A Century of Expansion
Miller: In 1800, America was undergoing not one, but two revolutions:
one political, the other economic. The forces unleashed by these twin
revolutions; democracy, industrialization, and capitalism, developed in tandem
and transformed the look and character of the country. There's a world of
difference between the America of Thomas Jefferson and that of Theodore
In 1801, when Jefferson was inaugurated, the United States was a new,
underdeveloped country of just over five million people. Although it was a
country shaped by immigration, immigrants from one country, England, made up
half the population. Some adventurous pioneers had moved west of the
Appalachian Mountains, but America was still a seacoast settlement, hugging the
It was a prosperous nation, but it lagged far behind England, which was
industrializing furiously. And with only 10% of its population living in cities
and towns, it was still overwhelmingly agrarian. In 1801, all this was about to
change. And the change would be sudden, explosive, and deeply disorientating.
In the next century, the nation's boundaries would expand enormously, the
result of a relentless westward push. And as America expanded, immigration,
capitalism, and technology would reshape the land, old places as well as the
new ones. In 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt became President, more than 77
million Americans lived in a continental empire that stretched from sea to sea.
And Roosevelt's America was a veritable nation of nations, a melting pot for
over 30 nationalities.
Forty percent of Americans still worked on farms in 1900, but an equal number
lived in cities. And by this time, America had surpassed England as the leading
industrial nation on earth. The forces responsible for these sweeping
transformations were gathering as the 19th century began. The American
Revolution broke the back of state-regulated mercantile capitalism and opened
the way for a market revolution that produced the world's most dynamic economic
Adam Smith and a New Capitalism
This was the kind of capitalism that Adam Smith, the Scottish economist, had
called for in his master work, The Wealth of Nations, which was
published, interestingly, in 1776. Smith argued that the production of wealth
would increase dramatically if individuals were allowed to pursue their
self-interest, with little interference from government. And in serving their
own interests, individuals would serve the public interest, unconsciously, as
if guided, as he said, by an "unseen hand." Better the unseen hand than the
hand of the State.
Here were radically new ideas; but not to Americans. Smith's theory coincided
with a long-developing American tradition of individualism and opposition to
government interference. America, not Britain, would be the great testing
ground of Adam Smith's ideas.
Almost everyone recognizes Smith as the founder of laissez-faire economics.
Less well known are his ideas of about the division of labor. The division of
labor, he insisted, would greatly improve the efficiency of workers.
To make his point, Smith described the workings of a pin factory. One person
making a pin could make perhaps one in a day, maybe a few more. But if the job
were divided into ten parts and given to ten workers, each performing a
specialized function, a small factory could turn out 48,000 pins a day. This
was the assembly line a century and a half before Henry Ford was credited with
At the turn of the 19th century, America began to change almost in accordance
with Smith's ideas. What we commonly call the American Industrial Revolution
was actually two converging revolutions: a technological revolution based on
the division of labor, and a commercial revolution powered by a deep faith in
economic individualism and unrestrained competition.
Samuel Slater and the Factory System
The American Industrial Revolution began with an act of economic espionage. In
1789, an English mechanic named Samuel Slater left his country for America,
disguised as a farmer. In his head were the closely guarded secrets of British
textile manufacturing. The following year, Slater built a mill from memory at
Pawtucket, Rhode Island with the backing of two local capitalists.
It was America's first factory. Slater's mill was a place for making textiles,
the woven fabrics used for clothing and hundreds of other products. The cotton
cloth was manufactured by spinning machines powered by water. Since America
had not yet discovered great deposits of coal, its embryonic industrial
revolution would be a revolution primarily in water-powered, textile
Slater's biggest problem was finding laborers. Unable to induce farmers to work
in his mill, he hired orphans and poor children who were wards of the town
government, paying them 25 cents a week. This was America's first industrial
work force. A new age had begun, and it was the cause of concern and debate.
When Alexander Hamilton heard about Slater's mill, he celebrated its birth a
year later in his famous Report of Manufacturers, which laid out the
advantages of industrial development for the United States. Thomas Jefferson
was less sanguine about Slater's mill. Jefferson loved science and technology.
He experimented with mechanical gadgets and labor-saving devices, and turned
Monticello into a wonder place of technological contrivances.
But Jefferson worried about the new factory system that had sprung up in
England and was now threatening to make its appearance in America. Jefferson
associated industrialization with Manchester, the recklessly expanding city
that had become the center of the British cotton industry. It was a city of
fabulous wealth and unimaginable wretchedness, a place where rivers had been
turned into black sewers and workers into industrial slaves.
On a visit there, the French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, captured
Manchester's paradoxical combination of economic ingenuity and social
backwardness. "From this foul drain," he wrote, "the greatest stream of human
industry flows out to fertilize the whole world.... Here humanity attains its
most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its
miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage."
Jefferson knew that America couldn't escape industrialization, but he hoped
that American factories could be placed in the countryside and worked by farm
families with strong democratic values. That way we could industrialize without
endangering our republican institutions and creating an entrenched urban
proletariat. Samuel Slater tried this family system of production in New
England, after his expanding system of factories ran out of children to employ.
Along with hundreds of other early industrialists, Slater built agricultural
villages around his mills to attract displaced farm families. The fathers
worked in supervisory and ancillary jobs, and the women and kids in the mill
itself. So American industry began in the country, not in the city, and
remained there for a long time, for that's where there was falling water to
power the new machines.
The Lowell Experiment
The most promising experiment in rural industry was a model town that had
been built from scratch in the 1820s, on a beautiful spot at the falls of the
Merrimack River, north of Boston. It was named after another industrial spy,
Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell, a Boston merchant, had gone on a tour of British
textile mills, memorized their technological secrets, and on his return to
America, began building a textile empire. Lowell became its queen city.
What made Lowell unique was its work force: it was made up almost entirely of
young, unmarried women, recruited from local farms. To attract them, a
wholesome, handsomely landscaped community was constructed, the American answer
to Manchester. For a promising moment, America looked like it would be the
Great Exception, the only country to industrialize without savaging the
environment or debasing the workers.
The women of Lowell lived in clean, orderly boarding houses supervised by
matrons. They worked long hours, but they were farm girls who were used to a
seventy-hour work week. What was new, and hard to adjust to, was the tight
discipline and the new work routine. The women worked to the pace of their
power driven machinery and to the rhythms of the clock.
The bells in the cupolas over the mills awoke them and called them to their
jobs, to meals, and to bed in the evening. And the work was divided into
boring, highly specialized tasks. But there were compensations. In their off
hours, the women attended uplifting lectures, formed improvement groups, and
editing their own magazine, the Lowell Offering.
For the mill owners, the secret to the system was the rotating work force. When
workers built up a dowry or helped send a brother through college, they left.
This made it easier to handle increasing complaints about pay or the speed-up
of the work. There were several strikes in the 1830s, but the agitators weren't
there for long.
The Lowell Experiment was killed, not by labor discontent, but by technological
change. In the 1830s, steam power began to replace water power in the mills,
steam generated by newly-exploited Pennsylvania hard coal, or anthracite.
Slater was the first to build large steam driven factories, but soon other
cotton mills made the conversion to coal and steam.
Steam power meant bigger mills, faster production runs, closer supervision of
the workers, and a greater division of labor in the interest of efficiency.
And when this happened, the young Yankee women began to leave. They were
replaced by Irish workers fleeing the Potato Famine of the 1840s.
The difference was; the Irish women stayed. They were too poor to leave. By
1850, Lowell was a squalid mill town, a miniature Manchester, with the
industrial slavery Jefferson had warned about.