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A Century of Expansion

[Picture of Professor Miller]

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 Roosevelt.

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 Atlantic shoreline.

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 system.

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 inventing it.

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

[Picture of Samuel Slater]

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 production.

[Picture of a textile mill]

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.

[Picture of women workers at a textile mill]

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.

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