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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·THE RISE OF THE INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM · The Industrial Revolution and National Politics·»

The Industrial Revolution

As pride often goeth before a fall, so sanguine expectation is sometimes the symbol of defeat. Jackson destroyed the bank. Polk signed the tariff bill of 1846 striking an effective blow at the principle of protection for manufactures. Pierce promised to silence the abolitionists. His successor was to approve a drastic step in the direction of free trade. Nevertheless all these things left untouched the springs of power that were in due time to make America the greatest industrial nation on the earth; namely, vast national resources, business enterprise, inventive genius, and the free labor supply of Europe. Unseen by the thoughtless, unrecorded in the diaries of wiseacres, rarely mentioned in the speeches of statesmen, there was swiftly rising such a tide in the affairs of America as Jefferson and Hamilton never dreamed of in their little philosophies.

The Inventors.—Watt and Boulton experimenting with steam in England, Whitney combining wood and steel into a cotton gin, Fulton and Fitch applying the steam engine to navigation, Stevens and Peter Cooper trying out the “iron horse” on “iron highways,” Slater building spinning mills in Pawtucket, Howe attaching the needle to the flying wheel, Morse spanning a continent with the telegraph, Cyrus Field linking the markets of the new world with the old along the bed of the Atlantic, McCormick breaking the sickle under the reaper—these men and a thousand more were destroying in a mighty revolution of industry the world of the stagecoach and the tallow candle which Washington and Franklin had inherited little changed from the age of Cæsar. Whitney was to make cotton king. Watt and Fulton were to make steel and steam masters of the world. Agriculture was to fall behind in the race for supremacy.

Industry Outstrips Planting.—The story of invention, that tribute to the triumph of mind over matter, fascinating as a romance, need not be treated in detail here. The effects of invention on social and political life, multitudinous and never-ending, form the very warp and woof of American progress from the days of Andrew Jackson to the latest hour. Neither the great civil conflict—the clash of two systems—nor the problems of the modern age can be approached without an understanding of the striking phases of industrialism.

A New England Mill Built in 1793
A New England Mill Built in 1793

First and foremost among them was the uprush of mills managed by captains of industry and manned by labor drawn from farms, cities, and foreign lands. For every planter who cleared a domain in the Southwest and gathered his army of bondmen about him, there rose in the North a magician of steam and steel who collected under his roof an army of free workers.

In seven league boots this new giant strode ahead of the Southern giant. Between 1850 and 1859, to use dollars and cents as the measure of progress, the value of domestic manufactures including mines and fisheries rose from $1,019,106,616 to $1,900,000,000, an increase of eighty-six per cent in ten years. In this same period the total production of naval stores, rice, sugar, tobacco, and cotton, the staples of the South, went only from $165,000,000, in round figures, to $204,000,000. At the halfway point of the century, the capital invested in industry, commerce, and cities far exceeded the value of all the farm land between the Atlantic and the Pacific; thus the course of economy had been reversed in fifty years. Tested by figures of production, King Cotton had shriveled by 1860 to a petty prince in comparison, for each year the captains of industry turned out goods worth nearly twenty times all the bales of cotton picked on Southern plantations. Iron, boots and shoes, and leather goods pouring from Northern mills surpassed in value the entire cotton output.

The Agrarian West Turns to Industry.—Nor was this vast enterprise confined to the old Northeast where, as Madison had sagely remarked, commerce was early dominant. “Cincinnati,” runs an official report in 1854, “appears to be a great central depot for ready-made clothing and its manufacture for the Western markets may be said to be one of the great trades of that city.” There, wrote another traveler, “I heard the crack of the cattle driver’s whip and the hum of the factory: the West and the East meeting.” Louisville and St. Louis were already famous for their clothing trades and the manufacture of cotton bagging. Five hundred of the two thousand woolen mills in the country in 1860 were in the Western states. Of the output of flour and grist mills, which almost reached in value the cotton crop of 1850, the Ohio Valley furnished a rapidly growing share. The old home of Jacksonian democracy, where Federalists had been almost as scarce as monarchists, turned slowly backward, as the needle to the pole, toward the principle of protection for domestic industry, espoused by Hamilton and defended by Clay.

The Extension of Canals and Railways.—As necessary to mechanical industry as steel and steam power was the great market, spread over a wide and diversified area and knit together by efficient means of transportation. This service was supplied to industry by the steamship, which began its career on the Hudson in 1807; by the canals, of which the Erie opened in 1825 was the most noteworthy; and by the railways, which came into practical operation about 1830.

An Early Railway
From an old print
An Early Railway

With sure instinct the Eastern manufacturer reached out for the markets of the Northwest territory where free farmers were producing annually staggering crops of corn, wheat, bacon, and wool. The two great canal systems—the Erie connecting New York City with the waterways of the Great Lakes and the Pennsylvania chain linking Philadelphia with the headwaters of the Ohio—gradually turned the tide of trade from New Orleans to the Eastern seaboard. The railways followed the same paths. By 1860, New York had rail connections with Chicago and St. Louis, one of the routes running through the Hudson and Mohawk valleys and along the Great Lakes, the other through Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and across the rich wheat fields of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Baltimore, not to be outdone by her two rivals, reached out over the mountains for the Western trade and in 1857 had trains running into St. Louis.

In railway enterprise the South took more interest than in canals, and the friends of that section came to its aid. To offset the magnet drawing trade away from the Mississippi Valley, lines were built from the Gulf to Chicago, the Illinois Central part of the project being a monument to the zeal and industry of a Democrat, better known in politics than in business, Stephen A. Douglas. The swift movement of cotton and tobacco to the North or to seaports was of common concern to planters and manufacturers. Accordingly lines were flung down along the Southern coast, linking Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah with the Northern markets. Other lines struck inland from the coast, giving a rail outlet to the sea for Raleigh, Columbia, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Montgomery. Nevertheless, in spite of this enterprise, the mileage of all the Southern states in 1860 did not equal that of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois combined.

Banking and Finance.—Out of commerce and manufactures and the construction and operation of railways came such an accumulation of capital in the Northern states as merchants of old never imagined. The banks of the four industrial states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania in 1860 had funds greater than the banks in all the other states combined. New York City had become the money market of America, the center to which industrial companies, railway promoters, farmers, and planters turned for capital to initiate and carry on their operations. The banks of Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, it is true, had capital far in excess of the banks of the Northwest; but still they were relatively small compared with the financial institutions of the East.

The Growth of the Industrial Population.—A revolution of such magnitude in industry, transport, and finance, overturning as it did the agrarian civilization of the old Northwest and reaching out to the very borders of the country, could not fail to bring in its train consequences of a striking character. Some were immediate and obvious. Others require a fullness of time not yet reached to reveal their complete significance. Outstanding among them was the growth of an industrial population, detached from the land, concentrated in cities, and, to use Jefferson’s phrase, dependent upon “the caprices and casualties of trade” for a livelihood. This was a result, as the great Virginian had foreseen, which flowed inevitably from public and private efforts to stimulate industry as against agriculture.

Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1838, an Early Industrial Town
From an old print
Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1838, an Early Industrial Town

It was estimated in 1860, on the basis of the census figures, that mechanical production gave employment to 1,100,000 men and 285,000 women, making, if the average number of dependents upon them be reckoned, nearly six million people or about one-sixth of the population of the country sustained from manufactures. “This,” runs the official record, “was exclusive of the number engaged in the production of many of the raw materials and of the food for manufacturers; in the distribution of their products, such as merchants, clerks, draymen, mariners, the employees of railroads, expresses, and steamboats; of capitalists, various artistic and professional classes, as well as carpenters, bricklayers, painters, and the members of other mechanical trades not classed as manufactures. It is safe to assume, then, that one-third of the whole population is supported, directly, or indirectly, by manufacturing industry.” Taking, however, the number of persons directly supported by manufactures, namely about six millions, reveals the astounding fact that the white laboring population, divorced from the soil, already exceeded the number of slaves on Southern farms and plantations.

Immigration.—The more carefully the rapid growth of the industrial population is examined, the more surprising is the fact that such an immense body of free laborers could be found, particularly when it is recalled to what desperate straits the colonial leaders were put in securing immigrants,—slavery, indentured servitude, and kidnapping being the fruits of their necessities. The answer to the enigma is to be found partly in European conditions and partly in the cheapness of transportation after the opening of the era of steam navigation. Shrewd observers of the course of events had long foreseen that a flood of cheap labor was bound to come when the way was made easy. Some, among them Chief Justice Ellsworth, went so far as to prophesy that white labor would in time be so abundant that slavery would disappear as the more costly of the two labor systems. The processes of nature were aided by the policies of government in England and Germany.

The Coming of the Irish.—The opposition of the Irish people to the English government, ever furious and irrepressible, was increased in the mid forties by an almost total failure of the potato crop, the main support of the peasants. Catholic in religion, they had been compelled to support a Protestant church. Tillers of the soil by necessity, they were forced to pay enormous tributes to absentee landlords in England whose claim to their estates rested upon the title of conquest and confiscation. Intensely loyal to their race, the Irish were subjected in all things to the Parliament at London, in which their small minority of representatives had little influence save in holding a balance of power between the two contending English parties. To the constant political irritation, the potato famine added physical distress beyond description. In cottages and fields and along the highways the victims of starvation lay dead by the hundreds, the relief which charity afforded only bringing misery more sharply to the foreground. Those who were fortunate enough to secure passage money sought escape to America. In 1844 the total immigration into the United States was less than eighty thousand; in 1850 it had risen by leaps and bounds to more than three hundred thousand. Between 1820 and 1860 the immigrants from the United Kingdom numbered 2,750,000, of whom more than one-half were Irish. It has been said with a touch of exaggeration that the American canals and railways of those days were built by the labor of Irishmen.

The German Migration.—To political discontent and economic distress, such as was responsible for the coming of the Irish, may likewise be traced the source of the Germanic migration. The potato blight that fell upon Ireland visited the Rhine Valley and Southern Germany at the same time with results as pitiful, if less extensive. The calamity inflicted by nature was followed shortly by another inflicted by the despotic conduct of German kings and princes. In 1848 there had occurred throughout Europe a popular uprising in behalf of republics and democratic government. For a time it rode on a full tide of success. Kings were overthrown, or compelled to promise constitutional government, and tyrannical ministers fled from their palaces. Then came reaction. Those who had championed the popular cause were imprisoned, shot, or driven out of the land. Men of attainments and distinction, whose sole offense was opposition to the government of kings and princes, sought an asylum in America, carrying with them to the land of their adoption the spirit of liberty and democracy. In 1847 over fifty thousand Germans came to America, the forerunners of a migration that increased, almost steadily, for many years. The record of 1860 showed that in the previous twenty years nearly a million and a half had found homes in the United States. Far and wide they scattered, from the mills and shops of the seacoast towns to the uttermost frontiers of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Labor of Women and Children.—If the industries, canals, and railways of the country were largely manned by foreign labor, still important native sources must not be overlooked; above all, the women and children of the New England textile districts. Spinning and weaving, by a tradition that runs far beyond the written records of mankind, belonged to women. Indeed it was the dexterous housewives, spinsters, and boys and girls that laid the foundations of the textile industry in America, foundations upon which the mechanical revolution was built. As the wheel and loom were taken out of the homes to the factories operated by water power or the steam engine, the women and, to use Hamilton’s phrase, “the children of tender years,” followed as a matter of course. “The cotton manufacture alone employs six thousand persons in Lowell,” wrote a French observer in 1836; “of this number nearly five thousand are young women from seventeen to twenty-four years of age, the daughters of farmers from the different New England states.” It was not until after the middle of the century that foreign lands proved to be the chief source from which workers were recruited for the factories of New England. It was then that the daughters of the Puritans, outdone by the competition of foreign labor, both of men and women, left the spinning jenny and the loom to other hands.

The Rise of Organized Labor.—The changing conditions of American life, marked by the spreading mill towns of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania and the growth of cities like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago in the West, naturally brought changes, as Jefferson had prophesied, in “manners and morals.” A few mechanics, smiths, carpenters, and masons, widely scattered through farming regions and rural villages, raise no such problems as tens of thousands of workers collected in one center in daily intercourse, learning the power of coöperation and union.

Even before the coming of steam and machinery, in the “good old days” of handicrafts, laborers in many trades—printers, shoemakers, carpenters, for example—had begun to draw together in the towns for the advancement of their interests in the form of higher wages, shorter days, and milder laws. The shoemakers of Philadelphia, organized in 1794, conducted a strike in 1799 and held together until indicted seven years later for conspiracy. During the twenties and thirties, local labor unions sprang up in all industrial centers and they led almost immediately to city federations of the several crafts.

As the thousands who were dependent upon their daily labor for their livelihood mounted into the millions and industries spread across the continent, the local unions of craftsmen grew into national craft organizations bound together by the newspapers, the telegraph, and the railways. Before 1860 there were several such national trade unions, including the plumbers, printers, mule spinners, iron molders, and stone cutters. All over the North labor leaders arose—men unknown to general history but forceful and resourceful characters who forged links binding scattered and individual workers into a common brotherhood. An attempt was even made in 1834 to federate all the crafts into a permanent national organization; but it perished within three years through lack of support. Half a century had to elapse before the American Federation of Labor was to accomplish this task.

All the manifestations of the modern labor movement had appeared, in germ at least, by the time the mid-century was reached: unions, labor leaders, strikes, a labor press, a labor political program, and a labor political party. In every great city industrial disputes were a common occurrence. The papers recorded about four hundred in two years, 1853-54, local affairs but forecasting economic struggles in a larger field. The labor press seems to have begun with the founding of the Mechanics’ Free Press in Philadelphia in 1828 and the establishment of the New York Workingman’s Advocate shortly afterward. These semi-political papers were in later years followed by regular trade papers designed to weld together and advance the interests of particular crafts. Edited by able leaders, these little sheets with limited circulation wielded an enormous influence in the ranks of the workers.

Labor and Politics.—As for the political program of labor, the main planks were clear and specific: the abolition of imprisonment for debt, manhood suffrage in states where property qualifications still prevailed, free and universal education, laws protecting the safety and health of workers in mills and factories, abolition of lotteries, repeal of laws requiring militia service, and free land in the West.

Into the labor papers and platforms there sometimes crept a note of hostility to the masters of industry, a sign of bitterness that excited little alarm while cheap land in the West was open to the discontented. The Philadelphia workmen, in issuing a call for a local convention, invited “all those of our fellow citizens who live by their own labor and none other.” In Newcastle county, Delaware, the association of working people complained in 1830: “The poor have no laws; the laws are made by the rich and of course for the rich.” Here and there an extremist went to the length of advocating an equal division of wealth among all the people—the crudest kind of communism.

Agitation of this character produced in labor circles profound distrust of both Whigs and Democrats who talked principally about tariffs and banks; it resulted in attempts to found independent labor parties. In Philadelphia, Albany, New York City, and New England, labor candidates were put up for elections in the early thirties and in a few cases were victorious at the polls. “The balance of power has at length got into the hands of the working people, where it properly belongs,” triumphantly exclaimed the Mechanics’ Free Press of Philadelphia in 1829. But the triumph was illusory. Dissensions appeared in the labor ranks. The old party leaders, particularly of Tammany Hall, the Democratic party organization in New York City, offered concessions to labor in return for votes. Newspapers unsparingly denounced “trade union politicians” as “demagogues,” “levellers,” and “rag, tag, and bobtail”; and some of them, deeming labor unrest the sour fruit of manhood suffrage, suggested disfranchisement as a remedy. Under the influence of concessions and attacks the political fever quickly died away, and the end of the decade left no remnant of the labor political parties. Labor leaders turned to a task which seemed more substantial and practical, that of organizing workingmen into craft unions for the definite purpose of raising wages and reducing hours.

«·THE RISE OF THE INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM · The Industrial Revolution and National Politics·»