Modern history

Remaking the U.S. Economy

As the United States expanded geographically, technological ingenuity became a highly valued commodity. The spread of U.S. settlements into new territories necessitated improved forms of transportation and increased the need for muskets and other weapons to protect the nation’s frontier. The growing population also fueled improvements in agriculture and manufacturing to meet demands for clothing, food, and farm equipment. Continued conflicts with Great Britain and France also highlighted the need to develop the nation’s natural resources and technological capabilities. Still, the daily lives of most Americans changed only slowly. And some workers, especially enslaved women and men, found that technological advances just added to their burdens.

The U.S. Population Grows and Migrates

Although Democratic-Republicans initially hoped to limit the powers of the national government, the rapid growth of the United States pulled in the opposite direction. An increased population, combined with the exhaustion of farmland along the eastern seaboard, fueled migration to the west as well as the growth of cities. By 1820 one-quarter of non-Indian Americans lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. These developments heightened conflicts with Indians and over slavery, but they also encouraged advances in transportation and communication and improvements in agriculture and manufacturing.

Sacagawea must have realized that the expedition she accompanied was a harbinger of white expansion, but many Indians only gradually came to realize that the few dozen men who joined Lewis and Clark heralded the arrival of hundreds and then thousands of migrants from the East. As white Americans encroached farther and farther on lands long settled by native peoples, Indian tribes in the eastern United States and the midsection of the nation were forced westward. As early as 1800, groups like the Shoshones, who originally inhabited the Great Plains, had been forced into the Rocky Mountains by Indians moving into the plains from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys (Map 8.2).

At the same time, although the vast majority of Americans continued to live in rural areas, a growing number moved to cities (defined as places with 8,000 or more inhabitants). New York City and Philadelphia both counted more than 100,000 residents by 1810. In New York, immigrants, most of them Irish, made up about 10 percent of the population in 1820 and twice that percentage five years later. During this time, the number of African Americans in New York City increased to more than 10,000. New cities began to emerge along the nation’s frontier as well. After the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory, New Orleans grew rapidly, and western migration fueled the development of Cincinnati. Even smaller frontier towns served important functions for migrants traveling west. Trading posts appeared across the Mississippi valley, which eased the migration of thousands headed farther west. They served as sites of exchange between Indians and white Americans and created the foundations for later cities (Table 8.1).

Most Americans who headed west hoped to benefit from the increasingly liberal terms offered by the federal government for purchasing land. Yeomen farmers sought sufficient acreage to support their families and grow some additional crops for sale. They were eager to settle in western sections of the original thirteen states, in the Ohio River valley, or in newly opened territories along the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. In the South, small farmers had to compete with slave-owning planters who headed west in the early nineteenth century. Migrants to the Mississippi valley also had to contend with a sizable population of long-settled Spanish residents and French planters who had taken refuge from Saint Domingue with their slaves, as well as Chickasaw and Creek Indians in the South and Shawnee, Chippewa, Sauk, and Fox Indians farther north.

The development of roads and turnpikes hastened the movement of people and the transportation of goods. Frontier farmers required methods to get their produce to eastern markets quickly and cheaply. Before completion of the Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania, it cost as much to carry wheat and other items overland the sixty-two miles to Philadelphia as it did to ship them by sea from Philadelphia to London. Those who lived farther west faced even greater challenges. With the admission of Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), and Ohio (1803) to the Union, demands for congressional assistance in building transportation routes grew louder. By 1819 five more states were admitted along the Mississippi River, from Louisiana to Illinois.

MAP 8.2

Indian Land Cessions, 1790-1820 With the ratification of the Constitution, the federal government gained greater control over Indian relations, including land cessions. At the same time, large numbers of white settlers poured into regions west of the Appalachian Mountains. The U.S. government gained most Indian land by purchase or treaty, but these agreements were often the consequence of military victories by the U.S. army.

During Jefferson’s administration, Albert Gallatin urged Congress to fund internal improvements—that is, roads and canals—to enhance the economic development of the nation. Legislatures chartered and sometimes helped fund improved transportation in their own states, but Gallatin focused on transportation across regions. He advocated a “great turnpike road” along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Georgia as well as roads to connect the four main rivers that flowed from the Appalachians to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1815 Congress approved funds for one such project, the National Road from western Maryland through southwestern Pennsylvania to Wheeling, West Virginia. This so-called Cumberland Road was completed in 1818, and in the following decades it was extended into Ohio and Illinois. 

TABLE 8.1 Prices at George Davenport's Trading Post, Rock Island, Illinois, c. 1820







Large copper kettle


Beaver trap



$0.20 per pound

Black silk handkerchief


Lead shot for guns

$1.00 per 5 pounds



Medium copper kettle




Muskrat spear


Chain for staking down

$0.75 per 6 feet

Muskrat trap




Muslin or calico shirt



$1.00 per pair

Ordinary butcher knife


File (for sharpening axes)


Flannel mantle Gunflints Hand-size mirrors Heavy wool cloth Hoe


$1.00 per yard $3.00

$1.00 per 15 $0.25

$10.00 per yard $2.00

Sheet iron kettle

Small copper kettle


Tin kettle


Trade gun

Wool blanket

Wool mantle (short cloak or shawl)



$6.00 per pair






Horn of gunpowder





Source: Will Leinicke, Marion Lardner, and Ferrel Anderson, Two Nations, One (Rock Island, IL: Citizens to Preserve Black Hawk Park, 1981).

Carrying people and goods by water was even faster and cheaper than transporting them over land, but rivers ran mainly north and south. In addition, although loads could be delivered quickly downstream, the return voyage was long and slow. While politicians advocated the construction of canals along east-west routes to link river systems, inventors and mechanics focused on building boats powered by steam to overcome the problems of sending goods upriver.

Oliver Evans, a machinist in Philadelphia, developed a steam-powered gristmill— to produce flour from grain—in 1788. Then in 1804 he invented a high-pressure steam engine attached to a dredge that cleaned the silt around the docks in Philadelphia harbor. He had insufficient funds, however, to pursue work on a steam-powered boat.

In New York State, Robert Fulton sought to improve on Evans’s efforts, using the low-pressure steam engine developed in England. Fulton had moved to Paris in the early nineteenth century to train as a painter. While there, he met the wealthy ambassador Robert Livingston, who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Livingston convinced Fulton to focus on engineering and provided funds for him to do so. In 1807 Fulton launched the first successful steamboat, the Clermont, which traveled up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in only thirty-two hours. The powerful Mississippi River proved a greater challenge, but by combining Evans’s high-pressure steam engine with a flat-bottom hull that avoided the river’s sandbars, mechanics who worked along the frontier improved Fulton’s original design and launched the steamboat era in the West.

Technology Reshapes Agriculture and Industry

Advances in agricultural and industrial technology paralleled the development of roads and steamboats. Here, too, a single invention spurred others, inducing a multiplier effect that inspired additional dramatic changes during the decades following the Revolution. Two inventions—the cotton gin and the spinning machine—were especially notable in transforming southern agriculture and northern industry, transformations that were deeply intertwined.

American developments were also closely tied to the earlier rise of industry in Great Britain. By the 1770s, British manufacturers had built spinning mills in which steam- powered machines spun raw cotton into yarn. Importing cotton from Britain’s colonies, British manufacturers thrived. Eager to maintain their monopoly on industrial technology, the British made it illegal for engineers to emigrate. They could not, however, keep everyone who worked in a cotton mill from leaving the country. At age fourteen, Samuel Slater was hired as an apprentice in an English mill that used a yarn-spinning machine designed by Richard Arkwright. Slater was promoted to supervisor of the factory, but at age twenty-one he sought greater opportunities in America. While working in New York City, he learned that Moses Brown, a wealthy Rhode Island merchant, was seeking help in developing a machine like Arkwright’s. Funded by Rhode Island investors and assisted by local craftsmen, Slater designed and built a spinning mill in Pawtucket.

The mill opened in December 1790 and began producing yarn, which was then woven into cloth in private shops and homes. By 1815 a series of cotton mills, most built to look like New England meetinghouses in order to limit hostility from local farmers, dotted the Pawtucket River. These factories promised a steady income for workers in the mills, most of whom were the wives and children of farmers, and ensured employment for weavers in the countryside. They also increased the demand for cotton in New England just as British manufacturers sought new sources of the crop as well.

Ensuring a steady supply of cotton, however, required another technological innovation, this one created by Eli Whitney. After graduating from Yale at age twenty- seven, Whitney agreed to serve as a private tutor for a planter family in South Carolina. On the ship carrying him to his new position, Whitney met Catherine Greene, widow of the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. He ended up staying on her Mulberry Plantation near Savannah, Georgia, where local planters complained to him about the difficulty of making a profit on cotton in the area. Long-staple cotton, grown in the Sea Islands, yielded enormous profits, but the soil in most of the South could sustain only the short-staple variety, which required hours of intensive labor to separate its sticky green seeds from the cotton fiber.

In 1793, in as little as ten days, Eli Whitney built a machine that could ease the labor of deseeding short-staple cotton. His cotton gin consisted of a wooden box with a mesh screen, rollers, brushes, and wire hooks. The cotton boll was drawn through the mesh, where wire hooks caught the seeds and the rotating brushes then swept the cotton lint into a tray. Whitney’s gin could clean as much cotton fiber in one hour as several workers could clean in a day. Recognizing the gin’s value, Whitney received a U.S. patent, but because the machine was easy to duplicate, he never profited from his invention.

Fortunately, Whitney had other ideas that proved more profitable. In June 1798, amid U.S. fears of a war with France, the U.S. government granted him an extraordinary contract to produce 4,000 rifles in eighteen months. Rifles were then produced individually by highly trained artisans, but the inventor claimed he could devise a machine to manufacture guns in large quantities. By January 1801, having produced only 500 rifles, Whitney met with national political leaders to reassure them that success was near. Adapting the plan of Honoré Blanc, a French mechanic who devised a musket with interchangeable parts, Whitney demonstrated the potential for using machines to produce various parts of a musket, which could then be assembled in mass quantities. With Jefferson’s enthusiastic support, the federal government extended Whitney’s contract, and by 1809 his New Haven factory was turning out 7,500 guns annually.

Whitney’s factory became a model for the American system of manufacturing, in which water-powered machinery and the division of production into many small tasks allowed less skilled workers to produce mass quantities of a particular item, like guns or shoes. Whitney viewed this system as a boon to men and women who were unable or unwilling to obtain apprenticeships in skilled crafts. In factories, they could be trained quickly to do a particular task and thereby support themselves or supplement family earnings from farming.

The factories developed by Whitney and Slater became training grounds for younger mechanics and inventors who devised improvements in machinery or set out to solve new technological puzzles. Their efforts also transformed the lives of generations of workers—enslaved and free—who planted and picked the cotton, spun the yarn, wove the cloth, and sewed the clothes that cotton gins and spinning mills made possible.

The Cotton Gin Invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, the cotton gin, which separated cotton fibers from seed, transformed American industry and agriculture. As presented in this engraving, which was likely part of the patent application, Whitney's invention was a relatively simple device that had an enormous impact on the South and the nation at large. Culver Pictures/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

Transforming Household Production

Slater and Whitney were among the most influential American inventors, but both required the assistance and collaboration of other inventors, machinists, and artisans to implement their ideas. The achievement of these enterprising individuals was seen by many Americans as part of a larger spirit of inventiveness and technological ingenuity that marked the United States as a young nation. That spirit led to a cascade of inventions between 1790 and 1820.

Cotton gins and steam engines, steamboats and interchangeable parts, gristmills and spinning mills—each of these items and processes was improved upon over time and led to myriad other inventions. For instance, in 1811 Francis Cabot invented a power loom for weaving, a necessary step once spinning mills began producing more yarn than hand weavers could use. Similarly, Jethro Wood perfected the cast-iron plow in 1819, ensuring that western farmers could provide adequate food for the small but rising population of city dwellers and factory workers.

Despite these rapid technological advances, the changes that occurred in the early nineteenth century were more evolutionary than revolutionary. Most political leaders and social commentators viewed gradual improvement as a blessing. For many Americans, the ideal situation consisted of either small mills scattered through the countryside or household enterprises that could supply neighbors with finer cloth, wool cards, or other items that improved home production.

The importance of domestic manufacturing increased after passage of the Embargo Act as imports of cloth and other items fell dramatically. Small factories, like those along the Pawtucket River, increased their output, and so did ordinary housewives. Blacksmiths, carpenters, and wheelwrights busily repaired and improved the spindles, looms, and other equipment that allowed family members to produce more and better cloth from wool, flax, and cotton. New ideas about companionate marriage, which emphasized affection and mutual obligations between spouses, may have encouraged husbands and wives to work more closely in these domestic enterprises. While husbands generally carried out the heavier or more skilled parts of home manufacturing, like weaving, wives spun yarn and sewed together sections of cloth into finished goods.

At the same time, daughters, neighbors, and servants remained critical to the production of household items. In Hallowell, Maine, in the early nineteenth century, the midwife Martha Ballard worked alongside her daughters and a niece, producing the goods necessary to survive on the northern frontier, even as she supplemented her husband’s income as a surveyor. In more populated areas, older forms of mutuality continued alongside newer patterns of companionate marriage. Neighbors shared tools and equipment while those with specialized skills assisted neighbors—threading a loom, for instance—in exchange for items they needed. Yet young couples who joined in these activities no doubt imagined themselves embarking on more egalitarian marriages than those of their parents. If they ended up living on the southern frontier, however, they might well discover that traditional patterns of hierarchical marriage prevailed there, shaping both household production and social life.

In wealthy households, whatever the contours of marriage, servants and slaves took on a greater share of domestic labor by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most female servants in the North were young and unmarried. Some arrived with children in tow or became pregnant while on the job, a mark of the rising rate of out-of-wedlock births following the Revolution. Planters’ wives in the South had fewer worries in this regard because if household slaves became pregnant, their children added to the slave owner’s labor supply. And on larger plantations, owners increasingly assigned a few enslaved women to spin, cook, wash clothes, make candles, and wait on table. Plantation mistresses also hired the wives of small farmers and landless laborers to turn cotton into yarn, weave yarn into cloth, and sew clothing for slaves and children. While mistresses in both regions continued to engage in household production, they also expanded their roles as domestic managers.

Still, at the turn of the nineteenth century, most people continued to live on family farms; to produce or trade locally for food, clothing, and other basic needs; and to use techniques handed down for generations to produce candles and soap, prepare meals, and deliver babies. Yet by 1820, their lives, like those of wealthier Americans, were transformed by the expanding market economy. More and more families sewed clothes with machine-spun thread made from cotton ginned in the American South, worked their fields with cast-iron plows, and varied their diet by adding items shipped from other regions by steamboats.

Technology, Cotton, and Slaves

Some of the most dramatic technological changes occurred in agriculture, and none was more significant than the cotton gin, which led to the vast expansion of agricultural production in the South. This in turn fueled regional specialization, ensuring that residents in one area of the nation—the North, South, or West—depended on those in other areas. Southern planters relied on a growing demand for cotton from northern merchants and manufacturers. At the same time, planters, merchants, manufacturers, and factory workers became more dependent on western farmers to produce the grain and livestock needed to feed the nation.

As cotton gins spread across the South, any thoughts of abolishing slavery in the region disappeared. Instead, cotton and slavery expanded into the interior of many southern states as well as into the lower Mississippi valley. Cotton was not the only crop produced in the South—in Louisiana, planters made their fortunes on sugar and in South Carolina on rice—but it quickly became the most important. In 1790 southern farms and plantations produced about 3,000 bales of cotton, each weighing about 300 pounds. By 1820, with the aid of the cotton gin, the South produced more than 330,000 bales annually (Table 8.2). For southern blacks, increased production meant increased burdens. Because seeds could be separated from raw cotton with much greater efficiency, farmers could plant vastly larger quantities of the crop. On small farms, the work was still performed primarily by family members, neighbors, or hired hands. But planters could purchase additional slaves, particularly as cotton prices rose in the early nineteenth century.

The dramatic increase in the amount of cotton planted and harvested each year was paralleled by a jump in the size of the slave population. Thus even as northern states began to abolish the institution and the international slave trade ended (in 1808), southern planters significantly increased the number of slaves they held. Some smuggled in women and men from Africa and the Caribbean. Most planters, however, depended on enslaved women to bear more children, increasing the size of their labor force through natural reproduction. In addition, planters in the Deep South—from Georgia and the Carolinas west to Louisiana—began buying slaves from farmers in Maryland and Virginia, where cotton and slavery were less profitable.

TABLE 8.2 Growth of Cotton Production in the United States, 1790-1830


Production in Bales



















Source: Lewis Cecil Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, vol. 2 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1958).

In 1790 there were fewer than 700,000 slaves in the United States. By 1820 there were nearly 1.5 million. Still, because of the increased competition for field hands to plant, maintain, and harvest the cotton crop, the price of slaves increased, roughly doubling between 1795 and 1805. The dramatic growth of slave markets in Charleston and New Orleans was one measure of the continued importance of the slave trade as cotton lands moved west.

In the early nineteenth century, most white southerners believed that there was enough land to go around. And the rising price of cotton allowed small farmers to imagine they would someday be planters. Some southern Indians also placed their hopes in cotton. Cherokee and Creek Indians cultivated the crop, even purchasing black slaves to increase production. Some Indian villages now welcomed ministers to their communities, hoping that embracing Protestantism and “American” culture might allow them to retain their current lands. Yet other native residents foresaw the increased pressure for land that cotton cultivation produced and organized to defend themselves from whites invading their territory. Regardless of the policies adopted by Indians, cotton and slavery expanded rapidly into Cherokee- and Creek-controlled lands in the interior of Georgia and South Carolina. And the admission of the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama between 1812 and 1819 marked the rapid spread of southern agriculture farther westward.

Enslaved men and women played critical roles in the South’s geographical expansion. Without their labor, neither cotton nor sugar could have become mainstays of the South’s economy. Because clearing new cotton fields and planting and harvesting sugarcane involved heavy labor, most planters selected young slave men and women to move west, breaking apart families in the process. Some slaves resisted their removal to new plantations. If forced to go, they could still use their role in the labor process to limit owners’ control. Slaves worked slowly, broke tools, and feigned illness or injury. Enslaved women and men hid out temporarily as a respite from brutal work regimes or harsh punishments. Others ran to areas controlled by Indians, hoping for better treatment, or to regions where slavery was no longer legal.

Still, given the power and resources wielded by whites, most slaves had to find ways to improve their lives within the system of bondage. The end of the international slave trade helped blacks in this regard since planters then had to depend more on natural reproduction to increase their labor supply. To ensure that slaves lived longer and healthier lives, planters were forced to provide sturdier housing, better clothing, and increased food allotments. Some slaves gained leverage to fish, hunt, or maintain small gardens in order to improve their diet. With the birth of more children, southern blacks also developed more extensive kinship networks, ensuring that family members could care for children if their parents were compelled to move west. Enslavement was still brutal, but slaves made small gains that improved their chances of survival.

Southern slaves also established their own religious ceremonies, often held in the woods or swamps at night. African Americans were swept up as well in the religious revivals that burned across the southern frontier beginning in the 1790s. Itinerant preachers, or circuit riders, held camp meetings that tapped into deep emotional wells of spirituality. Baptist and Methodist clergy drew free and enslaved blacks as well as white frontier families to their gatherings. They encouraged physical displays of spiritual rebirth, from trembling and quaking to calling out and dancing, offering release from the oppressive burdens of daily life for poor whites and blacks alike.

Evangelical religion, combined with revolutionary ideals promoted in the United States and Haiti, proved a potent mix, and planters rarely lost sight of the potential dangers this posed to the system of bondage. Outright rebellions occurred only rarely, yet the successful revolt of blacks in Haiti reminded slaves and owners alike that uprisings were possible. In 1800 Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith in Richmond, Virginia, plotted such a rebellion. His supporters rallied around the demand for “Death or Liberty.” Gabriel’s plan to kill all whites except those who opposed slavery failed when informants betrayed him to local authorities. Nonetheless, news of the plot traveled across the South and terrified white residents, reminding them that the promise of new frontiers could not be separated from the dangers embedded in the nation’s oppressive racial history.


• How did new inventions and infrastructure improvements contribute to the development of the American economy?

• Why did slavery expand rapidly and become more deeply entrenched in southern society in the early nineteenth century?

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