- Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776–1848 by Lindsay Schakenbach Regele
Political economy, Economic history, History of capitalism, National security capitalism, Fiscal-military state
More than fifty years ago William Appleman Williams and the Wisconsin School highlighted the importance of political economy for American diplomacy. Increasing industrial output, coupled with the boom and bust of the business cycle, led the political class to embrace an “open door policy” in U.S. foreign relations. The “open door” then led to a number of ill-thought-out ventures in order to secure foreign markets for American manufactured goods, culminating in the Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam. This became, in Williams’s estimation, the “tragedy of American diplomacy.”1 Lindsay Schakenbach Regele’s Manufacturing Advantage takes this familiar story of late-nineteenth-century political economy and foreign relations and places it squarely within an early republican context. According to Schakenbach Regele, after the Revolution politicians, military officers, and businessmen all sought to make the United States a manufacturer of small arms and textiles. They succeeded, [End Page 744] and in the first decades of the nineteenth century U.S. officials pursued a vigorous campaign to open up Latin American markets for these American-manufactured goods. Thus, what the Wisconsin School characterized as a phenomenon of the late nineteenth century becomes one of the founding. If there is a tragedy to American diplomacy, it is one that has always been there. Schakenbach Regele’s overarching argument is provocative and well-argued, and her historiographical intervention in the fields of U.S. foreign relations and the new history of capitalism are significant. Her book deserves to be read and engaged with not only by specialists focusing on the early republic but by the larger field of American historians.
The stakes for national industrial development were apparent from the beginning of the United States: how to arm and clothe the ragged Continental Army. The answer of the founding generation was “National security capitalism” (164). In essence, this meant putting the fiscal–military state, as explained by Max Edling, into practice.2 Once the federal government received the power to tax, it began a longstanding program of supporting two industries central to collective security: small arms and textiles. These goods were essential for waging war, and the federal government sought their promotion through contracts to domestic manufacturers and a trade policy that aided their export. The economic opportunities opened up by the British crisis (1807–1815) spurred on the development of significant manufacturing in these sectors. Following the peace, the federal government used diplomacy to open up markets in Latin America for these firms to export. The emergence of the American System of Manufacturers likewise helped to spur on an “Industrial Manifest Destiny” as the federal government acquired territory at the point of the bayonet. By the 1850s, the United States was recognized as a world leader in the production of small arms and textiles. This was no mere historical accident, but rather the culmination of two generations of politicians, military officers, and businessmen who aligned their interests in the promotion of American state power.
I do have three minor critiques of Manufacturing Advantage. The first is that there are a few times when the terminology obscures more than it reveals. For example, the decision to uncritically refer to this period as a “military-industrial complex” (3) seems out of place. One commonality [End Page 745] of all polities across time and space is collective defense, and the early American republic was no exception. As William H. McNeill pointed out in 1982, the industrialization of war is as old as civilization itself, but only in a “limited sense.”3 While arms and textile manufacturers in the early republic clearly had real political power through their ability to garner state support, there is a world of difference between that and the specific political and economic contexts of...