- Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry
Lawrence A. Peskin's Manufacturing Revolution makes two important contributions to our understanding of early American industrialization. First, Peskin demonstrates that mercantilist ideas about economics persisted and continued to influence public policy well into the nineteenth century. Second, he makes the bold claim that the rhetoric of manufacturing preceded and paved the way for the subsequent Industrial Revolution. In essence, Americans underwent a manufacturing revolution in their minds well before things changed on the ground.
It is a commonplace assumption that mercantilism—the theory that a state's health depends on balancing its exports and imports in order to keep wealth within its borders—faded away during the nineteenth century under the influence of Adam Smith and his laissez-faire heirs. Not so, argues Peskin, who stresses instead the continuity of economic thought between the colonial and the early national eras. Under the British Empire, American colonists were expected to provide commodities to the mother country in return for manufactured goods. The colonies ensured that Britain could import raw commodities from within its domain. The goal was to make Britain both economically more vibrant and less dependent on other nations for its welfare. Following the American Revolution, many Americans staked out similar goals, now, of course, outside of the British Empire. While many historians have noted the emergence of free trade republicanism, Peskin reminds us that free traders were balanced out by those who continued to believe that nations must be both politically and economically independent. The patriotic drive for economic independence was one of the major components of promanufacturing rhetoric in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Advocates of American manufacturing stressed protectionist policies, namely high tariffs and public bounties to encourage American producers. The earliest advocates were artisanal mechanics who manufactured goods in traditional ways. They formed voluntary associations in order to pressure political leaders. Their "popular neomercantilism" stressed the public benefits and patriotic virtue of American economic independence (75–77). A nation is only as strong as its output, they argued. [End Page 488] They also suggested that the American economy would benefit from the harmony of interests created between interdependent agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing sectors in a new domestic economy. The mechanics' rhetoric was picked up in the 1790s by merchants turned manufacturers who formed voluntary manufacturing societies that produced few goods but much rhetoric, "their true legacy" (98).
The success of these early promanufacturing movements lay not in the goods they produced but the ideological changes they spawned. Peskin argues that we can better understand the origins of the Industrial Revolution by examining language and not production. Examining Americans' changing understanding of the words "mechanic," "manufacturer," and "manufacturing" from the 1790s onward, Peskin traces a transformation in public assumptions about what it meant to manufacture. In the 1790s, manufacturers were independent artisans. By the early 1800s, however, the word was linked to large-scale factories. Thus, Peskin argues, the public mind had reconceptualized the sites and scale of manufacturing before factories proliferated. Why did they do so? In the 1810s and 1820s, manufacturers formed associations that echoed earlier artisans on the importance of protection as a means to make America economically independent and to foster a harmonious domestic market. These men, unlike the mechanics of an earlier era, invested in large-scale factory production. The radicalism of the shift from small-scale to large-scale production was, however, masked by several factors. Most important was the familiarity and patriotic sound of promanufacturing rhetoric. In addition, many factories opened in rural areas, where mechanics and artisans exerted less influence. Finally, in an age of progress, small producers were seen as anachronistic. The result was the displacement of small producers by large manufacturers in the public mind well before small producers had been displaced by the familiar changes linked with industrialization.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Peskin's story is his discussion of how voluntary manufacturing associations became private manufacturing corporations. In...