Ideologies of Industrialization in the Early American Republic

AHA Session 73
Business History Conference 1
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia 6 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Merritt Roe Smith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Virtuous Capital: Mechanization and Economic Independence in the Early Republic
Katheryn P. Viens, Massachusetts Historical Society and Boston University
Merritt Roe Smith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

The new history of capitalism intersects with the history of technology when we consider the role of industrialization in the early republic. This panel illuminates ways in which Americans mobilized ideologies of industrialization not captured by the opposition between a Jeffersonian nation of yeomen farmers and a Hamiltonian vision of progress through manufacturing, an artificial divide so often used as convenient shorthand for political debates in the early republic. Between 1790 and 1850, Congress, government departments, and dense rural networks promoted invention and industry to advance their respective goals. National leaders employed ideologies of industrialization in support of economic growth as well as territorial expansion and the development of a national identity. Rural residents deployed new technologies and small-scale manufacturing to secure their households’ economic independence. Meanwhile, industry served as a tool of foreign policy, promoting the geographic advance of American civilization. Patents not only promoted industrialization but served as markers of inventiveness, demonstrating readiness for democratic citizenship. A close examination of widespread small-scale manufacturing throughout Massachusetts in the 1820s allows us to understand the response of rural men to the emergence of large-scale capital, merchant networks, and female support for piecework and wages within their own households. In this context, “virtuous capital” was a potential means of maintaining economic independence. It removed work from domestic settings into a public space where it reinforced the traditional role of men in setting the pace of work and controlling profits without the need to hire or engage in significant wage labor. Men obtained public stature by controlling the means of production and introducing new technology to their communities. The material produced in these small rural factories served higher purposes as well. Despite rhetoric that denounced militarization and industrialization as contradictory to the nation’s founding principles, the U.S. War Department depended on the weapons and clothing that industry produced to secure the “manifest destiny” of American civilization. Keeping the army well supplied was essential to winning wars on the southern and western frontiers, consolidating land claims, expanding the nation’s political boundaries, and creating business opportunities. The demands that the government made on manufacturing and its efforts to promote the enterprise would secure American sovereignty and independence and receive favorable notice from abroad. Congress further used the U.S. patent system to unify and strengthen the nation by marshaling the inventiveness of its people even as mounting numbers of patents proved that Americans were qualified to meet the participatory demands of the new democratic republic. Patents could serve as the basis for nation building, personal economic independence, and political participation. This ideology was so pervasive by the 1830s that imitative democracies, such as the Republic of Texas and the Confederacy, devoted scarce resources to copying the U.S. system. In all of these settings, industrialization represented much more than the capitalist expansion of markets and wage labor. By their actions and their rhetoric, Americans promoted ideologies of industrialization in supporting, rather than opposing, republican virtue, fostering emerging ideas about the exceptional nature of the American nation.
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