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Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution

Author(s):Bezis-Selfa, John
Reviewer(s):Kennedy, Michael V.

Published by EH.NET (May 2004)

John Bezis-Selfa, Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. xi + 279 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3993-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael V. Kennedy, Department of History, University of Michigan-Flint.

From the moment that investors in the Virginia Company decided to economically diversify beyond tobacco planting in their precarious holdings hugging the James River and its estuaries, the iron industry in British North America began. Over a half-century from 1621, iron production faltered in both the Chesapeake and New England due to numerous factors, from insufficient investment capital to shortages of labor, from a dearth of local markets to efforts of Native Americans to stifle increased colonization by Europeans. By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, beginning in East Jersey, the iron industry began building slow but steady foundations that eventually led the combined Atlantic colonies to rank third in the world in iron production, a full fifteen percent of the total output.

The story of iron in early British America has been told periodically by historians for more than a century. Emphasis has been made on entrepreneurs, the “ironmasters” who formed a cadre of great men in our country’s history, as well as on the technologies of production, labor requirements, and the economics of the industry, including relationships to local, regional and international markets. In Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution, John Bezis-Selfa, associate professor of History at Wheaton College, appears to have produced yet another retelling of the story of iron, following in the footsteps of Arthur Bining, Kathleen Bruce, Thomas Doerflinger, Ronald Lewis, Peter Temin, Paul Paskoff, Charles Dew and others who have examined the industry from apparently every possible angle. After all, what more can be said? Appearances, however, can be notoriously deceiving.

Both down-to-earth and analytically sound, Bezis-Selfa goes far beyond the seminal efforts of Bining and Bruce, the technologically precise work of Doerflinger, Temin, and Paskoff, and the important labor analyses of Lewis and Dew. Bezis-Selfa offers a human story that deals with the multi-faceted framework of societies in which iron-making played a crucial role. The pages are filled with real people of all classes and races who together helped build early America. This book is centered on iron, but it is about life and work and ambition and family and faith and the human condition. Using iron manufacture as a base, Bezis-Selfa has indeed told a story about how the American people were forged.

The author’s thesis that slavery and the use of slave labor as a foundation allowed the United States to develop into a modern industrial state is clearly proven by a wealth of primary source evidence. The extent of slavery’s importance to the iron industry is still generally unrecognized, despite the work of Lewis, Dew and Robert Starobin. Bezis-Selfa draws on the writing of the aforementioned authors and primary source material from ironworks in the Chesapeake region, but also extends the study into the Mid-Atlantic colonies where he reveals the vital role of slave labor in the heart of early American iron-making — Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His tireless researches provide a much fuller picture of slavery’s impact on the industry, and also draws greater attention to the regional connections within slavery’s usage from the greater Chesapeake north through the iron producing regions in New York.

Equally important are Bezis-Selfa’s interweaving of other labor systems, such as indentured servitude, convict labor, and free wage labor in the colonial and early national periods, with slavery to reveal a pattern of interdependency of work and production that entrepreneurs (the author’s “adventurers”) both seek to control, but also help empower in many ways, out of expediency.

This concept of the empowerment of labor is key to Bezis-Selfa’s entire presentation, and helps to create a psychological rationale for America’s love-hate relationship with industrial capitalism. In this arena, the author is very subtle. The give and take relationship between owners, managers and all levels of bound and free labor comes through these pages loud and clear. Bezis-Selfa analyzes these relationships completely both chronologically and geographically and paints a broad picture of the economic, social and cultural developments that were created in a crucible just as surely as iron in a blast furnace. He does this in a completely balanced manner, avoiding ideological opinions that have in many ways overshadowed fact in the three decade long debate over the transition to capitalism. By staying clear of this controversy, Bezis-Selfa first avoids becoming just another in a long list of debaters in a wearisome argument, but second, and more importantly, he lets his data, his analyses and the stories he presents, speak for themselves.

The evidence that Bezis-Selfa presents is extraordinary in its breadth and depth. Covering over two centuries of development, he brings in primary source material from all colonial regions, from the Chesapeake, through the Mid-Atlantic, to New England. No study of this kind has been previously attempted, although conclusions from prior local and regional studies have been promoted as applicable to the whole early American experience. Bezis-Selfa has done the groundwork and as a result can address both the similarities and differences in the regional experiences over time. While previous authors have based theories and theses on an examination of one or at most a handful of operations, Bezis-Selfa has closely examined account books, journals, time books, diaries, and correspondence from over fifty iron companies across the eastern seaboard from the late seventeenth century through the 1830s. The comparisons drawn from this extensive research inform every page and bolster his arguments with a wealth of data.

Forging America is well-written, informative, and stimulating. It is a challenge to historians of American economic development to dig more deeply and more broadly in future research. At the same time, it can enjoyably inform a broad spectrum of non-historians on the importance of labor and labor usage in the development of the United States. Bezis-Selfa should be commended for his efforts, and his book is highly recommended.

Michael V. Kennedy’s recent publications include “The Consequences of Cruelty: Increase of Servant and Slave Abuse in the Era of the American Revolution,” Essays in Economic and Business History 22 (2004) and “The Hidden Economy of Slavery,” Essays in Economic and Business History 21 (2003). He is co-editor (with Christine Daniels) of Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americas, 1500-1820 (Routledge, 2002).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century