Modern history


The New Economy

When John Ball reached his twenty-first birthday in 1815, he finally felt free to leave home, his father’s semi-subsistence farm atop a thousand-foot hill near Plymouth, New Hampshire. The youngest of ten children, he had worked on the farm from his earliest memories. He looked back on the time of his growing up matter-of-factly but not fondly. “With me it was all work and no play.” Sunday brought surcease from physical labor, but Calvinist strictness made it “the dullest day of all.” What he minded most was “having so limited an opportunity for an education.” Eventually his father had allowed the youth to walk four miles to the home of a clergyman who tutored him, not only in English and history but also in Latin, a prerequisite for college. Soon John knew enough to teach school in the winter, when his work could be spared from the farm. By the time he could gain admission to Dartmouth he was much older than most of the undergraduates, and his father warned him that “you must not look to me for help.” Still he managed to graduate in 1820. John Ball went on to a career as a lawyer in New York. Meanwhile, John’s sister Deborah, a woman of “vigorous body and mind, quite self-reliant,” had also left home, learned the tailoring trade, and married a man named William Powers, who founded a factory in New York making oil cloth. When William died, Deborah carried on the business, and John suspended his law practice to become her factory foreman. After Deborah’s factory got on a firm footing, John Ball departed for a well-publicized trip to Oregon, speculated in Michigan land, and despite the hard times following 1837 found both fortune and a happy late marriage there. Remembering his own early struggles, he played an influential role in creating the Michigan public school system.1

The experience of John Ball and Deborah Ball Powers—as well as two other Ball brothers who also left their home—was replicated countless thousands of times during these years, if not always with such happy outcomes. Many an American yearned to escape the painful thrift and drudgery of a small farm, growing some necessities of life and trading with neighbors for others, once alternatives presented themselves. Most

1. Quotations from The Autobiography of John Ball (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1925), 7, 13, 14, 16. See also Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 59–62.

felt eager to improve their standard of living, either through increased production for the market or by leaving the agricultural sector altogether. In those days, fathers enjoyed a legal claim on the earnings of sons who had not yet come of age; nevertheless, many sons contrived to “buy their labor from their fathers” and leave home. The drop in market prices for agricultural commodities after 1839 prompted some people to leave their family farm and go to town. Overall, in the years between 1820 and 1850 the sector of the population considered “urban” (residing in places with more than 2,500 people) multiplied fivefold and increased its share of the total population from 7 percent to 18 percent—commencing the period of the most rapid urbanization in American history. In 1820, there were but five cities in the country with more than 25,000 people, and only one—New York—with over 100,000. Thirty years later, there were twenty-six cities with populations over 25,000, and six that exceeded 100,000.2

Though John and Deborah responded to the “pull” of the city, some migrants also felt a “push” to leave the farm. Some people came to the cities and towns of the young republic for much the same reasons that people in countries like Brazil and Mexico migrate away from the rural areas today. With improvements in agricultural productivity, farmers in Europe and the United States needed fewer hands even while more of their children were surviving to adulthood. While some grown children went west to start farms of their own, others moved to towns and cities to look for jobs there. Increased farm productivity and improved transportation made it easier to feed people not engaged in agriculture, raising the ceiling on the number of people who could occupy a given urban area. Ironically, even when northern agriculture became more successful economically, it shrank as a sector of society.3

The transportation revolution also made it easier for the surplus agricultural population to move around, both within the continent and across the ocean. So American cities and towns received migrants not only from the farms of their own hinterland, but also from those of Europe. Although the nineteenth century witnessed enormous urban growth throughout the Western world, it occurred most dramatically in the United States. During the 1820s and ’30s, more than 667,000 overseas immigrants entered the United States—three-quarters of them through the

2. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1975), I, 11–12.

3. Winifred Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy (Chicago, 1992), 244; David R. Meyer, Roots of American Industrialization (Baltimore, 2003), 36.

port of New York. (This does not include people who came overland from Canada, nor illegally imported slaves.) These numbers, while significant, came to seem low by comparison with later ones. After years of gradually improving harvests, Europe’s most dramatic crop failure prompted enormous migration. When blight wiped out a third of the Irish potato crop in 1845 and nearly all of it the following year, the human tide reaching North American shores suddenly became a flood. The 1840s and ’50s saw 4,242,000 immigrants arrive from overseas, and three-quarters of them still came through New York. Enough of them stayed there, joining the migrants from American farms, that the city tripled in size during the first half of the nineteenth century, growing twice as fast as Liverpool and three times as fast as Manchester.4

In the South, cities and towns grew less rapidly. There, the surplus in agricultural laborers could be handled differently. The farm laborers were not free to seek jobs on their own. Enslaved laborers sold off by their owners were more likely sent to plantations on the frontier than to urban areas. Immigrants from overseas did not relish the prospect of having to compete for jobs with slave labor. Yet they did not avoid the South altogether: The port of New Orleans received 188,000 immigrants in the decade of the 1840s, and its population included 40 percent foreign born, the same percentage as New York City.5

Most of the cities and towns of this period grew up more oriented to commerce and its ramifications (including professional, financial, and artisan services) than to industry. Along the inland waterways, new cities like Cincinnati, Chicago, and Buffalo developed, and older ones like St. Louis and Louisville (eighteenth-century foundations named for French kings) expanded. They were entrepôts, places for the collection and shipment of staple commodities in exchange for provisions, equipment, and services. In a way, the city itself formed a commercial commodity, the sale of its own urban real estate being vital to its prosperity. Developers eager to make sales did not differentiate between commercial and residential areas; they reserved little land for public uses like schools and parks. Traders gathered to negotiate and stayed to pool information about mercantile conditions. In the city, ships bearing news docked, the news got printed, and businessmen could talk over lunch. The cities became nerve

4. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 1999), 735–37; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class (New York, 1984), 109.

5. Mary Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1997), 22.

centers, not only of transportation but also of the communications revolution.6 Prosperous residents and businesses concentrated in the city centers. Unlike today, the poor lived on the outskirts of town, where the absence of public transportation made getting to work less convenient. Rapid urban growth far outpaced the development of all municipal services, including police forces, firefighting, sanitation, and water supplies.

Although the waves of rioting in the 1830s posed the most critical threats to urban law and order, unpunished individual crimes also undermined personal security in the days before police forces. More common than murder and robbery were assaults and batteries.7 Working-class urban neighborhoods now rivaled the southwest frontier as centers of violence. In the all-too-numerous taverns, youths proved their manhood by drinking, fighting each other, attacking members of different ethnic groups or political parties, and beating up or gang-raping women. A culture of violence prompted working-class males to preserve their honor in the face of hardship and uncertainty by acting tough. Walt Whitman celebrated their feelings of gender pride in his poetry: “O the joy of a manly self-hood!/To be servile to none, to defer to none.” A less romantic New York diarist complained in 1839 that “the City is infested by gangs of hardened wretches... brought up in Taverns.” Tavern gang members most often victimized, next to each other, African Americans and working-class women. Urban mob violence manifested this male tavern culture on a larger scale.8

In some of the burgeoning cities, commercialized vice constituted a big business. It is said that ten thousand prostitutes plied their trade in New York City in 1844, though estimates varied. Young women from the countryside, originally hoping for either domestic or factory employment, might find an alternative in a brothel—particularly during economic hard times. Although prostitution per se was not yet illegal in New York, streetwalkers could get arrested for vagrancy. Working in a brothel was safer. Otherwise respectable landlords found whorehouses profitable lessees. Notoriously, theater galleries served as places of assignation. Formerly confined to certain neighborhoods and a hard core of professionals, prostitution

6. See Meinig, Continental America, 352–74.

7. The murder rate in pre–Civil War New York City (the only American place for which we have a comprehensive modern study) was lower than at the end of the twentieth century, though it rose in times of major riots; Eric Monkkonen, Murder in New York City (Berkeley, 2001), 12–19.

8. Michael Kaplan, “New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity,” JER 15 (1995): 591–617, quotations from 617, 595.

spread to become one of the urban working-class options exercised by women and girls. Not all of these prostitutes thought of themselves as degraded and oppressed. The historians Christine Stansell and Patricia Cline Cohen have emphasized the opportunities commercial sex provided women: It paid well and offered them a measure of independence. (At a time when a journeyman in the building trades earned twelve dollars a week, a working girl in a fancy brothel could earn fifty dollars.) Apparently they were not always victimized by pimps. Urban philanthropists like the Tappan brothers sought to rescue women from sin and shame, only to find that many prostitutes felt content with their occupation.9 Immoral by any standard, however, were the houses of prostitution that made use of enslaved women. Evidence survives of a thriving commerce in “fancy maids” to supply the sex trade in New Orleans and other southern cities.10

The most terrifying danger to urban life and property had always been fire. Early attempts to respond by creating volunteer fire companies produced mixed results. In their firehouses, the volunteers gloried in manly fraternity and public respect. Sometimes they performed heroically, but they might be more eager to race each other to the scene than to fight the fire once they got there. Too often fire companies constituted rival gangs, wielding political influence sometimes Democratic and sometimes Whig, waging violent turf wars. In the worst cases, fire raged while companies battled each other for the chance to loot the burning buildings.11 When New York City encountered the great fire of December 16, 1835, its volunteer firefighters still insisted on showing off their strength by pulling their own fire engines through the streets instead of using horse-drawn engines or steam-powered ones such as London had employed since 1829. Worse, bitter cold weather froze the water with which they tried to quench the flames. The conflagration only stopped spreading when they obtained gunpowder to blow up buildings in its path. By the time the fire burned itself out, 674 structures, including almost everything south of Wall Street and east of Broad, had been damaged or destroyed. The remains of Dutch

9. J. F. Richardson, The New York Police (New York, 1970), 25–27; Christine Stansell, City of Women (New York, 1986), 171–92; Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett (New York, 1998), 74, 111; Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros (New York, 1992), 29–61.

10. Edward Baptist, “Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” AHR 106 (2001): 1619–50.

11. See, e.g., Amy Greenberg, Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1998); Bruce Laurie, “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark,” in Peoples of Philadelphia, ed. Allen Davis and Mark Haller (Philadelphia, 1973), 71–88.

colonial New Amsterdam disappeared forever. When cities began to replace wells with municipal water mains and hydrants, they did so more for the sake of firefighting than as a convenience to householders.12

City air had always been polluted by the flames used every day for cooking, heating, and lighting, and of course tobacco smoking was widespread. Coal- and steam-powered factories now added their soot to the unhealthy pall of smoke hanging over urban areas. But the most hazardous feature of life in the expanding cities was neither crime nor fire nor polluted air but the lack of hygiene. Municipal authorities seldom supplied water to urban residents; people dug wells in their backyards, despite the contamination from nearby outhouses. When it rained, the pits below outhouses could overflow, spreading stench and filth. Even in dry weather, horse manure littered the streets. Beginning in the 1830s, horse-drawn omnibuses carrying commuters facilitated urban growth but added their droppings to those of horse-drawn delivery wagons, taxis, and private carriages. To get rid of garbage, city authorities loosed hogs and geese into alleys where dogs, rats, and vultures joined them in scavenging. Warnings appeared that unattended infants were in danger of being eaten.13

Those who sought out such an unsafe urban environment put themselves at no small risk of life and health. Male children born in cities grew up to be shorter than those born on farms, an indication of diminished physical well-being during their formative years.14 The death rate in the cities was not only higher than the countryside but also higher than the urban birthrate. Only a constant influx of new arrivals kept the urban population from falling. American cities compared unfavorably with European ones; New York’s death rate was nearly twice that of London. In Philadelphia and New York, the life expectancy of newborn babies averaged only twenty-four years during the 1830s and ’40s, six years less than that of newborn southern slaves. The horrendous death rate in the growing cities contributed to the declining overall American life expectancy during these years.15 Thomas Jefferson’s warning that large cities would

12. Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 596–98; Maureen Ogle, All the Modern Conveniences (Baltimore, 1996) 36.

13. George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution (New York, 1951), 390–92; Ryan, Civic Wars, 40.

14. Demonstrated statistically from the records of Pennsylvania men who served in the Civil War by Timothy Cuff, The Hidden Cost of Economic Development (Burlington, Vt., 2005).

15. Robert Fogel, “Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality Since 1700,” in Long-term Factors in American Economic Growth, ed. Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman (Chicago, 1986), Table 9.A.1; Taylor, Transportation Revolution, 392.

constitute “great sores” on the body politic seemed well on its way to grim fulfillment. The most putrid urban carbuncle of all was the “Five Points” slum neighborhood of Manhattan, overcrowded with poor people from a variety of origins, native born and immigrant, notorious for its filth, disease, gangs, crime, riots, and vice. Charles Dickens, no stranger to urban wretchedness, expressed horror when he visited Five Points. “From every corner as you glance about you in these dark retreats,” he wrote, “some figure crawls as if the judgement hour were near at hand, and every obscure grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie, women and men and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.”16

In the face of such conditions, why did the cities continue to attract newcomers? In some ways the urban standard of living seemed preferable. Urban wages compared favorably, on average, with the earnings of farm laborers.17 Migrants found most city jobs less arduous than the heavy physical labor of premechanized agriculture. In town, even poor people usually sat on chairs instead of stools at home and ate off plates instead of straight from the common pot; stoves took the place of open fireplaces for heat and cooking. For those with middle-class incomes, a carpet on the floor symbolized their achievement. Unmarried people, whether middle or working class, could live conveniently in urban boardinghouses. (Boardinghouses met a real need: With hours of labor long, employed people had to come home to a prepared meal.) Some of the disincentives to urban life, like crime and communicable infections, were not so bad in provincial towns as in big cities and ports. In all cities and towns, theaters, processions, and public markets provided spectacles unavailable elsewhere; and one could choose from a wider variety of churches than in the countryside. During the late 1840s, running water finally came to middle-class dwellings in New York and Philadelphia. Such attractions, combined with excitement, opportunity, and the broad range of careers open to talent, evidently outweighed urban disadvantages in the eyes of many. And beginning in the 1840s, life insurance companies began compiling statistics on public health and using them to lobby with municipal governments to spend more money on clean water and refuse collection in the interest of urban longevity.18

16. Charles Dickens, American Notes, ed. John Whitley and Arnold Goldman (1842; Harmondsworth, Eng., 1972), 137–38. See also Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York, 2001).

17. Economists have termed this factor a “bribe” to attract workers to accept the health risks of city life; Robert Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death (Cambridge, Eng., 2004), 35, 131–33.

18. James Cassedy, Medicine and American Growth (Madison, Wisc., 1986), 197.

Finally, and often decisively, there was the autonomy of urban life. Personal independence from the patriarchal household counted heavily with young adults. In Europe, people had fled to the cities for generations; the German aphorism Stadtluft macht frei (“city air makes one free”) referred to more than freedom from feudal dues. Young Americans and their immigrant counterparts voted with their feet against staying on their fathers’ farms. Among northerners, migration patterns exposed the unpopularity of subsistence agriculture as a life option. Those who moved to the Midwest to take up new farms there concentrated more on cash crops than did eastern farmers. Together, urban places and the western areas opened up to markets by waterways received adventuresome souls fleeing the backbreaking toil, the patriarchal authority, and the stultifying isolation of semi-subsistence farming.19


Near a dam in Whitneyville, Connecticut (a suburb of New Haven), stands today a small but precious relic of the industrial revolution in America: the machine shop of Eli Whitney’s gun factory. There, between 1798 and his death in 1825, Whitney struggled to apply the principle of standardized and interchangeable parts in order to fulfill an arms contract for supplying muskets to the federal government. Whitney never quite managed to achieve the mass production he promised Uncle Sam. Unable to enforce the monopoly on manufacturing southern cotton gins that he tried to achieve, he did not succeed in his northern enterprise either, although his name became legendary. In identifying interchangeable parts as his goal, Whitney had put his finger on the manufacturing technique that would transform the North and, in due course, the world.20

Armories like that of Whitney—and the less well known but more technologically sophisticated Simeon North—proved a major contributor to the industrial revolution, for the armed forces represented an extreme case of a market for a large number of identical products. The armories owned by the government itself, as at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, carried the concept of interchangeable parts still farther

19. Cf. Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 170–74.

20. Whitney’s status as popular icon is embodied in Constance Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (Boston, 1956); for more sober estimates, see Merritt Roe Smith, “Eli Whitney and the American System of Manufacturing,” Technology in America, ed. Carroll Pursell (Washington, 1979), 49–65; Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin (Baltimore, 2003).

forward; since they did not have to show a profit, they could invest more in pursuit of what seemed like perfection. Their goal was parts that would be so uniformly interchangeable that soldiers in the field could take two damaged weapons and reassemble them to make one that worked. Private industry quickly learned about such techniques whenever skilled mechanics left the armories to take up jobs elsewhere.21

In the private sector, manufacturers discovered that the components of their consumer products did not have to be standardized to nearly so fine a tolerance as military firearms required. By mixing a degree of standardization with a certain amount of hand fitting and finishing, a serviceable compromise could be obtained. The market for which they produced consisted of middle-class Americans, most of whom lived in rural areas. These customers wanted inexpensive products, unlikely to break down and easy to repair without a long trip to find a craftsman. Finely finished products that would impress observers seemed less important than functionality, since few people visited an isolated farmhouse. The earliest businessman to respond to this market opportunity was Eli Terry, a craftsman-turned-industrialist who mass-produced inexpensive clocks with wooden movements. (An amazed visitor to the West commented, “In Kentucky, in Indiana, in Illinois, in Missouri, and in every dell in Arkansas, and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on, there was sure to be a Connecticut clock.”)22 American manufacturers supplemented their own ideas with ones freely borrowed from the government armories as well as from European technology, adapting it all to their own commercial objectives. The British, then world experts on industrial technology, took note and named mass production “the American system of manufactures.” Henry Clay and Eli Terry each represented a meaning for the phrase “American System.” In the end, the large private sector proved more important than the small public sector in determining the course of American industrialization.23

Whitney had built his armory next to a source of water power, the chief determinant for the location of most early industry. Just as the cities had more to do with commerce than industry, early factories could be located

21. David Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932 (Baltimore, 1984), 15–46.

22. Quoted in William Gienapp, “The Myth of Class in America,” Journal of Policy History 6 (1994): 247.

23. See Nathan Rosenberg, “Why in America?” in Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures, ed. Otto Mayr and Robert Post (Washington, 1981), 49–63; for Eli Terry, see Donald Hoke, Ingenious Yankees (New York, 1990), 52–99.

in small towns or the countryside just as well as in cities, provided cheap labor—often that of rural women and children—could be assembled. Manufacturers didn’t even need to have all their work done in the same place; they understood well the advantages of what we call “outsourcing,” which they called “putting out.” Integrated industrial sites like Lowell came to dominate textile production, but in some other industries like shoemaking the putting-out system could prevail. Not until after the Civil War did the word “factory” come to mean exclusively a place where “manufacturing” went on. Before that it could also mean a marketplace where traders (termed “factors”) conducted business, including such varied activities as gathering up the results of put-out work, purchasing pelts from Indian tribes, or buying slaves in West Africa.24

A farmer’s son, Eli Whitney had saved and worked his way through Yale only to find that his mechanical aptitude, not higher education, constituted his real asset. Other innovators of his time tended to be skilled workmen rather than college graduates, which may help explain why they were more commercially successful. Ichabod Washburn, a blacksmith from Worcester, Massachusetts, founded American wire manufacturing in 1831. Charles Goodyear of New Haven helped his father run a hardware store; in 1844, he patented the process for vulcanizing rubber. Elias Howe, a journeyman machinist in Boston, patented a sewing machine in 1846. Such inventors typified a culture of innovation especially characteristic of southern New England, heartland of the new industrialization. “Every workman seems to be continually devising some new thing to assist him in his work,” a British visitor remarked, “there being a strong desire, both with masters and workmen, throughout the New England states, to be ‘posted up,’ in every new improvement.”25 Though college was superfluous at this stage of industrial innovation, basic literacy was not. One of the reasons why New England led the way in inventions was its system of universal public education.

Starting in 1836, a reorganized federal Patent Office carefully vetted every application before granting a patent. Despite its increasing strictness, the office got busier and busier. Where the government had granted 23 patents a year per million residents during the decade after the War of 1812, the number rose to 42 a year in the 1830s. The statistic at that time for southern New England stood at 106. All across the country, patenting

24. OED, s.v. “factory.”

25. See Kenneth Sokoloff and Zorina Khan, “The Democratization of Invention,” Journal of Economic History 59 (1990): 363–78. Quotation from Richard D. Brown, Modernization: The Transformation of American Life (New York, 1976), 144.

activity flowed along the waterways that sustained commerce and provided power for industry.26

Inventions revolutionized not only manufacturing but the age-old methods of farming. Cyrus McCormick, twenty-two-year-old son of a Virginia blacksmith-farmer, made his first reaper in 1831, a two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariot that harvested grain; out on the Illinois frontier, a blacksmith named John Deere forged a plow from steel instead of wood in 1837. New approaches to production and the division of labor sometimes turned out even more important than physical inventions, and often they too originated with imaginative mechanics. Arial Bragg, an apprenticed shoemaker from rural Massachusetts, turned his whole industry around by showing how shoes could be ready-made instead of custom-made.27

At first American industry flourished most in southern New England, taking advantage of that region’s plentiful water power. Use of steam power instead of water promised industry more flexibility to locate near customers or suppliers; it also avoided interruptions from winter freezing or summer droughts. As more applications for power from steam developed in the 1830s and ’40s, the geographical center of industrialization shifted to Pennsylvania. Europeans, running low on timber, had learned that coal could fire up a bigger head of steam than wood. Pennsylvania possessed plentiful coal and iron deposits that could be exploited with the aid of British expertise (valuable again, as it had already proved in creating the American textile industry). A Welshman came from Swansea to show the men of Allentown how to set up a blast furnace fueled with anthracite. Hordes of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish miners and ironworkers contributed their skills when they learned of the wages paid in Pennsylvania. The enlightened conservationists of the time urged Americans to burn coal instead of wood. But despite their advice and Pennsylvania’s resources, wood still abounded in the New World, and Americans continued to use more of it than Europeans did, as a fuel, as a building material, and even to make machinery. Wooden machines didn’t last as

26. Steven Usselman and Richard R. John, “Patent Politics,” Journal of Policy History 18 (2006): 101; Kenneth Sokoloff, “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth,” in American Economic Growth and Standards of Living Before the Civil War, ed. Robert Gallman and John Wallis (Chicago, 1992), 353; idem, “Patenting Activity in Early Industrial America,” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 813–50.

27. Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution, 77–78. See also Kenneth Sokoloff, “Investment in Fixed and Working Capital During Early Industrialization,” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 545–56.

long as iron ones, but by the time they needed replacing perhaps an improved model might have appeared. American industrialization took place in an environment of generally inexpensive material resources and high costs for skilled labor.28

In pre-industrial society “manufactured” goods had been made—as the derivation of the word itself implied—by hand. Skilled workers specialized in crafting particular products and usually made them to order. An artisan’s skill took years to master; it conferred a proud identity, which is why so many surnames dating from that period identify artisan occupations: Taylor, Draper, Sawyer, Mason, Cooper (barrel-maker), Chandler (candle-maker), Wright (maker of complex structures, as in cart-wright, plow-wright, wheel-wright), or—most common of all—Smith. Almost always males, artisans often handed down their skills, like surnames, from father to son. Society recognized three ranks of artisan: the apprentice learning the “art and mystery” of his calling, the fully qualified journeyman, and the master, who owned his own business where he could instruct apprentices and hire journeymen. Women’s dressmakers and milliners (hat-makers) constituted an exception to the rule that skilled artisan callings were male. Often the daughters of artisan fathers, they too served apprenticeships to learn their trade and aspired to become proprietors.29

The master artisan combined the roles of workman and small businessman, as does an independent garage mechanic today. In early modern Europe artisans usually belonged to a craft guild, which set prices and quality standards and limited the number of apprenticeships in order to protect the livelihood of its members. In America, where a chronic shortage of skilled labor prevailed instead of a danger of too much competition, guilds did not take root. But each craft had its own organization for mutual aid and marched with its own flag in civic parades. American artisans (also called “mechanics”) cherished the memory of their collective action during the Revolution and nursed a strong political consciousness of Jeffersonian Republicanism.

The transportation revolution and the concentration of population in cities greatly increased the number of customers to whom a commodity could be marketed, paving the way for mass production. Imaginative master mechanics found ways to create efficiencies by the division of labor

28. Meinig, Continental America, 382; Priscilla Brewer, From Fireplace to Cookstove (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000), 65. See also Sean Adams, “The Political Economy of Coal,” Journal of Policy History 18 (2006): 74–95.

29. Wendy Gamber, The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades (Urbana, Ill., 1997), 12, 71.

even before there was much new technology to apply. Though textile mills required substantial capital investment, many other kinds of “manufactories” (or machineless factories) could be started up on a shoestring. When a product previously crafted by hand was produced in this new way, its price fell and consumers benefited. Sometimes the manufactories even improved the quality of the product. Traditional shoes had been made on a straight last by craftsmen called “cordwainers” because they worked in Cordovan leather. The new mass-produced shoes distinguished for the first time between the left and right foot. Shoe manufacturers also discovered how to “put out” various stages of the shoemaking process to farming and fishing families, who could perform the tasks during their off-seasons. The transition from artisan shop to manufactory and putting-out production had progressed a long way by the time Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane compiled a report on industrialization for Congress in 1832.30

Industrialization played havoc with the artisan system of production, though its effects on individuals varied according to their trade and rank. In a manufactory, the employer seemed much more remote than the old-time master craftsman, who had worked alongside his helpers. To a craftsman accustomed to the traditional shop, the manufactory seemed to practice a “bastard artisan system.”31 The more specialized jobs created by industrialization could be less skilled, less interesting, and less well paid. The communications revolution fragmented the printer’s trade, as presses specialized in either books, magazines, or newspapers, and the craft itself subdivided into compositors and press operators. While furniture for the upper and middle classes continued to be made by fine craftsmen, new lines of cheap furniture came into factory production by monotonous, low-skilled labor. In the clothing industry, as in furniture, specialization of labor preceded rather than followed mechanization. The new manufactories for ready-made clothing drew new distinctions among tailors; cutters far outranked sewers. Manufacturers outsourced cheaper lines of clothing to female seamstresses working under conditions comparable to those of twenty-first-century East Asian sweatshops.32 The sewing machine

30. Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), 54; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Documents Relative to the Manufactures in the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury (Washington, 1833), 2 vols.

31. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 115.

32. Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers (New York, 1989), as modified by Richard Stott, “Artisans and Capitalist Development,” JER 16 (1996): 257–71.

boosted production further when it appeared in the 1840s. Although mechanization tended to depress the status and pay of the seamstresses who made men’s shirts and pants, women’s dressmakers and milliners, relatively well paid female occupations, increased in numbers with the growth of their urban market.33

Eighteen forty was a landmark year in American growth, for the census of that year showed that the population of the United States, 17 million, had reached approximate equality with that of Great Britain. Yet the British economy remained substantially larger, reflecting the further advance of the industrial revolution there. The U.S. economy was catching up, however, for the gross national product grew at a long-term rate of 3.9 percent per annum, reflecting the combined effects of population and productivity increases, compared with a 2.2 percent growth rate for Britain.34

Despite the commentaries of foreign travelers on America’s relative social equality, wealth was by no means evenly distributed. Free adult males in the South held greater wealth on average than in the North, mostly due to slave ownership, although less than 20 percent of them owned slaves.35 Most historians believe that the early industrial revolution widened inequalities in the standard of living; that is, while average per capita income doubled between 1820 and 1860, property owners and the rich benefited more than wage-earners and the poor. But the evidence is not entirely clear; early data are fragmentary, and occasionally historians have used the household rather than the individual as their unit of comparison, which masks the effects of slavery and restrictions on women’s property rights. Some research even suggests that the degree of inequality between rich and poor remained relatively constant during early American industrialization.36 Rich men were much more likely to be planters,

33. Gamber, The Female Economy, 67, 79.

34. Robert Gallman, “Growth and Change in the Long Nineteenth Century,” in Cambridge Economic History of the United States, ed. Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman (Cambridge, Eng., 1996–2000), II, 2–8.

35. Clayne Pope, “Inequality in the Nineteenth Century,” Cambridge Economic History of U.S., II, 120; U.S. census data for 1860, The percentage of southern white men owning slaves varied between states but showed remarkable consistency over time between 1830 and 1860.

36. Donald Adams, “Prices and Wages,” in Encyclopedia of American Economic History, ed. Glenn Porter (New York, 1980), 229–46; Lee Soltow, “Inequalities in the Standard of Living in the United States, 1798–1875,” in American Economic Growth and Standards of Living Before the Civil War, ed. Robert Gallman and John Wallis (Chicago, 1992), 121–72; Carole Shammas, “A New Look at Long-Term Trends in Wealth Inequality,” AHR 98 (1993), 412–31, esp. 427.

merchants, or bankers than manufacturers, though perhaps for a time industrialization opened new avenues for social mobility, as it had done in Britain. If inequality did increase in this period, it may have been due to the arrival of immigrants without property, or to the secession of young adults like the Balls from their propertied fathers’ households, rather than a direct consequence of industrialization. In any case, the substantial degree of economic inequality, even if not caused by industrialization, exacerbated working-class discontents. In the largest American cities of the 1840s, the richest 5 percent of free males owned 70 percent of the real and personal property. The visibility of a small group of super-rich is attested by the invention of the word “millionaire” around 1840.37

Social anxieties were more important than economic ones in fueling discontent among workers in the early American industrial revolution. Under the artisan system, workingmen had embraced not only the party of Jeffersonian Republicanism but its ideology, which celebrated the small property owner’s political independence and social worth. Journeymen often resented the end of the old system, feeling that it had offered them more dignity and a better chance to become a master than they had now of becoming an employer. Instead of owning his tools and selling what he made with them, the mechanic now feared being left with nothing to sell but his labor. A lifetime as a wage-earner seemed a gloomy prospect to men who had imbibed the political outlook of Old Republicanism, who identified themselves with independent farmers or shopkeepers and looked upon wage labor as a form of dependency. Beginning in Philadelphia, Working Men’s political parties sprang up in various places during the 1820s and early ’30s, fed by the discontents of journeymen under the impact of industrialization.38

The Working Men’s political parties espoused a number of causes important to their constituents. These included free public schools, mechanics’ lien laws (helping workers recover wages if their employer went bankrupt), reform of compulsory militia service, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and laws requiring wages to be paid in hard currency and defining a day’s work as ten hours’ labor unless otherwise contracted. In a process often repeated in American politics, the two major parties co-opted the policies of the “Workey” Parties, made them their own and, except for

37. Edward Pessen, Riches, Class, and Power Before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass., 1973), 32, 70; James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York, 1988), 25. On immigrants, see Joseph Ferrie, Yankeys Now (New York, 1999); for “millionaire,” Christopher Clark, Social Change in America (Chicago, 2006), 196.

38. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 61–103.

the ten-hour-day rule, often got them implemented. Sometimes politicians from the major parties even infiltrated the decision-making process of the Workeys.39

Meanwhile, more radical programs also bid for the support of the working class. Cornelius Blatchly, a physician and former Quaker, denounced private property as selfish and preached a version of communitarian socialism that integrated efforts to improve the lot of workers with millennial Christianity. Frances Wright, undeterred by the failure of her antislavery enterprise at Nashoba, toured the country speaking on behalf of a philosophy synthesizing Robert Owen’s deist socialism with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism. One of the charismatic personalities of her time, Wright presented stage-managed performances in striking costumes to audiences that had never before witnessed any woman speak in public. She founded no movement, but many of the artisans who heard her then read the articles Albert Brisbane published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and went out to try their hands at building Fourierist phalanxes in the 1840s.40

The American mechanics themselves found an authentic voice in the machinist Thomas Skidmore, the most radical agitator of all. In his tract The Rights of Man to Property (1829), Skidmore equated the position of the wage-worker with slavery. He demanded the confiscation of all existing property and its equal redistribution by the authority of popular sovereignty working through state constitutional conventions. Once property had been equalized, Skidmore had no objection to talented, hardworking individuals increasing their share, but upon their deaths it should revert to the state for redistribution to those who had just come of age. He also supported equal rights for women and blacks.41 But when Skidmore died at the age of forty-two in the cholera epidemic of 1832, his program died with him.

Skidmore’s views comprised what his contemporaries called—generally with horror—“agrarianism.” George Henry Evans, a British immigrant printer, gave agrarianism a more politically plausible form than Skidmore’s. As editor of the first labor newspaper, New York’s Working Man’s Advocate (founded in 1829), Evans supported free public education, but beginning around 1834 he turned his attention to land reform. Evans agreed with Skidmore that everyone should be entitled to his own property, but instead of redistributing what already existed, he called for drawing

39. Walter Licht, Industrializing America (Baltimore, 1995), 48–57.

40. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 158–62, 176–78.

41. Thomas Skidmore, “The Rights of Man to Property” (1829), in The Perfectionists, ed. Laurence Veysey (New York, 1973), 83–92.

upon the unclaimed national domain, giving away free homesteads of 160 acres to any actual settler over the age of twenty-one. Evans respected the Indians’ rights to land provided they cultivated it; America had room enough for them and settlers too, he insisted. The radical aspects of Evans’s program included a limitation on the amount of land any one person could own and a prohibition against mortgaging or selling the homestead. He envisioned the homesteads being grouped around planned villages with land set aside for parks and public buildings.42

Evans promoted a kind of individualist utopianism that resonated with Jeffersonian and artisan republicanism. In its early years, Evans’s movement sometimes cooperated with British Chartists and radical American utopians (his brother Frederick became a prominent Shaker), but ultimately his program appealed to American aspirations for a democratic capitalism. Employing a catchy slogan, “Vote Yourself a Farm,” Evans’s National Reform Association gained wide publicity, much of it through Greeley’s New York Tribune, which accorded a sympathetic presentation to many proposed reforms. Although Evans himself died in 1856, his vision of free homesteads lived on. The Free Soilers endorsed a moderate version of it in 1848, and so did the new Republican Party, which implemented it (shorn of his nonalienation rule and other social engineering features) in 1862. The more popular the idea became, the less close its connection remained to the labor movement. Homesteading, which seemed so radical when Evans first proposed it, turned out to resonate with the aspirations of ordinary Americans, urban and rural, middle and working class, native born and immigrant.43

The Working Men’s Parties disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. The decline of the antebellum Workey Parties and various associated radical movements reflected changing attitudes among the artisans. Most artisans adapted surprisingly quickly to the new industrial order, and once they did, it ceased to seem threatening. In the nineteenth century, skilled mechanics fitting items to gauges could craft interchangeable parts to tolerances as fine as machine tools could, and consequently mechanics retained an important role even in mass production.44 A journeyman

42. Paul Conkin, Prophets of Prosperity (Bloomington, 1980), 237–52; Shelley Streeby, American Sensations (Berkeley, 2002), 178–83.

43. For the broad impact of the National Reform movement, see Mark Lause, Young America (Urbana, Ill., 2005). Also see Jamie Bronstein, Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States (Stanford, 1999).

44. See Robert Gordon, “Realizing the Ideal of Interchangeability,” in The Industrial Revolution in America, ed. Gary Kornblith (Boston, 1998), 88–98.

mechanic’s expertise often enabled him to become, if not a part owner, then a factory foreman. Another journeyman might prefer to move out west, to a small town where industrialization had not yet penetrated and he could continue to ply his trade. Luck especially favored workers in the building trades. The expansion of the cities created an endless supply of jobs for carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, and related crafts. Innovations such as “balloon” framing (so called because of its lightness) and prefabricated doors facilitated rapid, low-cost housing construction, but many building trades, like plastering and shipbuilding, were not adversely affected by industrialization. Other craft skills also remained strong for generations more, such as those of the butcher and the watchmaker. Meanwhile, the industrial revolution created many new skilled occupations including plumber, machinist, telegrapher, and locomotive engineer.

The relatively small scale of antebellum manufacturing often permitted master mechanics to become owners of a manufactory, perhaps by pooling capital with others. (Retail shopkeepers as well as artisans sometimes took this route.) Only in the largest enterprises was industrial management separated from ownership; more typical factories were operated by the same people who owned them. The early industrial revolution in the United States permitted this kind of opportunity for social mobility and thus blurred the line between capitalist and working classes. In the final analysis, the industrial revolution was not simply thrust upon a hostile, sullen mechanic class; to a considerable extent it was their own creation, through their inventions, innovations, and resourcefulness. The human resources of the American working class proved even more critical in fostering the early industrial revolution than did the material resources of a rich continent. The versatile skilled artisan played a key role in America’s economic development.45

Apprenticeships did not work as well in industry as in the old artisan system, though some building trades retained modified apprenticeships. To substitute for apprenticeships in obsolete crafts, journeymen now sought to place their children in the public schools where they could get an education suitable for the clerical jobs proliferating in the industrialized and urbanized society. In the next generation, the children of American artisans often went on to middle-class occupations, while immigrants

45. See Thomas Cochran, Frontiers of Change: Early American Industrialization (New York, 1981); Stott, “Artisans and Capitalist Development”; Zorina Khan and Kenneth Sokoloff, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation Among ‘Great Inventors’ in the United States, 1790–1865,” Journal of Economic History 53 (1993): 289–307.

who had been peasants in the Old World filled the ranks of the new industrial proletariat.46 Where public schools did not yet exist, northern working-class organizations campaigned to establish them. Like all political factions of the time, labor had its own newspapers, and these supported free public education, often reprinting statements by middle-class reformers like William Ellery Channing and Horace Mann. As the New York Working Man’s Advocate declared in 1835, “The man who pretends that an ignorant and vicious people can long remain free, is a fool or a knave.”47 Besides parental concern for their children’s welfare, workers had an additional motive for supporting public schools: If children went to school, they stayed out of the labor market, and adult labor did not have to compete with that of low-paid children.

The artisans’ interest in education and self-improvement continued after they left school. More durable than Working Men’s political parties were the Mechanics’ Associations, with their adult education programs, their endowed libraries, lectureships, and encouragement for applied science. These associations represented an area of cooperation between artisans-turned-employers and those who now worked for wages. The artisans also participated in the religious revivals of their time. The evangelical movement and the Working Men’s Parties supported much the same values of autonomy, responsibility, and self-respect. A movement for “free churches” in working-class neighborhoods began to erode the practice of having pews assigned to families who owned them in return for money given to erect the church or rented them in return for annual contributions. The cause of temperance spread from its small-town religious origins to the cities. Employers endorsed it because they preferred a sober workforce, but the reform enjoyed the most success when led by tough-minded working-class men called Washingtonians. Their movement included a branch for women: the Martha Washingtonians. Combating alcohol abuse was not treason to the working class; it helped mitigate some of the worst features of life in the antebellum city.48

After the disappearance of the Working Men’s Parties, some of their former supporters became Whigs, a logical choice in terms of that party’s positions on tariff protection and public schooling. American cities in all

46. See Richard Stott, Workers in the Metropolis (Ithaca, N.Y., 1990).

47. Quoted in C. K. McFarland and Robert Thistlethwaite, “Labor Press Demands Equal Education,” Journalism Quarterly 65 (1988): 600–608. See also William Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice (New York, 1986), 113–27.

48. See William Sutton, Journeymen for Jesus (University Park, Pa., 1998); 270–87 deal with the Washingtonians.

parts of the country generally returned anti-Jackson majorities through the 1830s, which must indicate something about the voting of the working class. But in the long run, a majority of the industrial working-class vote ended up captured by the Democrats.49This was not due to any special interest the party took in labor unions. Andrew Jackson, for example, never mentioned them as far as we know, though in 1834 he did dispatch federal troops to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to deter a strike by construction workers.50His postmaster general defended exclusion of abolitionist writings from the mails by warning that without such censorship, English labor radicals would be free to incite the American “laboring population” to organize.51 But much in the Democratic Party’s rhetoric resonated with the journeymen’s outlook, especially hard money and opposition to government favoritism toward a national bank or other mixed corporations. The ambiguity of the Jacksonians on the tariff helped them recruit workers in protectionist areas like the Pennsylvania iron industry while not driving away all the cotton and tobacco planters devoted to free trade.

The Democratic and Whig Parties took very different stands on the subject of class. Echoing Jackson’s Bank Veto, Democrats called upon the working classes—a term they generally used in the plural and defined to include farmers and planters—to oppose the machinations and oppressions of nonproducers. Whigs insisted that there was no such thing as class conflict, that the different economic classes, like the sections of the Union, were interdependent, and in any case, class membership was fluid. Rhetoric of class conflict they deplored as demagogic.52 To some extent, urban workingmen chose their political party according to which analysis of class relations they found persuasive. Where industrialization had de-skilled and proletarianized workers, and where workers felt alienated from their employers because of ethnic differences, labor voted Democratic. Where workers felt that the system worked and that they enjoyed an opportunity to better themselves, they voted Whig.

The success of the Democratic Party among white wage-earners owed more than a little, unfortunately, to the emphasis it placed on white

49. On support for the Whigs, see John Brooke, The Heart of the Commonwealth (Cambridge, Eng., 1981), 316; on support for the Democrats, Randolph Roth, “Did Class Matter in American Politics?” Historical Methods 31 (1998): 5–25.

50. The C&O at the time was headed by Jackson’s friend John Eaton. See Richard Morris, “Andrew Jackson, Strikebreaker,” AHR 55 (1949): 54–68.

51. Amos Kendall, Report of the Postmaster General, 24th Cong., 1st sess. (1835), quoted in Richard John, Spreading the News (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 272.

52. See John Ashworth, ‘Agrarians’ and ‘Aristocrats’: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837–1846 (London, 1983).

supremacy. Democratic politicians found an effective way to synthesize their party’s appeal to two disparate groups, the northern working class and the southern planter class. They declared that solicitude for southern slaves distracted attention from the plight of northern “wage-slaves,” who, they insisted, were actually worse off. The artisan radical John Finch declared it a “well-known fact that the blacks of the South enjoy more leisure time and liberty and fare quite as well as the operatives in the northern or eastern manufacturing districts.” Boston’s Democratic labor leader Theophilus Fisk called upon “the philanthropist and christian to advocate and demand the immediate emancipation of the white slaves of the North.” Orestes Brownson, one of the Democratic Party’s most influential intellectuals, admonished abolitionists to redirect their efforts: “You have enough work for all your philanthropy north of Mason and Dixon’s line.”53 Only rarely did anyone make what might seem the obvious point that sympathy for exploited northern workers did not preclude compassion for oppressed southern slaves; when William Leggett tried to do so, the Democratic Party shut him down. Not even Fanny Wright combined the two causes. Once she began seeking audiences of workingmen, she phased out her antislavery activity, denounced the abolitionists as sanctimonious hypocrites, and embraced the party of Jackson and Van Buren.54

The journeymen mechanics’ political movement was white, male, Protestant, and skilled, and certainly not immune to appeals based on race, gender, and religion. White workers generally regarded black workers, whether free or enslaved, as unfair competitors and forbade them to join their associations.55 Toward the institution of slavery white mechanics manifested deep ambivalence. On the one hand, slavery associated manual labor with servility, thereby degrading white workers. But wage-earners in the free states, native and immigrant alike, also worried that emancipated slaves might flock north, depressing wages and living conditions. The northern Democratic Party proved adept at manipulating these feelings.56 Nevertheless, the loyalty of northern industrial labor to the Democratic Party was never entirely sure (except for the Irish). Over the years some workingmen repeatedly jumped ship to support other movements,

53. Finch is quoted in David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (New York, 1991), 77; Fisk and Brownson in Gerald Henig, “The Jacksonian Attitude Toward Abolitionism,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 28 (1969): 53–54.

54. Celia Eckhardt, Fanny Wright (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 243–50.

55. Lois Horton, “From Class to Race in Early America,” JER 19 (1999): 629–49.

56. See, for example, Anthony Gronowicz, Race and Class Politics in New York City Before the Civil War (Boston, 1998).

among them the Locofoco dissidents, homesteads, nativism, Free Soil, and finally the nascent Republican Party.

The Locofocos emerged within the workingmen’s wing of the Democratic Party in New York City, but they did not always support trade unionism and should not be confused with the Working Men’s Parties.57 They got their name from a meeting on October 29, 1835, in Tammany Hall, New York Democratic headquarters even then. The party regulars nominated their slate of candidates for the coming municipal election and declared the meeting adjourned; when disaffected workers’ delegates tried to prolong the meeting in order to contest the outcome, the organization turned out the gaslights. But the insurgents had come prepared with candles and newly invented sulfur friction matches, called “locofocos” (or “lucifers”). Able to proceed with their meeting, they fielded a slate of their own candidates, though the regular Democrats still won the ensuing election. By 1837, the Locofocos had gained enough concessions from the regulars to return to the party fold, while retaining an identity of their own.58 Though sarcastically called “locos” (“mad” in Spanish) by their critics, the Locofocos took pride in their name.


Lucy Larcom and Sarah Bagley both went to work in the Lowell mills to help out their families. Lucy—a precocious, literary child, dutiful and hardworking—was only twelve when, in 1836, she became a “doffer” of bobbins. Her widowed mother ran one of the many boardinghouses in town. A decade later Lucy departed for Illinois to become a school-teacher; she eventually gained a modest living and greater fame as a writer. The account she left of her years at Lowell emphasizes the positive, though at the time she hated the confinement, noise, and lint-filled air, and regretted the time lost to education.59 (Like Lucy Larcom, my own mother, Lucie Walker, became a doffer at age twelve to help with the family budget. She worked at a carpet factory in Halifax, Yorkshire, during the First World War and had very much the same complaints.)

Sarah Bagley, on the other hand, was already an adult when she entered the mills in 1837. There she organized the Lowell Female Reform Association, in effect a labor union with broad social concerns; she allied with

57. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 235.

58. Walter Hugins, Jacksonian Democracy and the Working Class (Stanford, 1960), 39–48.

59. Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood, ed. Charles T. Davis (1889; New York, 1961); Shirley Marchalonis, The Worlds of Lucy Larcom (Athens, Ga., 1989), 29–34.

male labor leaders in the struggle for a ten-hour day. To the argument that the mill girls had voluntarily accepted a twelve-hour day, she replied:

The whip which brings us to Lowell is NECESSITY. We must have money; a father’s debts are to be paid, an aged mother is to be supported, a brother’s ambition to be aided, and so the factories are supplied. Is this to act from free will?...Is any one such a fool as to suppose that out of six thousand factory girls of Lowell, sixty would be there if they could help it?60

(These illustrations of typical mill girls’ motives do not include the need to feed themselves or their children, reminding us that they were single and came from farms.) In 1846, Sarah Bagley became America’s first woman telegraph operator. But when she tried to join the utopian community at Northampton in 1848, they turned her down, perhaps put off by her abrasive manner. In the end, the mill owners responded to the growing militancy of Yankee women by recruiting more of the Irish immigrant women who had a weaker bargaining position.61

Despite Sarah Bagley’s insistence that mill girls were driven by necessity, the pre-eminent historian of Lowell concludes that the working experience there fostered autonomy, analogous to the experience of young men moving to the frontier or the city. For all their differences, Larcom and Bagley concurred in emphasizing the dignity of the female operatives, manifested (all observers agreed with surprise) in how well the mill girls dressed. As they earned their own money and became less dependent on their menfolk, the women’s self-respect increased, a process both Larcom and Bagley encouraged. Both grounded their reformist social views in the Christian tradition. Although often contrasted with each other, very likely what the two women agreed on was more important.62

Most workers in the new industrial world did not come to it from artisan shops and did not therefore use the shop as a basis for comparison. There had been few women artisans, yet women constituted more than a third of workers in manufacturing during the 1830s; in textiles the figure was 80 percent.63 Where some journeymen had been attracted (briefly) to

60. Sarah Bagley, “Voluntary?” Voice of Industry, Sept. 18, 1845, in The Factory Girls, ed. Philip Foner (Urbana, Ill., 1977), 160.

61. Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860, 2nd ed. (New York, 1993), 116–22, 138–40, 199–207; Teresa Murphy, Ten Hours’ Labor: Religion, Reform and Gender in Early New England (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992), 203–12.

62. Dublin, Women at Work, 57. See also Jama Lazerow, “Religion and the Mill Girl,” New England Quarterly 60 (1987), 429–53.

63. Licht, Industrializing America, 58.

Working Men’s political parties, more typically industrial wage-earners, whether former artisans or not, formed labor unions. During the burgeoning prosperity of the Jackson years, prices increased faster than wages, prompting some employees to organize and even strike. Unions attracted attention more because of their novelty than because of their numbers. The most reliable estimate of the size of the Jacksonian labor movement puts union membership at 44,000—about 2.5 percent of the nonagricultural free labor force. In 1830, the New York–Brooklyn metropolitan area, with a population of 218,000, held 11,500 union members.64

Besides wage demands, a movement to limit working hours to ten a day gathered support. The rigid work discipline enforced in factories seemed onerous to people accustomed to the more elastic hours of preindustrial production; punctuality, for example, was more critical in a factory than it had been in an artisan shop. We should not forget, however, that nature imposes strict temporal imperatives on farmers: A crop must be planted and harvested on time; the cows must be milked on schedule. Plantations operated with slave labor were even more “mastered by the clock” than farms using free labor.65 The widespread distribution of clocks in rural America demonstrated not only an achievement of manufacturing and distribution but also the time-consciousness of the consumers. In general, employees with prior experience as mechanics showed more inclination to strike than did workers who came off the farms.

Labor strife became particularly sharp in Pennsylvania, where workers in textiles, coal, and iron included many English immigrants who brought with them memories of labor militancy, of machine-breaking and Lancashire trade unionism.66 In the most impressive labor action of the period, Philadelphia workers united in a general strike (then called a “turnout”) that included not only mechanics of many skills from blacksmiths to bakers but also the unskilled coal heavers on the docks, clerks in the dry-goods stores, and municipal employees. Within three weeks of June 1835, the strikers had won a ten-hour day across the board. (A typical ten-hour day of the time ran from six to six, with an hour off for breakfast and an hour for “dinner” in the early afternoon).67

64. Maurice Neufeld, “The Size of the Jacksonian Labor Movement,” Labor History 23 (1982): 599–607; and the same author’s statistics in Labor History 10 (1969): 10.

65. See Mark M. Smith, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South (Chapel Hill, 1997).

66. Jonathan Prude, The Coming of Industrial Order (Cambridge, Eng., 1983), 143, 150–54; Cynthia Shelton, The Mills of Manayunk (Baltimore, 1986), 120, 147–48.

67. Leonard Bernstein, “The Working People of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 74 (1950): 336–39.

Strikes constituted illegal conspiracies under common law, exposing labor union members to criminal prosecution. Sometimes local authorities called out the militia to intimidate strikers, as New York’s Democratic mayor Cornelius Lawrence did in February 1836. At the state level, labor law gradually began to be mitigated through both legislation and judicial decisions. New Hampshire in 1847 and Pennsylvania in 1848 were the first states to enact maximum-hours laws. The case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, decided in 1842, attracted considerable attention. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts there ruled that the Boston Society of Journeymen Bootmakers was not a criminal conspiracy and that its members had the right to press for what we would call a closed shop. Shaw declared labor unions to be as legitimate as other kinds of voluntary associations (he compared them to temperance organizations). Other jurisdictions did not necessarily accept his line of reasoning, however, and management retained the right to seek court injunctions against strikes.68

With their option to strike limited, workers might simply quit. Through the 1820s and ’30s, turnover remained high among the early industrial labor force. In response, textile mills tried to get employees to sign yearlong contracts. Such contracts were common in agriculture to prevent workers from demanding high pay during harvest season. Under the law of the time, employers could refuse to pay a worker anything unless the entire contract was fulfilled. Apprentices under the age of twenty-one and immigrants who had contracted to work in return for their passage could be prosecuted under the criminal law if they quit in violation of their indentures; this legal rule diminished in importance as apprenticeships declined and indentured servitude disappeared in the 1830s. In practice, the depression of the Van Buren years curtailed the option to quit. When unemployment rose, workers became less mobile and more grateful for jobs under almost any terms. And though prosperity returned in the mid-1840s, impoverished Irish immigrants began arriving in large numbers, undercutting labor’s bargaining position again. Despite struggles and sacrifices, the labor movement enjoyed very limited success in antebellum labor disputes.69

One small achievement for labor came thanks to President Van Buren: By executive order he mandated a ten-hour day for laborers on federal

68. Christopher Tomlins, Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic (Cambridge, Eng., 1993), 180–219.

69. Jonathan Prude, Working-Class America (Urbana, Ill., 1983); Robert Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 2001).

public works (March 11, 1840). Resisting pleas from some northern Democratic leaders like John L. O’Sullivan to create jobs for the unemployed, Van Buren permitted himself only this more modest gesture toward workingmen.70 His action probably helped win some votes for the Democratic Party, though it did not apply to all federal wage-earners. Treasury Secretary McLane reported in 1832 that the average working day in manufacturing was eleven hours and twenty minutes. By the eve of the Civil War it had fallen to ten hours and thirty minutes.71

Labor for the American industrial revolution came not only from former artisans, surplus farm workers, and immigrants from overseas. Industry also exploited slave labor where available. Although the antebellum South never developed a large textile industry (and sometimes used free white labor in the mills it had), the region did not lack other industrial uses for enslaved labor. Southern employers preferred slave labor in coal, iron, and gold mines, salt works, grist mills, lumber mills, rope factories, sugar refineries, tobacco processing, leather tanning, turpentine extraction, housing construction, and railroad building. The most extensive industrial use of slave labor occurred in the Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond, Virginia. In 1842, Joseph Reid Anderson, the “commercial agent” (chief operating officer) of the company, began a program to train slaves for the most highly skilled work in the mill: “puddling.” Five years later, when he was about to turn over a new rolling mill to the now fully trained slave puddlers, the white workers went out on strike in protest, but to no avail. Anderson fired the strikers and replaced them with slaves, and within three years two-thirds of his labor force was owned by the company.72 In years to come, the Tredegar Iron Works would play an important role in the Confederate armaments industry.

Besides manufacturing, slave labor also found employment in public works such as digging canals, building levees, laying railroad track, cleaning streets, and lighting the gas lamps that illuminated nighttime cities. Business corporations, municipalities, and state and even federal government agencies all owned or hired slaves. In 1842, the Army Corps of Engineers and Quartermaster Corps reported to Congress their regular hiring

70. Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, 1984), 367–68.

71. Robert Margo, “The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century,” in Cambridge Economic History of U.S., II, 229–30.

72. Robert Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (New York, 1970), 125–28; Ronald Lewis, Coal, Iron, and Slaves (Westport, Conn., 1979), 31–34; Patricia Schecter, “Free and Slave Labor in the Old South,” Labor History 35 (1994), 165–86.

of slaves from willing masters. Surprisingly, the City of Savannah hired slaves as firefighters.73 Insurance companies underwrote the risk that valuable slave property would be injured or killed by industrial accidents. (Free workers, unlike slaves, had no “worker’s compensation” coverage; employers therefore found it prudent to employ free workers for the most dangerous tasks.)

Officially, 5 percent of southern slaves worked in industrial occupations. But the statistic understates the reality. It does not include artisans who worked on plantations making articles for use on that plantation, and thus ignores countless enslaved blacksmiths, masons, cabinetmakers, cordwainers, saddle-makers, plow-wrights, and other craftsmen. Nor are the products of such artisans’ labor included in the calculation that the South contributed 11 percent of U.S. industrial output.74 Even when all such allowances have been made, the South did not industrialize as much as modern economists think would have been cost-effective. When and where they existed, southern industries earned profits comparable to those available in agriculture. The question therefore arises, why did the South not industrialize more?

The price of slaves correlated with that of slave-produced agricultural staples, especially cotton. As a rule of thumb, “the price of slaves could be determined by multiplying the price of cotton by ten thousand (seven cents per pound for cotton yielding seven hundred dollars per slave),” according to the historian Walter Johnson. The world demand for more and more cotton drove up the price of slaves, especially from the 1840s on. Certain kinds of agricultural labor, notably gang labor in the fields, virtually required slaves, because free workers would have demanded astronomical wages to perform it. (After emancipation, gang labor soon fell into disuse, and cotton had to be produced in other, less efficient ways.) When the price of slaves was low, slaves could be diverted into manufacturing and urban commerce, although free labor could perform these jobs too. When the price of slaves rose, their owners pulled them out of marginal economic activities like industry and concentrated them where they were most needed, in gang labor on agricultural staples.75

Noneconomic factors probably also contributed to the reluctance of the South to invest in industry. Perhaps the southern planter class felt

73. Lewis, Coal, Iron, and Slaves, 33.

74. Licht, Industrializing America, 35–38.

75. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 6. See also Claudia Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South (Chicago, 1976).

averse to taking certain kinds of risks. Growing cotton in the new lands of the West was a risky business, to be sure, but southerners understood those risks; investing in manufacturing enterprises seemed mysterious as well as risky. Industrialization became politically controversial in the South. Some planters feared that it would be harder to perpetuate slavery in a diversified economy than in an agricultural one, while a few argued eloquently that the South should industrialize to make itself less dependent on the North. The Democratic Party in the South continued to preach the superiority of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal and the evils of city life. No other occupation conferred as much social status as the ownership of land and slaves. Most planters found little incentive to pursue industrial innovation when large-scale staple production brought them not only profits but prestige and political leadership as well.76


However important the early industrial revolution, the fact remains that most of the workforce in antebellum America—North as well as South— labored in agriculture. Although the independent family farm was the American ideal, in reality the Middle Atlantic states had always made extensive use of nonproprietary farm labor: indentured, enslaved, or tenant. In Pennsylvania some immigrant farm laborers still worked under contracts as late as the 1830s.77 With the passing of indentured servitude and the emancipation of their slaves, the big landowners of upstate New York had to rely primarily on tenant farmers to operate their holdings. But beginning in the 1830s, their tenants began to express their own form of labor unrest.

The trouble began on the largest of the estates, the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, dating back to a Dutch colonial land grant, which covered 436,000 acres, that is, most of Albany and Rensselaer Counties. The lord of the manor, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, had been a very model aristocrat. He served his country as a general in the War of 1812 and as a congressman from 1822 to 1829 (casting, in 1825, the vote that made John Quincy Adams president). An enlightened philanthropist, he established at Troy in 1824 a school for “the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics” that became Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “The Good Patroon” (as

76. Many outstanding social and economic historians have addressed this issue. For a concise, judicious, but somewhat technical analysis, see Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy (Chapel Hill, 1981).

77. David Montgomery, Citizen Worker (Cambridge, Eng., 1993), 31–32.

he was called) specified as terms of tenancy not only rents determined by the price of wheat but also feudal dues that seemed anachronistic in the nineteenth-century United States, such as a day’s work with a team of oxen. Yet Van Rensselaer persuaded thousands of Yankee settlers to sign such contracts by offering them free rent for the first seven years, and he kept them on his lands by the indulgence with which he tolerated it if their payments fell into arrears. Then the Erie Canal, which Van Rensselaer had supported, undercut the market for the wheat his tenants produced. Some turned to wool-growing as an alternative; Van Buren was bidding for their support with his Tariff of Abominations in 1828. But before long many tenants fell behind in their rent, and the Panic of 1839 hit farm incomes badly. Also in 1839, the Good Patroon died. In his will he specified that the debts he had piled up should be paid by collecting the $400,000 in back rents he was owed. All of a sudden, the old paternalistic structure no longer seemed viable.78 What ensued was the largest farm protest movement in pre–Civil War America.

Confronted with demands for outstanding rents that some of them had no means of paying, Van Rensselaer’s tenants declared a rent strike and organized to prevent collections. They demanded the right to buy their farms (usually they themselves had paid for all the improvements), but the new landlord, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, refused the price they offered. The anti-rent movement spread to other estates. The newly elected Whig governor, William H. Seward, sympathized with the tenants’ wish to obtain title to their farms, which was congruent with his party’s vision of America as a country of middling property owners. Reasoning that only as freeholders could the tenants obtain the credit they needed to switch from raising wheat or sheep to more profitable dairy farming, Seward proposed to use the state’s power of eminent domain to buy out those landlords who refused reasonable offers. His plan, however, rested on a reconstituted national bank providing New York state with credit and the distribution of federal land receipts to the states. When the national Whig victory in 1840 did not fulfill these hopes and the state’s highest court ruled against such use of eminent domain, Seward’s plan died. Meanwhile, he had no alternative but to call out the militia to enforce the law against the anti-renters in December 1839. The tenants credited Seward’s intentions rather this action: Their elected state legislators entered into an alliance with the Whigs. While awaiting redress from the legislature,

78. David Maldwyn Ellis, Landlords and Farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk Region (Ithaca, N.Y., 1946), esp. 227, 233.

bands of anti-rent militants, masked and disguised as Indians, continued to harass process servers and to intimidate any tenant who broke ranks. The Whigs, as the party of law and order, were embarrassed by the behavior of their anti-rent allies and reluctant to press for further help to them. The federal constitutional prohibition against states impairing the obligation of contracts severely limited options.79

Although Stephen Van Rensselaer III had been a Whig, most other landlords, including their spokesman, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, belonged to the Democratic Party, identifying their political interests with the planter aristocracy of Virginia. Nevertheless, when the Democrats gained control of both the statehouse and the legislature in 1844, Governor Silas Wright conceived a secret plan to help the tenants: a law authorizing them to pay to convert leaseholds into freeholds upon the death of a landlord. Wright, however, subordinated this policy to partisanship; he wanted to bring the anti-rent voters over to the Democrats. He did not lay out his plan in his initial annual message for fear the Whig legislators would simply endorse it too, depriving his party of exclusive credit. But later in the session, the complicated scenario he had devised to pass it did not work out when conservative Democrats defected. Wright went down to defeat in 1846 at the hands of a Whig who enjoyed anti-renters’ support.80 George Henry Evans’s National Reform Association continued to point to the anti-rent protests as an example of why America needed a homestead act.

The return of agricultural prosperity in the mid-1840s undercut the militancy of the anti-rent movement (as returning prosperity has been wont to do to American farm protests). Although public opinion generally sympathized with the tenants, it also supported the rights of contract. Neither the legislative nor the legal system responded effectively to the demands of the anti-rent movement for relief. Yet antebellum economic reality and the lack of coercive power in the hands of authority favored the will of white settlers on the ground, in this case as in that of squatters on the public lands or the Georgia-Cherokee controversy. Sheriffs elected in anti-rent districts seldom showed much enthusiasm for pressuring their constituents to pay back rent. Sporadic rent strikes continued into the post-bellum period. Worn down, the landlords tired of the game and grudgingly consented to sell their holdings, parcel by parcel, as a way of realizing

79. Reeve Huston, Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York (New York, 2000), esp. 45–76.

80. On Wright’s failed stratagem, see Charles McCurdy, The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics (Chapel Hill, 2001), 234–59.

needed cash. In the end, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV accepted terms less favorable than those he had rejected in 1839. The New York constitutional convention of 1846 outlawed feudal leases and any agricultural leases running more than twelve years, but these prohibitions applied only to the future, not to existing contracts. To this day, it is said, people who buy homes in the Albany area may find themselves “required every year to pay a nominal rent charge to some remote assignee of Stephen Van Rensselaer.”81


A huge labor force unrecorded in the economic statistics consisted of women and children working at home or on the farm for their own families. In Europe, middle-class households typically included one or more live-in servants, but visitors to the antebellum United States often commented on the scarcity of domestic help available for hire. The census of 1840 recorded only about 5 percent of the total U.S. labor force engaged in domestic service, compared with the British 13 percent in live-in domestic service in 1851, the earliest year for which information is reliable.82 In both countries, domestic service was an overwhelmingly female occupation. A Philadelphia man spoke for middle-class America in 1822: “In these United States nothing would be wanting to make life perfectly happy (humanly speaking) had we good servants.” In the South, the situation resembled that in Europe: 16 percent of the enslaved workforce engaged in domestic service in 1840. There, even nonslaveowning white families could hire slave women from their owners to perform the heavier domestic tasks. But in the North, middle-class women had to do more of their family’s housework, cooking, and child care.83

Even more than the scarcity of domestic workers, their attitudes surprised observers. As Catharine Maria Sedgwick correctly explained in her didactic novel Home (1835), native-born American farm girls preferred to be called “help” rather than “servants.” Women willing to work in someone else’s home could demand decent treatment and pay. Often they ate

81. Ibid., 336.

82. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1975), I, 139; Leonard Schwarz, “English Servants and Their Employers,” Economic History Review 52 (1999), 245.

83. Daniel Sutherland, Americans and Their Servants, 1800–1920 (Baton Rouge, 1981), quotation from 9. Faye Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, Conn., 1983), 72–79; Keith Barton, “Slave Hiring, Domestic Labor, and the Market in Bourbon County, Kentucky,” JAH 84 (1997): 436–60.

with the family; sometimes they chose to preserve more independence by living out. When Catharine Beecher published her Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1841, she advised employers of domestic employees to treat them as fellow citizens and responsible agents. Domestics simply expected the market value for their services, she explained. “Why is it not right for domestics to act according to a rule allowed to be correct in reference to all other trades and professions?”84

Industrialization, competing for the labor of working-class women, sharpened the shortage of domestic help. Increasingly, native-born white women found alternative employment, leaving domestic service to immigrants and African American women. Only the great waves of immigration from Europe that commenced in the mid-1840s would address what middle-class Americans called “the servant problem.”

The new economic conditions fostered a new defining characteristic for a proper household. Instead of being a household with servants, a proper household became one where the wife did not need to earn money. The household continued to survive on the basis of a mixture of paid and unpaid work, with the husband now concentrating more on market activities and the wife, ideally, on activities outside the market, named with the new word “housework.”85 Although working-class and farm women more often than not still participated in market production (for example, through put-out piecework or preparing butter, eggs, and chickens for sale), within the urban middle class a married woman was expected to be a full-time mother and homemaker. In midcentury America, while 11 percent of free females over the age of sixteen worked for wages, less than 5 percent of married women did.86 Men, on the other hand, more often left daily for employment elsewhere, in a factory or office building, rather than working at home as artisans, farmers, and shopkeepers did. The new model household became a unit of consumption rather than production.

Working-class families by no means escaped the influence of such ideas about gender roles. Journeymen mechanics, insisting on a “family wage” for themselves and that their wives belonged at home, simultaneously asserted their claim to respectability and resisted competition from women’s lower wages. The wage-earning husband thus asserted claim to

84. [Catharine Maria Sedgwick], Home (Boston, 1835), 72; Catharine Beecher, Treatise on Domestic Economy (Boston, 1841), 198.

85. Supplement to the OED (Oxford, 1976), s.v. “housework”; Ruth Schwarz Cowan, More Work for Mother (New York, 1983), 16–19.

86. Margo, “The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century,” 210.

the dignity of a household head, a status that wage-earners had generally been denied in colonial and Jeffersonian America, but one compatible with his standing now as a voter. For her part, the housewife’s role came to be recognized as a responsible and versatile occupation in both middle and working classes, the subject of instruction manuals like Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife (1836). The Victorian ideology of separate gender “spheres,” a private one for women and a public one for men, while never fully realized in practice, reflected the consequences of industrialization and its separation of workplace and home.87


Although the hard times after 1837 produced calls for economic action by the federal government, at the state level the depression acted to discourage rather than encourage government intervention in the economy. Many mixed public-private corporations in the transportation and banking industries lost money for their public investors and even went bankrupt. The economy paid a price for the absence of any national infrastructure scheme, such as Henry Clay’s American System or Albert Gallatin’s Plan of 1808. Competitive rather than coordinated, responding to their constituents’ hopes, the state legislatures had placed some bad bets. Once burned, twice shy: Reflecting a chastened public opinion, state governments now felt reluctant to gamble again on stock ownership, and indeed some states rewrote their constitutions in the 1840s to forbid it. The federal government did not pick up the slack. Jackson’s Maysville Veto Message, rather than his internal improvements expenditures on rivers and harbors, stuck in the public memory and shaped his party’s policies in the coming years. Significantly, the Maysville Road Company had been a mixed corporation in which the federal government would have purchased stock if Jackson had signed the bill. Few mixed corporations were chartered anymore. For the time being, the responsibility for raising the capital for infrastructure development remained mostly with private enterprise or municipal governments, chartered by the states.88

87. In a large historiography, see esp. Amy Dru Stanley, “Home Life and the Morality of the Market,” in The Market Revolution in America, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Stephen Conway (Charlottesville, Va., 1996), 74–96; Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood (New Haven, 1977); Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York (New York, 1981).

88. John Majewski, “Toward a Social History of the Corporation,” in The Economy of Early America, ed. Cathy Matson (University Park, Pa., 2006), 294–316; Michael Lacey, “Federalism and National Planning: The Nineteenth-Century Legacy,” in The American Planning Tradition, ed. Robert Fishman (Washington, 2000), 89–146.

The decline of mixed corporations in the United States was accompanied and followed by gradual changes in the nature of private corporations facilitating their use to mobilize capital. Corporations could be either civic (such as municipalities with rights to self-government conferred by their state), philanthropic (such as universities), or for business purposes. Defined as a “legal person,” a corporation could own property, make contracts, borrow money, and file suit in court. The principle of limited liability for the stockholders of a business corporation, as distinguished from the unlimited liability of members of a partnership, had already been established. Surprisingly to us, business corporations only gradually adopted the uniform principle that stockholders’ voting rights depended on how much money they had invested. Antebellum corporations sometimes treated their shareholders like the citizens of a commonwealth, each having one vote. Of course, this rule enhanced the influence of small investors.89

Throughout our period, the corporate form of organization remained a privilege conferred by the state in return for what were considered services to the public interest. The sense that corporations received special favors did not enhance their universal popularity. Banks of issue were not the only corporations to encounter resentment on such grounds. Defenders of the old artisan system of manufacturing long remained suspicious of any incorporated business as well as the factory system of production. In 1835, for example, the journeymen cordwainers of Newark, New Jersey, passed this resolution at a meeting:

We entirely disapprove of the incorporation of Companies, for carrying on manual mechanical business, inasmuch as we believe their tendency is to eventuate and produce monopolies, thereby crippling the energies of individual enterprise, and invading the rights of smaller capitalists.90

In an effort to avoid favoritism while also allowing the multitude of small investors their chance, various states enacted general laws of incorporation that conferred corporate status upon any business applicant(s) who complied with certain rules. Connecticut is usually credited with having passed the first such act in 1837, though New York had enacted one in 1811 that applied only to manufacturing companies. States also responded to

89. Colleen Dunlavy, “From Citizens to Plutocrats: Nineteenth-Century Shareholder Voting Rights and Theories of the Corporation,” in Constructing Corporate America, ed. Kenneth Lipartito and David Sicilia (Oxford, 2004), 66–93.

90. Quoted in Susan Hirsch, Roots of the American Working Class (Philadelphia, 1978), 86.

the misgivings of people like the New Jersey cordwainers by imposing various regulations on corporations, even sometimes specifying the composition of the board of directors.91 But in the first half of the nineteenth century, most business corporations were still chartered by special acts of state legislatures, and most were still in transportation and financial services, not manufacturing. Unlike today’s corporations, they might exist only for a limited term: like the first and second national banks, each chartered for twenty years. Meanwhile, municipal corporations also multiplied in response to increasing urbanization, and states delegated broad powers to some of them over public utilities, public health, and law enforcement. These corporations too played an active economic role, exercising the power of eminent domain and, like the states themselves, imposing innumerable regulations on business enterprises.92

Subtle changes in the law of contracts may have proved as significant as the evolution of corporate structure in determining the climate for private investment. In the eighteenth century, the essence of a contract had been the concept of consideration—that is, the contract as a promise made in return for money or some other advantage. Judges felt free to invalidate contracts in cases where the consideration seemed inadequate. The nineteenth century saw judges becoming more concerned with the concept of free will—that is, the contract as an agreement freely entered into by both sides, with the implication that if one chose to make a promise one should keep it. The general legal maxim for purchases was caveat emptor, “Buyer beware.” Legal scholars have argued that the new attitude helped reassure investors, creditors, and employers and hence fostered the transportation and industrial revolutions.93 It would not be surprising if the judges’ outlook reflected the respect for free will that nineteenth-century thinkers generally demonstrated, not only in law but also in theology, psychology, and moral philosophy.

The rising Christian humanitarianism manifested in the benevolent reforms of the period also influenced judges, especially in the law of torts

91. Naomi Lamoreaux, “Entrepreneurship, Organization, Economic Concentration,” in Cambridge Economic History of U.S., II, 410–11; idem, “Partnerships, Corporations, and the Limits of Contractual Freedom in U.S. History,” in Constructing Corporate America, 29–65.

92. William Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1999), 105–11. See also Hendrik Hartog, Public Property and Private Power (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983).

93. Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780–1860 (Cambridge, Mass., 1977); P. S. Atiyah, The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract (Oxford, 1979); Barbara Black, “A Tale of Two Laws,” Michigan Law Review 79 (1981): 929–46.

(personal injuries). Particularly from the 1830s on, judge-made legal innovations often reflected increased compassion for underdogs like children hurt by trolleys while playing in the street or persons injured by defective bridges. Even contract law was tampered with in the interests of workers who quit before their entire labor contract had expired. Judicial opinions of this nature often cited “the common feeling of mankind” or the Bible itself in justification for their compassion.94

But humanitarian benevolence impacted the law of slavery only marginally, mainly affecting slaves who had some claim to freedom. In general, legal innovations on the subject of slavery seem to have facilitated commercial considerations at the expense of human values. Like other property, slaves could be sold, mortgaged, bequeathed, insured, and hired out. Professional slave traders commanded little respect in southern society, perhaps reflecting moral embarrassment at their occupation but also for much the same reasons that used car dealers do in our society. Though most slave dealerships were small operations, a few like Franklin & Armfield, with offices in Alexandria and New Orleans, were large, sophisticated enterprises. Law courts supervised almost half of all slave sales, as part of estate or bankruptcy proceedings, and no one questioned the probity or dignity of judges for exercising this function. Congress never regulated the interstate slave trade, though it possessed the right to do so. Louisiana had elaborate consumer protection laws to help slave purchasers, reflecting the outlook of a major slave-importing state. Under the law of all states, slaves had a dual character as both property and persons; for example, slaves could be tried in court for crimes, and the unjustified killing of a slave was legally murder (a rule hardly ever enforced against the slave’s owner). But down to the middle of the nineteenth century, the evolution of state law in the South tended to make the jurisprudence of slavery more responsive to liberal capitalist and contract notions, favoring the master’s free market in slave transfers “at the expense of the slaves and their families,” notes historian Thomas Morris.95 Slavery represented one area within which it is impossible for us to accept that economic rationality was really a good thing.

94. Based on a very thorough study of private law at the state level: Peter Karsten, Heart Versus Head: Judge-Made Law in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1997), quotation from 10. Some legal theorists held that the common law embodied Christianity; see Daniel Blinka, “The Roots of the Modern Trial,” JER 27 (2007): 293–334.

95. Thomas Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law (Chapel Hill, 1996), 434. See also Jenny Wahl, The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery (Cambridge, Eng., 1998); Ariela Gross, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, 2000).

With state and federal governments holding off on making economic commitments, and in the absence of a national bank, recovery from the depression of the Van Buren years came slowly. The textile mills of Lancashire and New England gradually worked through their glut of American cotton and began to place new orders. This emboldened state and local bankers to make countless small decisions to resume lending money to agricultural producers. Of course, before banks could print banknotes and lend them out, the banks had to exist. Chartering new banks often provoked controversy within a state between soft-money and hard-money factions. The decision of some states, notably New York in 1838, to adopt “free banking,” granting bank charters to all comers in accordance with general laws of incorporation, multiplied the sources of credit. Without banks, borrowers (especially in the West) would have found it difficult to negotiate loans from savers (mostly located in the East), and more of the country’s capital would have remained unproductively stored up in unused land or inventories of livestock and agricultural produce. Without bank notes, frontier and rural America would have been thrown back on “a rag-tag mixture of foreign and domestic coins, land warrants, tobacco warehouse receipts, even animal pelts”—inefficient substitutes that increased the cost of transacting business.96 So desperate was the eagerness for currency that counterfeit circulated widely with very little attempt to suppress it, alongside the notes of distant and insolvent banks. Retail traders routinely accepted almost anything resembling money and passed it along, following the maxim “If you buy the devil, the sooner you sell him, the better.”97 The resumption of bank lending in the 1840s produced not inflation but expanded national product. In fact, during the antebellum period the American price level never stayed far out of line from the British.98 While the opportunities for fraud provoked hard-money criticism, the plain commercial truth was that America needed banks and banknotes. The soft-money advocates were right. The disorderly banking that followed the demise of the BUS proved better than no banking at all.

Despite the anarchic state of the money supply, the nineteenth-century United States did not represent the age of pure laissez-faire that many people imagine. This widespread misconception does not square with the economic role actually played by state and local governments. The

96. Howard Bodenhorn, History of Banking in Antebellum America (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), quotation from 215. See also Paul Gilje, “The Rise of Capitalism,” JER 16 (1996): 159–81.

97. Quoted in Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution, 86.

98. Noted by Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion (Stanford, 1960), 114.

decline of mixed corporations provoked by the depression of the Van Buren years proved permanent, but the decline in state promotion of internal improvements turned out to be very temporary. The coming of the railroads encouraged a new wave of economic interventions by most of the states, many localities, and eventually the federal government as well. Rather than waiting for prosperity to return in the 1840s, American governments actively promoted it through their investments in the newly invented steam railroads.99


George Stephenson operated a steam-powered pump that sucked water out of a mineshaft near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the North of England. In 1814, he invented a steam locomotive that could pull coal from the mine shaft to a nearby dock for loading onto a barge; over the next decade he built similar machines for other local mining companies. Wider applications for the invention became apparent. In 1825, Stephenson demonstrated a locomotive that could pull thirty-six wagons of coal and flour along a level track for nine miles in two hours. Four years later Stephen-son’s “Rocket” won a competition to pull trains for passengers as well as freight on a railway between Liverpool and Manchester. The intercity track opened in 1830 with Prime Minister Wellington riding the first train. The unschooled son of a mechanic had changed the world. Like its American counterpart, the British industrial revolution was to a large extent the creation of the working class.

Across the Atlantic, an American named John Stevens constructed a prototype locomotive in 1825. Born into a prominent family, Stevens was an exception to the rule that inventors came from artisan origins, but he still couldn’t raise enough funding for the railway he planned across New Jersey. The first functioning railroads in the United States were much more modest: They moved animal-drawn cars for short distances, as did the one in Quincy, Massachusetts (1826), which carried stone for three miles from quarry to dockside. An English-built steam locomotive imported in 1828 turned out too heavy to be serviceable on the uneven American terrain. When twenty-three miles of track opened on what was optimistically named the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that same year, the cars had to be pulled by horses pending the construction of a locomotive. Even so, at the ceremony when construction of the B&O rails began on

99. See further in Richard Sylla, “Experimental Federalism,” in Cambridge Economic History of U.S., II, 483–541.

the Fourth of July, 1828, ninety-one-year-old Charles Carroll, sole surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned the first spadeful of earth and told the crowd, “I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that.”100

An American coach-maker turned master manufacturer, Peter Cooper, designed a locomotive with a shorter wheelbase and smaller wheels than British models so it could negotiate inclines and sharp curves. Because of its small size, he nicknamed it “Tom Thumb.” As a publicity event in 1830, the Tom Thumb raced a horse-drawn wagon. The horse won when the locomotive slipped a drive belt, but Cooper’s steam engine impressed the B&O’s representatives enough that they adopted it. Peter Cooper’s “contrivance,” one of them later recalled, proved instrumental “in making available, in America, that vast system which united remote peoples and promotes that peace on earth and good will to men which angels have proclaimed.”101

Most early American railroads, like Baltimore’s, reflected the ambition of cities to engross the trade of a hinterland before some municipal competitor did so. They expressed the same geographical rivalries that canal-building had. Charleston, worried about the competition of Savannah, completed in 1833 a railroad to Hamburg, South Carolina, that was actually the world’s longest at that time, 136 miles. Boston tried to get a piece of the trade generated by the Erie Canal with a railroad through Worcester to Albany completed in 1842. Both the Charleston and Boston railways relied predominantly upon public funding.102

Andrew Jackson arrived in Washington in 1829 in a carriage and left eight years later on a train. Throughout the United States, people welcomed the steam locomotive as a heaven-sent deliverance from the tyranny of distance. The heady prosperity of the early 1830s encouraged construction, though the ensuing depression slowed it down. By the end of the 1830s, there were 450 locomotives in the country, only 117 of them imported from Britain, and 3,200 miles of track—as much as the total canal mileage and, amazingly, more than twice the track in all Europe. Railroad building proceeded more quickly in the United States not only because of the greater felt need but also because of the availability of

100. (viewed May 25, 2007). Carroll is quoted in Louis Masur, 1831 (New York, 2001), 173.

101. John Latrobe, The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Baltimore, 1868), 18.

102. John Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 225–55; Ruth Schwarz Cowan, Social History of American Technology (New York, 1997), 113–14.

land. Where European railways had to spend a lot of time and money acquiring their rights-of-way, American ones got theirs cheaply or in free land grants. Even fuel was inexpensive: American locomotives burned wood rather than coal, as European ones did, because wood was so cheap.103 The generosity of public authorities further helped the exceptionally rapid growth of U.S. railways. A comparative study of the economic policies of the United States and Prussia in the nineteenth century concluded that while the Prussian government contributed only 7 percent of the capital needed for that country’s early railroads, American state governments contributed 45 percent of early railroad capital.104

When prosperity began to return around 1842, railroad construction resumed at full throttle. The depression did leave one lasting mark on the railroad industry, the demise of the mixed public-private corporation as an investment vehicle. Yet public support continued in a variety of other forms, including land grants, cash subsidies, loan guarantees, and the purchase of corporate bonds. Cities as well as states eagerly threw their money at the new technology. Even the federal government helped out some, providing free surveys for routes and tariff refunds on iron imported for rails. Public financial support proved particularly important for railroads in the South, where it was hard to tempt private capital away from investment in plantations and slaves. The famous subsidies that southern states granted to railroads during Reconstruction actually had plenty of precedent in the antebellum years. Without owning stock, the public entities providing support to internal improvements could no longer share in any profits, but the hoped-for economic benefits to their citizens—plus an occasional payoff to a relevant officeholder—constituted sufficient motivation. Mixed corporations were abandoned on the grounds that they lent themselves to corruption, but in fact the other forms of subsidy proved no less liable to dishonest exploitation. By fair means or foul, railway mileage had more than doubled to 7,500 by the end of the 1840s.105

Railroads dramatically shortened travel times. When Henry Clay first went to Washington from Lexington, Kentucky, in 1806, his trip took three weeks; by 1846, he could do it on a train in four days. Despite their

103. Albert Fishlow, “Transportation in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries,” in Cambridge Economic History of U.S., II, 572–74, 611–12; Taylor, Transportation Revolution, 134–44.

104. Colleen Dunlavy, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (Princeton, 1994), 51–55.

105. Richard Sylla, “The Economy of American Government, 1789–1914,” in Cambridge Economic History of U.S., II, 483–541; Fishlow, “Transportation,” 575.

speed, however, trains by no means immediately rendered canals obsolete. For shippers not in a hurry, canal transportation, with ton-mile charges generally less than those of a railroad, might well remain advantageous. The Erie Canal, granddaddy of them all, continued to expand its traffic until after the Civil War. Weighing the comparative importance of canals and railroads is not easy, and canals may well have been the more critical improvement in transportation. But, of course, their impact was cumulative; the effects of the railroads came on top of those of canals. Perhaps more important than the speed of the railroads was the fact that they offered year-round transportation, since, unlike canals, they did not freeze up in winter.

Railroads had an enormous impact on Americans’ lives. They allowed the cities to keep growing by bringing them ever greater quantities of food. The efficiency with which railroads could transport freight meant that inventories and storage costs could be reduced in many parts of the economy. By facilitating long-distance travel, the railroads also made the labor market more responsive. Cultural consequences of the railroads included the proliferation of reading matter and the ability to take regular vacations in distant places, a custom that began with the wealthy and gradually extended to include the middle class. In response, resorts grew up and a tourist trade developed. Railroads increased reliance on the newly mass-produced watches and clocks. Even more than factories and farms, the operation of railroads depended on close attention to accurate timepieces.

Railroads did not come as an unalloyed blessing; they were dirty, noisy, and dangerous. Until after the Civil War, different railroads sometimes had incompatible gauges (track widths), hampering long-distance shippers. Like steamboats, the early trains had abysmal safety records, in large part because of the high-pressure boilers both used; hasty, cheap construction and excessive speeds didn’t help either. On November 8, 1833, a passenger train carrying John Quincy Adams ran off the track near Amboy, New Jersey. The train had been speeding at “one mile in one minute thirty-six seconds,” he noted. The car ahead of his overturned, leaving “men, women, and a child scattered along the road, bleeding, mangled, groaning.” All but one of those in the car were injured, three (including the child) fatally. Adams successfully demanded a coroner’s inquiry.106

Because of the multiple and cumulative effects of the railroads supplementing canals, the years from 1843 to the Civil War have sometimes

106. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–79),

IX, 29–32.

been called America’s economic “take-off.” Whether this is an apt term depends on what one means by it. The U.S. economy before railroads was neither static, anti-entrepreneurial, nor isolated from the rest of the world. What the railroads changed was not American hopes but the material conditions for fulfilling them. Railroads did not produce a “market revolution” any more than canals did; instead they introduced a new phase in a long-range process of economic development. The American economy expanded more or less constantly from 1820 (that is, from before the introduction of the railroads) to the Civil War except for the depression of 1837–42, not only in the aggregate but also per capita; returns to capital over that period constituted a remarkably long-term bull market.107

More relevant to railroad history than the concept of a “market revolution” is “industrial revolution.” If the railroads did not initiate the industrial revolution, they certainly speeded it up. They stimulated the mining, processing, and importing of iron and steel (and, after the eventual switch in fuel, coal). They created vast primary industries in the manufacture of rails, locomotives, and rolling stock. They encouraged the workforce to continue to leave agriculture and move into other occupations. They multiplied new jobs as engineers, firemen, brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and roundhouse mechanics. (The gendering of so many of these occupational titles was, of course, no accident.) Since their public subsidies so often took the form of land grants, railroads became large-scale land speculators, promoting settlement along their routes and urban development at major railheads.

The sheer size of the railway companies altered the American economy. The major railroads came to dwarf the antebellum manufacturing concerns, even the Lowell mills. Railroads became the largest corporations since the demise of the BUS, and the first nationwide secular enterprises under entirely private control. When these big players went into the capital markets of New York and London, they necessitated the creation of new kinds of financial services to meet their needs. Perhaps most importantly, being too large and technical to operate through the conventional arrangement of an owner and a foreman, the railroads developed a

107. Thomas Weiss, “Economic Growth Before 1860,” in American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, ed. Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer (Stanford, 1994), 11–27; Richard Sylla, Jack Wilson, and Charles P. Jones, “U.S. Financial Markets and Long-Term Economic Growth,” ibid., 28–35. The term “take-off” originated with Walt Rostow, Stages of Economic Growth (Cambridge, Eng., 1963; 3rd ed., 1990).

whole new profession: business management. Yet, throughout the nineteenth century, the skilled machinist remained a key figure in industry alongside the newer white-collar salaried manager.108 The career of Peter Cooper, builder of the Tom Thumb, is instructive. This former artisan combined iron manufacturing, railroads, and telegraphy in a highly successful business career before turning, as Robert Owen had done, to philanthropy and politics.

The railroads had particularly portentous consequences for settlers in the newer states of the Old Northwest: Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), and Wisconsin (1848). The space-binding technology of the trains magnified the opportunities for farmers in those places to ship their crops to distant destinations, encouraging market production rather than local consumption. Farmers who migrated into these areas typically concentrated more on commercial staples like wheat than they had done in their previous homes. More small farmers entered the market, where the large ones had been all along. The drop in farm prices after the Panic of 1839 hurt these new commercial farmers and prompted a temporary reversion to diversified production, some of which could be consumed locally.109 But once transportation improved, both farm prices and land values climbed. Many a midwestern farmer realized a handsome profit reselling land he had obtained cheaply from the government. The coming of the railroad affected farm families in their role as consumers too, widening the choice of clothing and household goods available from the country store. Railroads also facilitated the emergence of towns and cities in the West. The extraordinarily rapid growth of Chicago, from a population of less than one hundred in 1830 to thirty thousand in 1850 and far greater heights thereafter, would have been inconceivable if the city had had to depend entirely on water transportation without the railroad.110

In 1845, a poet addressing the Mercantile Library Association of Boston celebrated the effects of the railroad in knitting the country together with a poem that also likened the trains to giant textile looms:

108. The classic account of the rise of management is Alfred Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1977). On the continued importance of skilled workers, see Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America (New York, 1976), 221; John K. Brown, The Baldwin Locomotive Works (Baltimore, 1995).

109. Susan Gray, The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier (Chapel Hill, 1996), 48–65.

110. Helen Jeter, Trends of Population in the Region of Chicago (Chicago, 1927), 7, 21.


Here magic Art her mighty power reveals,

Moves the slow beam, and plies her thousand wheels,

Through ponderous looms the rapid shuttle flies,

And weaves the web which shines with varied dyes.

Here, gliding cars, like shooting meteors run,

The mighty shuttle binding States in one.111

Railroads did indeed have political as well as economic consequences, but they turned out to be sectional rather than simply strengthening the Union. Their network reinforced east–west ties at the expense of north–south ones. Their resources, added to those of the Erie and related canals, further encouraged the Old Northwest to ship its produce eastward rather than southward along the river system to the Gulf, affecting the balance of political power both regionally and nationally. The geographical competition that the railroads stimulated for westward routes, fostered by politicians like Illinois’s Stephen Douglas, was destined to exacerbate sectional tensions in the years leading up to the Civil War.

111. Robert C. Waterston, Poem Delivered Before the Mercantile Library Association (Boston, 1845).

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