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Transition to an Industrial South: Athens, Georgia, 1830-1870

Author(s):Gagnon, Michael
Reviewer(s):Majewski, John

Published by EH.Net (August 2013)
Michael Gagnon, Transition to an Industrial South: Athens, Georgia, 1830-1870. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. xvii + 290 pp. $49 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8071-4508-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Majewski, Department of History. University of California Santa Barbara.

Best known as the home of the state?s flagship public university, Athens, Georgia (located in Clarke County) spearheaded southern industrialization in the late 1820s and early 1830s when local businessmen started several textile mills.? Although small by northern standards, these mills are an important test case of the interaction of manufacturing and the South?s slaveholding economy.? Michael Gagnon?s fine study of early industrial enterprise in Athens is part political economy, part social history, and part business history.? Although he is interested in the broader manufacturing community ? he has short sections on workers, clerks, and managers ? the bulk of his analysis focuses on the planter-industrialists and their firms. The level of detail allows Gagnon to understand the considerable interest that southerners had in expanding manufacturing as well as the considerable limitations such efforts faced.

Gagnon makes clear the textile mills of Athens originated from energetic town boosters that made economic development a community affair.? His analysis reveals that the founders and officers of Athens? manufacturing enterprises were often significant slaveholders who had substantial investments in plantations, urban real estate, and railroads.? These enterprises, it appears, were efforts at further diversify investment portfolios rather than revolutionize the southern economy.? Almost all the machinery was imported from the North, as were many of the foremen. The principle products were coarse cotton and woolen yarns and cloth marketed to both plantations (for slave clothing) and to upcountry farmers.? The investors in Athens? mills also worked to insure that the town became a terminus for the Georgia Railroad, which would allow them to further extend their market.?? Athens? strategic location in northwest Georgia ? located on the border of the state?s plantation economy and its yeoman upland region ? gave the town important advantages as a railroad and manufacturing center.????

Gagnon also examines the wider culture that Athens? ?respectable? residents promoted.? While class tensions occasionally led to protests among workers and clerks, manufacturing did not seem to provoke conflict in this largely rural area.? As was the case in many thriving towns in Jacksonian America, a widespread culture of improvement ? which included schools, lyceums, churches, temperance organizations, and a mechanics? society ? took root in Athens.? Agricultural reform, which sought to bring scientific methods to the area?s planters and farmers, helped bring this ethos of improvement to the countryside.? Athens? role as a university town helped contributed to this ?improvement? culture, as many wealthy families relocated to Athens when a son attended the University of Georgia.

The success of Athens (and the reported profits of its factories) initiated a mini-boom in Georgia textiles during the late 1840s.? The boom, however, soon turned to bust.? Northern firms used Georgia?s railroad network to undercut local producers, and Georgia?s small, undercapitalized mills struggled to compete.?? Athens? entrepreneurs attempted to diversify into other industrial operations ? including a machine shop ? but these efforts hardly lived up to the heady days of the 1830s, when Athens seemed to point the way to a diversified economy that combined manufacturing with slave-based agriculture.? Despite these failures, Gagnon credits Athens? planter-industrialists with setting the stage for post-bellum growth, including ?market penetration into Georgia?s upcountry due to the development of a state railroad system? (p. 179).

Gagnon has produced a superbly researched and finely written case study.? One could draw a quite different lesson from Athens, though, than Gagnon?s somewhat optimistic portrayal.? It is not even clear, given the small scale of these enterprises, why Gagnon believes they constituted a ?transition to an industrial South.? Many of the owners, he makes clear, explicitly rejected the northern and English models of industrialization (p. 205).? So exactly what, then, was antebellum Athens transitioning toward?? Southerners clearly wanted more diversification ? if only to become somewhat less reliant on the North ? but it is not clear that they saw a balanced economy (with a mix of commerce, manufacturing, and slavery) as ?industrial? in the way the Gagnon implies.?

In many respects, the effort to free Georgia and the rest of the South from northern economic domination failed.? Georgia?s railroad network was one example of that failure.? While many of Athens? industrialists successfully fought to insure that the Georgia Railroad reached Athens, the small city represented the end of the line for the surrounding upcountry counties.? Upcountry famers in these counties would have to travel considerable distances to reach Athens, which undoubtedly prevented them from marketing agricultural surpluses and buying consumer goods such as textiles.? To be fair to Georgia?s planter entrepreneurs, part of the problem was geographic ? mountainous terrain made railroads particularly costly to build in the upcountry, and the thinly populated countryside hardly provided a rich market that could offset these higher costs.
While we might be inclined to let planter-industrialists off the hook for the significant gaps in Georgia?s railroad network, there were no excuses for the abysmal state of public education. A quick check of online census records reveals that slightly less than 27 percent of whites between 5-19 years old attended school in 1850.?? These school attendance rates were abysmally low compared to the rural North, where 61 percent of 5-19 year olds attended school in 1850.? Athens? ethos of cultural improvement apparently did not extend much beyond the sons and daughters of slaveholders and a smattering of others.? Gagnon might have usefully explored the implications of a relatively uneducated and unskilled job force, both for Clarke County and the South as a whole.? Did the top-down of approach of planter-industrialists in areas such as Athens lock the South into a pattern of low-wage manufacturing??? Reliance on a poorly educated and relatively unskilled workforce, perhaps, is the real continuity between the Old South and New South that Gagnon seeks to find in Clarke County.

John Majewski is the author of Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and serves as Associate Dean of the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of California Santa Barbara.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century