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Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry

Author(s):Peskin, Lawrence A.
Reviewer(s):Meyer, David R.

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Lawrence A. Peskin, Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xi + 294 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-7324-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David R. Meyer, Department of Sociology, Brown University.

Lawrence Peskin provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the discourse and activities of the promoters of manufacturing who made their views known from the late colonial period to around 1830. From Peskin’s vantage point, the turn from agriculture to industry after the American Revolution was sufficiently rapid to claim that a manufacturing revolution had occurred. Following the concerns of social historians, he sees the decline of traditional craft-based production and the shift to the new factory processes as providing the context and motivation for the efforts of promoters of manufacturing. The debate over the future of manufacturing was sufficiently complex that these individuals cannot be neatly pegged as either “republican” or “liberal.” They were attracted to republican virtues of simplicity and independence, associated with the mostly self-sufficient yeoman farmers, and the liberal concern with individualism, self-interest, and markets infused their efforts. They organized into societies and other institutions to promote their ideas, thus refuting simple notions that individualism and community were incompatible behaviors. The positive role of government as defender and promoter of the public good was welcomed by republicans and liberals alike, even as the specific context in which government efforts might occur was debated.

The book has three parts, each with three or four chapters. In “The Revolutionary Era,” Peskin details the breakdown of the seemingly comfortable complementary position of the American colonies in the British system as suppliers of raw materials to Britain and consumers of its manufactures. When Britain added taxes, the logic of this complementarity was challenged. Alternative approaches to the colonial economy arose during the years leading up to 1776: urban merchants wanted to return to the British system of complementarity which prevailed before 1765 and manufacturing was a means to that end, whereas urban mechanics saw manufactures as a developmental force and a means to become economically independent of Britain. Alas, the Revolution and immediate aftermath did not resolve the role of manufacturing, and, significantly, the new nation no longer had an assured place in the British imperial system.

In the “Critical Period” covering the 1780s and 1790s, voluntary associations emerged which promoted domestic production. Although their influence would wane by the start of the next century, their rhetoric created an atmosphere which was conducive to manufacturing development. During the 1780s, urban mechanics organized in committees to actively promote protectionism for their production, but by the next decade urban merchants took the lead in associations which advocated tariffs as a means to allow domestic manufacturing to flourish. These associations appealed to the positive good of a balanced self-sufficient economy comprised of mechanics, farmers, and merchants. Nonetheless, these groups could not rest in comfortable combinations. Merchants favored government support of their trade, but they did not benefit from high tariffs which hurt trade, and farmers who aimed for commercial production did not want foreign markets closed to their output. Agricultural societies promoted a harmony of interests between a productive agriculture (not self-sufficient) and manufacturing, and they saw government as a vehicle for supporting better agricultural practices.

The final part, “Toward Industrialization,” details the shift of manufacturing promotion from the concerns of urban mechanics to the efforts of large-scale industrialists, allied with politicians, to use associations to promote manufactures and to advocate protection for them. As industry expanded in rural areas away from the biggest cities, sometimes as large factories (such as cotton mills), and factory production grew, urban mechanics became increasingly peripheral to efforts to promote manufacturing. The harmony of interests between agriculture and manufactures remained a theme of manufacturing promoters, and the self-sufficient domestic market was seen as supporting industry. However, this harmony would not last as sectional interests such as southern plantation agriculture versus northern manufactures would come to the forefront.

Peskin rests his interpretations of manufacturing promoters on extensive archival evidence, which includes records of speeches and of other activities of these promoters, and he also draws heavily on the leading magazines and journals which were published during the period he covers. Scholars are indebted to his careful, thorough research, and this book will be a major baseline for our understanding of this early industrial period. As Peskin rightly notes, this period leading up to 1830 has too often been seen as a prelude to the more important time of large-scale, rapid industrial growth beginning in the early 1840s.

That view, Peskin demonstrates, is mistaken. Manufacturing promoters engaged in vigorous debates about the future of industry, the role of urban mechanics whose livelihoods were being threatened, and the types of government policies (e.g., tariff protection) which were needed. The growth of factory production, in Peskin’s view, defined the transformation of manufacturing after about 1800. This included the expansion of large urban manufactures, such as sugar refining and breweries, and increased rural industrialization, especially the growth of cotton mills. At the same time, the influence of urban mechanics eroded as their crafts declined in the face of competition from the rising manufacturing firms.

Nonetheless, there was much more to this industrialization than Peskin indicates. Shoe manufacturers in Massachusetts devised an elaborate division of labor and a sophisticated marketing apparatus which allowed them to capture large market areas in the East by the 1820s, firms in a range of metal and wooden manufactures in Connecticut innovated production techniques and built a regional and east-coast sales force using peddlers, and numerous mechanics/machinists moved among firms, diffusing metal working techniques widely. By 1830, these firms had established some of the most important industrial agglomerations in the eastern United States, and many of these clusters were the seedbeds of the late antebellum industrial surge.

At the same time, a large number of small, nonmechanized workshops expanded in areas of agricultural prosperity, and these included wagon shops, small machine shops, and woodworking shops making components for housing and businesses (e.g., latches and window frames). Many of these firms had only a half dozen employees and the larger ones had, perhaps, fifteen workers, and most of the owners did not participate publicly in the debates of the promoters of manufacturing which Peskin examines. Thus, the debates may have had little impact on a large segment of the broad-based manufacturing developments in areas of prosperous agriculture. This is not to dismiss Peskin’s points about these debates; after all, they were important to the tariff policies which emerged and they impacted some key manufacturing, especially the protections provided to cotton textiles. Nevertheless, these other, more numerous manufacturers went about their business even as more vocal promoters in other sectors mobilized.

This book offers strong support for interpreting the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as setting a solid foundation for American manufacturing. Peskin provides valuable documentation that this period witnessed ferment in the debate and promotion of manufacturing. Thus, we know that the broad-based expansion of small workshops and nonmechanized factories, the rise of small factories in a variety of sectors, and the emergence of large factories, such as big merchant-financed cotton mills and urban processing factories (e.g., sugar refining), were embedded in a wide social, political, and economic debate about the future of the new nation. Manufacturing entrepreneurs, whether or not they participated in this debate, certainly knew about it, and information which they gleaned must have entered their calculus regarding the opportunities and risks of becoming manufacturers and of expanding their commitments.

David R. Meyer is Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies at Brown University. His recently published book is, The Roots of American Industrialization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), and he has just completed a book manuscript on antebellum machinist networks. His new research focuses on the challenges to Hong Kong as a global metropolis and on business networks in Asia.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century