Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1790–1840
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Manufacturing Advantage:
War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1790–1840

Manufacturing Advantage is a study of industrialization in its geopolitical context. It argues that national security concerns shaped the course of industrial development in America.1 Consular and congressional papers, federal armory records, and manufacturers’ business letters and account books connect the large themes of political economy—war, trade, state power—with local sites of technological innovation and entrepreneurship.2

Arms and textiles are the focus. Although their stories are not usually told together in a single narrative, guns and cloth emerge as products of national defense. Following the Revolutionary War, [End Page 721] the new nation faced tax rebellions, Indian warfare, and European hostilities with a depleted arsenal of imported firearms and uniforms. Without a readier supply of guns, the new nation could not defend itself; without textiles, it was at the economic mercy of the British Empire. In an era when armies literally froze in the field, ideological concerns about dependence had very real ramifications. Americans knew how to grow and slaughter their own sustenance, but substantial manufacturing posed more of a challenge. It was a challenge, however, worth overcoming. Even in times of peace, guns offered the promise of physical safety; textiles, meanwhile, provided a subtler form of security as visible and tactile manifestations of the independence of a properly clothed and productive populace.

Americans’ efforts to overcome this challenge allow us to see the messy distinction between government intervention and private initiative in a new nation struggling to create a political economy that balanced military competence with commercial needs. As Manufacturing Advantage explores the process by which government officials and individual manufacturers made the arms and textile industries guarantors of military and economic security, it connects older studies of industrialization, which have tended to focus on the social implications wrought by economic transformations for the worker, entrepreneur, firm, and community, with more recent work that argues for the centrality of foreign relations, the military, and the federal government for economic development.3 In many ways, this [End Page 722] intersectional approach to economic development is in line with the new “history of capitalism”4 that brings together business, labor, and social and cultural histories to denaturalize capitalism. Manufacturing Advantage contributes to this project by showing how “the economy” is the result of individual decision making at the international, national, and local levels rather than as a set of abstract market forces. While recent historians have been less concerned with defining or locating the origins of capitalism and more focused on showing how a capitalist cultural logic operates in different times and places, it seeks to uncover precisely how and when industrial capitalism emerged in the United States.5

Industrial capitalism had its beginnings in the context of national security in the first decades of the nineteenth century, as government agents and private producers brokered solutions to the problems of power disparities and war. These solutions included a mix of “free” trade policies to appease mercantile interests and foreign trade partners, protectionist tariffs to enable the United States to withstand military and economic conflicts, and federal subsidies to certain industries. The federal government depended on private capital, ingenuity, and risk-taking to create economic development and national security. Entrepreneurs likewise needed federal resources, trade regulation, and diplomacy to generate profit. National security was as much about economic prosperity as it was about diplomacy and battle-line needs, and we should not discount the amount of time members of Congress spent debating tariffs, slavery, and regional development. Neither can we ignore larger geopolitical forces. When we look beyond Congress, we see the War and State Departments as central players in the development of domestic industry. With the executive branch at the helm, the federal government directed public resources to manufacturers and conducted diplomacy that privileged American industrial goods. Industrial development, in turn, bolstered state power.

Manufacturing Advantage moves from the first Congress up through the 1840s, a span of time that allows us to see the United States transition from an aspirational new republic, whose leaders crafted economic policy in the context of waning European mercantilism, to an ascendant nation-state...


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