In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution
  • Lawrence A. Peskin
John Bezís-Selfa. Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. xi + 279 pp. ISBN 0-8014-3993-0, $39.95 (cloth).

This history of the colonial and early national American iron industry exemplifies a new economic history that is more concerned with workers than entrepreneurs, more interested in ordinary human interactions than broad social forces, and always mindful of race, class, and gender.

The book is divided into two parts covering, respectively, the colonial and early national periods. An introductory chapter offers a short but useful overview of the iron industry, including a nuts-and-bolts description of the work performed at a furnace. Because the basic technology of iron making changed little over the period covered by this book, classical notions of industrial revolution that emphasize technological change are not appropriate. Instead, John Bezís-Selfa relies on Jan de Vries's "industrious revolution" model, with its emphasis on changing cultural imperatives, particularly the heightened desire to work hard in order to acquire new consumer goods. Yet, as Bezís-Selfa notes, the use of slave labor complicates the notion of an industrious revolution by "sever[ing] the link between industry and independence" (p. 39), in effect creating a forced work ethic imposed from outside rather than an internalized work ethic arising from the desire for material goods or, as Max Weber would have it, from the quest for salvation.

As described by Bezís-Selfa, the colonial iron industry reflected and reinforced the tendency of America's founders (in both senses of the word) to employ coercion. He makes good use of legal records to describe how New England's Puritans attempted to use the courts to [End Page 527] mold raucous iron adventurers and workers into godly New Englanders with varying degrees of success. In the Chesapeake Bay region, coercion was far more brutal; by the eighteenth century, slavery dominated the iron industry there, due to the prohibitive expense of hiring free wageworkers or indentured servants. For slave laborers, iron work provided some advantages, including elevated status, more freedom of movement, and more ability to negotiate for favors. Most important, Bezís-Selfa identifies the widespread use of overwork, "a modified task system in which slaves earned cash or credit for any work that they did which exceeded the quota for their job, usually at the same rates as free workers" (p. 92). Further north, slaves were certainly a minority of ironworkers in the middle colonies. Bezís-Selfa argues, however, that they were disproportionately important in providing employers with an alternative to unruly or demanding free laborers. The existence of this alternative, unfree labor source forced white workers to accept a combination of laws and fines aimed at regulating workers' consumption of alcohol and encouraging industriousness and time discipline.

After the American Revolution and the gradual abolition acts of the postwar years, slavery became a less viable option in the mid-Atlantic states. Black and white servants briefly supplanted slaves, but eventually free labor replaced forced labor. Ironmasters found new ways to motivate workers, most notably evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on industriousness and sobriety. Additionally, free laborers proved beneficial to protectionist entrepreneurs, who valued the votes they provided for pro-tariff politicians and who were able to argue that protective legislation benefited workers as well as capitalists. In the Chesapeake, paternalism now tempered slavery at the furnaces. Bezís-Selfa argues that industrial slavery "probably helped stymie the South's industrial revolution" because slaves were resistant to innovations and reluctant to share information with their masters; nor were paternalistic masters interested in allowing slaves to interact with free ironworkers, who might provide them with more up-to-date technical knowledge (p. 167).

Forging America succeeds best at recreating the daily lives of ironworkers, reflecting the author's prodigious research and enormous creativity. The sources are, for the most part, dry account books and time sheets—little more than lists of names and numbers. It is hard to imagine that anyone could use such sources to tell us much more about the day-to...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 527-529
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.