ‘turnpike boom’ others were built over the next several decades in many states.  Some of these turnpike companies were successful, others were failures, and investors in them (often including state governments) found themselves holding worthless bonds.  The American System, had it been implemented, would have built public roads across the country at the expense of the Federal government, although the only one built was the National Road (or Cumberland Road) eventually connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the Mississippi River.  Towns and cities situated along successful roads often boomed in response.

*Water remained an important mode of transportation, however, especially after the development of commercially successful steamboats.  Although some early models had been tested in the late 1700s, it was Robert Fulton (funded by Robert Livingston) whose Clermont became the first steamboat to make a profit after demonstrating its capabilities in 1807 by sailing 150 miles up the Hudson River in 32 hours. 

*Over the next several decades, steamboats that could travel with or against the currents and winds with equal facility made transportation across the United States much easier, and were particularly important in the West where there were long, wide, deep rivers like the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri.

*In regions where there were not large, easily navigable natural waterways, Americans began to build their own in a ‘canal boom.’  The longest of these was the Erie Canal, built by the State of New York between 1817 and 1825 to connect the Great Lakes with the Hudson River. 

*The most influential sponsor of the canal was governor DeWitt Clinton, so that the canal was sometimes called ‘Clinton’s Big Ditch,’ but it was much more than that.  Its construction required remarkable engineering feats, including the invention of concrete that could dry underwater, and raised portions of the canal like aqueducts that carried the canal over valleys and even other rivers.  After it was completed, the expense of shipping goods from Buffalo to New York fell to 5% of its earlier cost.  Towns along canals boomed, such as Rochester and Syracuse in New York and others along other canals elsewhere.

*Of course, it was not possible to build canals everywhere, but in many places where canals could not go, it was possible to build railroads.  The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began construction in 1828 and in 1830, trains pulled by the engine named Tom Thumb carried the first freight and passengers to travel by rail in America.

*In New York, ferryboat and steamboat owner Cornelius Vanderbilt became more influential through his investments in railroads in New York and elsewhere, becoming one of richest men in America and having a great deal of political influence through his wealth and business connections, and owning so many ships that he was nicknamed ‘The Commodore’ because it seemed like he owned his own fleet.

*At first, people worried that vehicles moving so fast—the first ones went at least 16 miles an hour—could cause health problems and even insanity in humans, startle livestock in the countryside so that cows would stop giving milk, and even start fires with the sparks that flew from their smokestacks.

*Eventually, railroads would cross the United States, although at first they were slow, uncomfortable, and unreliable by later standards, with many different gauges making it impossible for individual trains to travel all that far before transferring their cargo and passengers to other lines. 

*At sea, steamboats eventually came to dominate shipping, because they were more reliable than sailing ships that depended on the variable winds, but in the 1840s and 1850s, sailing ships enjoyed one last golden age, as clipper ships (so-called because they travelled at such a fast clip) sailed around the world.  The fastest clipper ship on record was the Sovereign of the Seas which sailed from Honolulu to New York in 82 days in 1853 and, in 1854, set the world sailing speed record which still stands: a speed of 22 knots (25 miles per hour).  The Flying Cloud followed the route of the California Gold Rush, and set the record for the fastest sailing time between New York and San Francisco, completing the trip in 89 days, 21 hours, a record which stood until 1989.  By the 1860s, though, clippers were replaced by the slower, but simpler, steamboat.

*As people could travel further, they needed to communicate more easily, but the Nineteenth Century also saw a Communication Revolution, beginning with Samuel Morse’s telegraph in 1837.  Sending electrical pulses down wires to make clicking sounds in his dot-and-dash code, Morse’s telegraph could transmit messages across the country in hours rather than days or weeks, although his earliest system had a maximum range of two miles.  He expanded this range, however, and in 1844, he sent the famous message, ‘What hath God wrought?’ from Washington, D.C. to Mount Clare, Maryland.  By 1861, telegraph lines connected the East Coast with California.

*All these developments combined to form what has been called a Market Revolution, in which more and more Americans became involved in the marketplace in some way, rather than being Jeffersonian yeomen farmers, and businesses became increasingly important in America, especially large businesses organised as corporations rather than being owned by individuals.  These could raise more money and limit the liability of their investors.  They also allowed companies to mass produce things cheaply and sell them around the country, bringing things that had once been luxuries to many more Americans, but also using new technology to limit the wages of a growing class of unskilled workers.  The country as a whole was growing richer and more productive and many--but far from all--individuals were growing richer with it, living out an American Dream of working hard to achieve economic independence and even prosperity.

This page last updated Saint Valentine's Day, 2020.
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