A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States



Everything in history--even the history of your own life--occurs in  a context. This is not to say that chance and random occurrences cannot play a role in history. They certainly can and do: it snows one day and not another, and on that day your car slides off an icy road. If you're injured, then this chance, idiosyncratic event has great consequence for you. But even this event has some historical context. All in one frightening, seemingly freefall moment of time and space is compressed the history of the automobile, the history of your driving habits (perhaps an expression of your emotional history), and the history of the road (how it was constructed, why that curve was left in). When these histories are jammed together (what one historian calls the crossing of different "causal chains") at 27 degrees Fahrenheit, an "accident" occurred which may not have been quite as "chance" as it seemed.

However truly accidental the "accidents" of history ("Why was the Kennedy motorcade route changed in the weeks before his trip to Dallas?"), the main events and decisive themes of an era tend to have clear--if complex--causes and effects. These events don't emerge out of thin air, nor do they vaporize, without consequence, into nothingness. The 20th Century followed a certain course. Chance events certainly did play a role (Alas, Hitler's mother did meet Hitler's father), but the main outlines of the century were shaped by what happened decades before.

This reading will provide you with some of the background needed to understand the forces that shaped the 20th century. In more ways than one, the 19th Century generated the problems and prepared the agenda that preoccupied people in the new century that followed.

Industrialization: General

There were two great themes that defined post-Civil War America: "Industrialization" (how the economy was transformed) and "Reconstruction" (how the south was re-integrated into the Union, and how the status of African-Americans changed--or didn't). You will receive a reading concerning Reconstruction later, so only Industrialization will be discussed here.  

Industrialization is the changing of an agricultural economy into one based on factories, mechanization, and mass production. It touched every aspect of American life-- economic, political, social, and, cultural--and continues to do so until the present day. Because of industrialization, the nature of work changed forever, family life was transformed, new economic classes were created (accompanied by dramatic episodes of class warfare), cities experienced explosive growth, and immigrants--by the millions--sailed to the American shore. If your great- or great-great grandparents were part of this immigrant wave, there is a very good chance that the Industrial Revolution was a decisive factor in their decision to emigrate. So the reach and impact of industrialization on your own life can not be overestimated.

To appreciate the great changes that industrialization brought to American life, it's helpful to understand something of pre-industrial life. Before 1700  in England (where the Industrial Revolution began) or before 1820 in the United States, the economy and way of life was agrarian. Most people farmed and lived in rural areas. Though there were merchants who lived in cities and tradesmen who had mastered complex or artistic crafts, most farmers not only grew food but made some of what they needed, including candles, household implements, and clothing. What they couldn't make, they bought in town or country markets.

In pre-industrial times, families were units of production, bound together not only by strong emotional bonds, but by the common struggle to feed and clothe themselves. Unlike today, when most family members share consumption (food, recreation, housing), these pre-industrial families had to work together. Apart from farming, many families had a loom or two in their homes, used in the production of cloth and clothes, the surplus of which was traded or sold for other goods. Parents had extraordinary authority in this domestic beehive of activity. Some children received schooling, but many were home all day (until they married, or went off to apprenticeships at around age 14), and parents raised and disciplined them without the help of day care centers or school masters. So too, it was parents, not schools or textbooks, who taught the children most of what they needed to know to make a living for themselves (the "art and mystery" of particular trades). While they remain of great emotional and financial importance to both parents and children, families do not have the same practical significance today--witness the high divorce rates associated with industrialization or even the pathetic attempts of your parents to help you with your math homework.

Everyday work-life was also very different in pre-industrial society. Surely, work was difficult without the help of modern machinery, but there were compensations. Whether farmers or weavers (or both), people were their own masters (the word "boss" didn't enter the American lexicon until the 1880's). They decided for themselves when they would work and at what pace and when, in the words of a contemporary poem, "to take a walk in their garden." They were also workers who knew the satisfaction of creating an entire product and whose social status turned on the skills they possessed, not how much money they had. Finally, for people in pre-industrial society, life moved at a more leisurely pace, because the very concept of time was based on natural cycles, such as sunrise, sunset, and seasonal change. (If you have ever gone backpacking, you have probably noticed how time appears to slow down).

The phrase "Industrial Revolution" suggests the kind of change that took place, as well as its depth and rapidity. But industrialization did not occur all at once; there were transitional stages. The most prominent was the Domestic ( or "Putting Out")  System. Previous to this, farmers would bring their food and other products (e.g., textiles) to local markets. Merchants figured out that the farmers and weavers could make more products if they didn't have to waste time travelling to markets to sell their goods. Instead the merchants (for a cut of the profits) took on the job of travelling from house to house and picking up the goods which they would then bring to market. Eventually, these merchant capitalists would also bring raw materials to the weavers, and, as time went on, they gained more control over the kinds and styles of the products produced. The Domestic System had a brief life, longer in some countries and industries then others. (In the United States, the textile trades were industrialized first, shoemaking next, and steel much later).

As the population increased (due mainly to improvements in public sanitation and diet), the merchants found it difficult to get around to all the workshops. A common sense solution suggested itself. Gather weavers together in a building called a "Factory." This was called the "System of Manufactures" (another transitional stage), and originally workers just rented out space in the merchant's building, but still worked autonomously with their own tools. Within a short span of time however, the ‘System of Manufactures" gave way to full-fledged industrialization in the form of the "Factory System." Here the merchant capitalist (soon to be known as an "industrialist") not only owned the building, but also the "tools" in the form of increasingly large, sophisticated, expensive, and efficient machinery (at first water-powered, later, steam-powered) that were developed by ingenious inventors. Equally significant, the weavers who manned (and "woman-ned") these machines were now employees of the industrialists who paid them wages for a set number of hours, and who could hire and fire.

The Factory System profoundly changed, not only working conditions, but every aspect of social life. Families became less cohesive, as mom, dad, and the kids left home to work in different factories. No longer were parents masters of their own workplace or even of their own children. The work itself had changed. Now it was the employer who determined the timing, the pace, and the conditions of labor, and none of these were calculated to meet the social and emotional needs of the workers. The social position of working people was further eroded as money became the basis of status, and as jobs themselves became "de-skilled" by new technologies and factory organization.  

Life itself became more hurried and stressful as "time" became conceptually redesigned to meet the needs of the new industrial order. With industrialists needing to more precisely measure the length of the working day, and to set the time at which machines would be turned on (in synchronized fashion) to make the factory "run," clock time began to replace the vaguer concept of  "natural time."  Indeed, as industrialization transformed European civilization, the bells in church steeples which had called people to morning prayers were replaced by clocks. At first, these clocks only had hour hands, though later minute and second hands were added to provide for greater precision in "time accounting." As one eminent historian has stated, it was the clock, not the steam engine, that was the greatest, most necessary invention of the industrial age. The entire texture of life changed as those minute and second hands swept away all "the traditions of dead generations." (That we now have watches which can routinely measure tenths of a second is not unrelated to the urgently stressful nature of modern life today).

These changes in accustomed and valued patterns of life were not made without protest. Most famous were the Luddites, the embittered English textile workers who, fighting under the banner of their beloved, mythical "General Ludd," tried to destroy the machinery and factories that they blamed for undermining their trades, status, and traditional society, including their relationship with their children. (In France, workers dropped their wooden shoes--"sabots"-- into the gears of the new-fangled machines, breaking them and creating a new word, "sabotage"). The Luddites were most active in the first quarter of the 19th century, but Luddite sentiment, which questions the "progress" of the industrial age, survives even today. It can be found, most recently, in the manifesto of the so-called Unabomber who believed technological change was destroying the possibility of a meaningful human society, to say nothing of the environment. [See the following documents: William Blake's poem about the industrial age, the Weaver's Song, and the English mill rules].

Industrialization: The United States

The United States was industrialized after England, but the process was uneven, transforming certain industries and regions first, and others later. The first American factory was Pawtucket Mills, in Pawtucket, RI, 1790. It was built by English mechanic Samuel Slater who reportedly defied English laws prohibiting the export of factory blueprints and new technologies by memorizing the plans for an entire factory.

American industry got its first important--and unexpected-- kickstart during the War of 1812. The United States, caught up in a worldwide struggle for maritime supremacy between Britain and France, threatened each country with a trade embargo if either or both didn't stop harassing American shipping. France, but not Britain, relented, and President Jefferson imposed an embargo on all goods coming from the former Mother Country. The embargo punished Great  Britain, but had the unanticipated effect of encouraging early American factories, which now no longer had to compete with cheaper English goods. Not coincidently, the Waltham Co. (in Waltham, Ma.) opened its doors, the first American factory whose integrated production turned raw materials into a finished product (in this case, textiles) under one roof.

The Factory System spread in the years before the Civil War. Massachusetts, with its swift-flowing rivers and access to ports, was a prime location for the new industrial order. Indeed, the great textile factory complexes of Lowell and Lawrence were constructed in the years before the Civil War. American industrialization had begun, though the "take-off" stage of self-sustained growth would not come until the years immediately following the ‘War Between the States." Hundred of thousands of Americans died on the hallowed grounds of Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and other battlefields, but, as always, war was good for business and stimulated factory production.

The Factors of Production

It's easier to build a factory than to keep it going. To maintain an industrial economy, a society needs what economists call, "factors of production." Below is a list of the factors, and how the United States came to have them:

Capital (investment funds)

     Even before industrialization, America did have a class of wealthy individuals, who  had made great fortunes in commerce, the slave trade, and  fur-trapping. Some of them  were prepared to invest their money in factories, in hopes of making a lucrative profit.


     Workers make factories run. An adequate labor supply came from natural population  increase and millions of immigrants.


      The factory system assumes an adequate supply of consumers. They came  from the same place as "labor." (See above).

Land & Natural Resources

     The United States was lucky to have both in great quantities.


     European and American inventors supplied this.

Transportation System

       This is what ties the factory to the market--and to natural resources. The Unites  States acquired an adequate transportation system, like other countries, in stages. The  country's first transportation network was a system of toll and Postal Roads (Good ol' Rt.  20, the Boston Post Road, being one of the oldest). These roads were expensive to build  and maintain, and the amount of freight that horses could haul was limited.

     In the second decade of the nineteenth century, this road system was augmented  by the use of steam boats which were, however, limited to places where inland, navigable  rivers existed. The 1820's were the great age of canal building, the great Erie Canal across  New York State being completed in 1825 under the leadership of Governor DeWitt Clinton  (the namesake of my Bronx high school). Canals brought water to places otherwise dry.  The artificial waterways allowed heavy freight to be hauled, and the cost of freight-tonnage  dropped. But canals freeze in winter and can only be built if rivers are nearby.

      The development of railroads from 1830 through the 1850's solved the problem  of transportation in an industrial society. "The iron roads" could haul heavy freight in all  seasons, regardless of the availability of waterways.

Industrialization: Impact

The impact of industrialization fell with the same weight on Americans as on their British forebears. Indeed, some historians argue that the strikes which erupted among American workers were caused as much by the cultural dislocations discussed above, as by issues of pay and working conditions.

Beyond this, please don't overlook the obvious! As a result of industrialization, the American population was divided up into new classes. Where once the large landowner, slave owner, or merchant dominated, now it was the industrialist who reigned supreme. While farmers still predominated among working people, a new permanent class of factory workers (what Marx called the "proletariat") arose, laboring for wages in the "dark, satanic mills" of the early industrial age factory. This class increased in number and significance as the 19th century progressed, while the gap between workers and the wealthy grew ever wider.

Working conditions in the American factory will be more fully described below. Suffice it to say, they were very difficult. What alternatives did workers have? On their own, workers did have a few options. One was to work hard, try to bear with harsh working conditions, save money, and hope for better.  A second was to return to one's country of origin. (It's a little known fact that about 10% of immigrants from 1880 to 1910 did just that). Third, workers could leave the city and factory for the frontier, with the hope of becoming an independent farmer.

The last alternative was to join together with other workers to try to bring a greater collective power to bear against the industrial capitalists. A much older and stronger union movement had developed in Europe. In the United States, the growth of a union movement had been slowed by reoccurring depressions, the power of the capitalists (and their influence over courts and legislatures), and the presence of a frontier which encouraged workers to believe that an individual solution was possible.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that a significant union movement became part of the fabric of American life. But even after forming and joining unions, workers did not agree about what they wanted these unions to accomplish. Approaches differed because workers (even after 1865) disagreed about whether industrialization--and particularly its capitalist form, where factories were privately owned--was permanent or could, in fact be reversed. The different kinds of unions listed below reflect the different ideas that working people had about how to best solve their problems.

• The Knights of Labor

 Started in 1867 by Terence Powderly, the Knights was America's first national  union and its largest (700,000 members until its decline in 1881). It was unusual for its  time because it welcomed all skilled and semi-skilled workers, including blacks and  women. It's goal was "Producer's Cooperation," which meant rolling industrialization  back, eliminating large factories, and arriving at the ideal of a small workshop  cooperatively controlled by the skilled mechanics who labored in it. The leadership of the  Knights believed that tactics which emphasized boycotts and education would help realize  this goal. (Ultimately the anti-strike philosophy of the union led more militant workers to  leave the Knights for more activist ones).

• The American Railway Union

 This union, active at the end of the 19th Century, was led by Eugene V. Debs,  who would become America's most famous socialist. Unlike the Knights which  was anti-capitalist and anti-industrialization, the ARU accepted industrialization but  rejected capitalism. While it fought for improved working conditions for railroad workers,  its ultimate goal was a socialist American society. It hoped to reach this goal through  strikes  and eventually a "General Strike" of all workers which would paralyze the  economy. It tried to prepare for this eventuality by joining together in one union railroad  workers of different trades and skill-levels. (The Knights shared this "Industrial Unionism"  mode of organization).

• The American Federation of Labor

 When the Knights declined it was the AFL which took its place as America's  leading labor organization. Led for over 40 years by Samuel Gompers, the AFL was not in  itself a union, but a federation of like-minded unions all of which shared the same  approach. Only skilled workers--the so-called "aristocracy of labor"--were welcome  in AFL unions. At that time, these unions were not interested in immigrants, women, or  blacks, all of whom were seen as lacking the bargaining power of skilled, native, white,  male workers. Unlike the Knights and the ARU, each member union represented one craft.  This is characteristic of "trade unionism." The AFL did not contest industrialization or  capitalism; it accepted both, on the condition that workers were well-compensated.  Sometimes also called "business unionism" or "bread and butter unionism," the AFL  used collective bargaining and strikes to advance its simple slogan--"More!"--coined by  Gompers when asked to define what goal his organization stood for.

Why not just choose one form of unionism? The answer is that only in hindsight does history become somewhat clear. While living in the midst of a particular era, with its stresses and strains, it isn't obvious which way is the best. As workers struggled to find ways to survive the new realities of industrialization, they chose various individual and collective strategies. Much of what we call history is just this: people facing problems and trying, as best they can, to solve them. As in your own life, the strategies and solutions chosen are not always entirely effective. Unfortunately, for those alive at the time, there were no maps available to help navigate what the poet Walt Whitman called "the dark, unfathom'd retrospect" of the past.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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