The Northern Nation - The Two Nations
industry conditions north factories power worker agriculture massachusetts southern factory
Changes in Northern Agriculture. By 1860, the output of American factories, mills, shops, and mines exceeded in value that of agriculture. Almost eighty per cent of all such industry was concentrated in the North. An extraordinary growth of wheat and corn production had occurred on the Midwestern prairies. As the locus of breadstuff agriculture shifted westward, the farm implement industry swiftly developed, as the persistent labor shortage on Northern farms compelled the farmer to rely on machinery. Improved plows became commonplace; mechanical reapers replaced scythes; mowing machines cut the work of mowing hay by a third; and threshers, grain drills, rotary broadcast seeders, corn planters, cultivators, and corn shellers were all found on Western farms. Crop diversification increasingly characterized Northern agriculture. In the East, the swift growth of cities brought an increasing shift from grain culture to garden crop agriculture, orchards, and dairy farming.
Some Southerners expressed alarm at the growth of truck farming in Delaware and around Norfolk, Virginia, fearing that economic ties would soon disorient their allegiance to the South. Large-scale meatpacking enterprises grew up in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Jersey City, and Philadelphia. Swift freight trains carried perishable fruits, berries, and vegetables to urban markets in season, and a growing number of Northern farmers looked to the cities and towns for their profits. Without quite realizing it, the Northern farmer came to think of himself as a businessman rather than as a self-sustained agrarian.
Mercantile Capitalism. At the outset of the nineteenth century, most American businessmen were committed to commerce. The agricultural economy was dependent upon foreign consumers and the importation of manufactured goods. It was not unusual for the merchants to encompass every phase of commerce, building their own ships, serving as banker, insurance agent, commission agent or factor, and operating rope factories, distilleries, flour mills, or hardware shops. Only after 1815 did specialization of functions characterize commerce. The development of common carriers resulted in exporters using such ships rather than their own vessels. Numerous transient vessels prowled the seas seeking a cargo and following no particular route. In addition, there were numerous trading vessels that followed fixed routes and operated on regular schedules. A vast fleet of sloops transported huge quantities of goods in the coastwise trade. By the 1850s, magnificent clippers, often weighing over 1,500 tons, and achieving speeds unequaled by subsequent sailing ships of their size, carried the American flag over the globe. Large fortunes were accumulated by such traders as John Jacob Astor, Alexander Brown, and Stephen Girard - fortunes that found their way into urban real estate, banking, and manufacturing.
The Expansion of Industry. The growth of industry at this time was spectacular. Both woolen and cotton industries reached maturity in the decade before the Civil War. The introduction of the power loom at Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1814, by Francis Cabot Lowell, permitted the combination of spinning and carding in a single plant. Improvements in both looms and carding machines had added to the efficiency of the industry. By the 1850s Northern factories were consuming a quarter of all the raw cotton raised in the country. Similar advances occurred in the metal industry. The use of anthracite coal had improved the processing of iron ore in the 1830s; in the early 1850s, charcoal smelting was introduced to process pig iron. In 1851, William Kelly, a Kentucky iron-master, independently discovered the Bessemer process for decarbonizing molten iron by forcing oxygen through it. As production exceeded 800,000 tons in 1860, machines processed finished iron into nails, bolts, files, screws, firearms, locomotives, and a wide range of other metal products.
An efficient machine tool industry had been established in the first decade of the nineteenth century under the guidance of Eli Whitney and Simeon North. Mass production through the use of interchangeable parts characterized such industries as watchmaking and firearms. The expansion of industry brought a rapid advance in the use of power resources. Water power had been almost fully exploited in New England by 1830. Elsewhere, steam power was generated to operate industries as varied as glass blowing and textile printing. Coal mining had been an insignificant activity in 1820; in 1860, well over 14,000,000 tons were produced.
The Rise in Patents. The traditional ingenuity of the Yankee expressed itself in a growing number of patented inventions. Between 1850 and 1860 alone, the average number of patents increased from 993 to 4,778 annually. Even as the war approached, Elias Howe's sewing machine, patented in 1846, promised to revolutionize clothes-making. Between 1840 and 1860 the value of manufactures quadrupled, reaching almost $2,000,000,000. Since the work force had not quite doubled within the same period, increasing from 791,000 to 1,311,000, the increase in manufactures indicated that worker productivity had more than doubled - largely as a result of the new inventions.
Northern and Southern Industry Compared. The disparity between North and South was sharply illustrated by the textile industry. Total Southern production barely exceeded $8,000,000, while that of New England exceeded $80,000,000. The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, alone produced more than the entire South. Although woolen textile production had almost tripled between 1840 and 1860 in the North, the wool industry was almost nonexistent in the South. Though Dixie might complain that the nation drew its wealth from Southern cotton, the North dismissed this as a pretense which ignored the obviously flourishing condition of Northern agriculture and industry. James Russell Lowell concluded that the origin of Southern complaints about the Union derived from jealousy of Northern prosperity: The fault of the Free States in the eyes of the South is not one that can be atoned for by any yielding of special points here and there. . . . Their crime is the census of 1860. Their increase in numbers, wealth and power is standing aggression. It would not be enough to please the Southern States that we should stop asking them to abolish slavery, - what they demand of us is nothing less than that we should abolish the spirit of the age.
The New Society. The spirit of the age might well have been described as an enthusiastic pursuit of profit and a consequent amassing of wealth. In the North a wealthy industrial class had been created. The omnipresent factory had become the symbol of the North in much the same way that the plantation symbolized the Southern way of life. As the size of factories grew, legal innovation permitted the exploitation of joint-stock companies to disperse risk, and ownership was usually concentrated in the hands of a few well-to-do entrepreneurs. Until the 1850s, the labor force was drawn chiefly from native-born Americans. A good many were young farm boys and girls who took factory employment to supplement their families' inadequate incomes. An unusually large proportion of the workers was made up of women and children. In 1832, for example, the woolen factories of Massachusetts had a work force of which 58 per cent were women and children, while the cotton industry of Lowell, in 1836, employed more than 5,000 young women in a total work force of 6,000.
Factory Conditions. Hand-in-hand with the commercial success of the factories, however, went the deplorable conditions under which the factory employee labored. The average employee worked for twelve to fifteen hours a day to earn between one and six dollars a week. Factories were adversely compared by observers with prisons. Little provision was made for hygienic or sanitary conditions, and meals were as often as not eaten on the job. Efforts to improve his working conditions by organizing a union made the worker liable, under English common law, for prosecution on charges of conspiracy. The instability of the economy subjected the worker to sporadic employment. Only the existence of a farm homestead to which he could return protected him from the worst effects of recession or depression.
Nevertheless, life on the farm was often possible only with income earned in the factory, and employers interested in an ample supply of labor often resorted to the construction of large tenements in which to house their employees. It was not unusual for an employer to supervise the moral conduct of his workers and to provide Sunday school for his child employees. In Northern New England under the Waltham System, large numbers of young women were recruited to work in remote textile factories, and they were housed in adjacent boardinghouses. Strict supervision of the activities of these women, coupled with compulsory church service, was the hallmark of the system. Though the physical conditions of the dormitories were primitive by modern standards, they approximated standards experienced in the poorer sections of many towns and in virtually all farmhouses. The most striking aspect of the Waltham System was the efforts of its employees to achieve self-improvement. Though they worked a seventy-hour week, they made time to attend lectures, organize literary magazines, and to study foreign languages. And in several instances - the most spectacular being at Lowell, Massachusetts, in February 1834 - they staged protest strikes against their living conditions; these strikes, though unsuccessful, attracted attention to the girls' long hours, and to their low wages of two cents an hour.
Laissez-Faire. Despite the extensive agitation for other types of reform during the ante-bellum period, little attention was directed toward improving working conditions. Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up the prevailing laissez-faire attitude of reformer sentiment on this subject when he announced that he resented having to give a dime to alleviate worker distress. One small reform measure was instituted in Massachusetts and Rhode Island when these states passed laws requiring the attendance of children under fifteen at school for at least three months of the year. And in 1848 Pennsylvania forbade the employment of children under the age of twelve. Usually, however, the dominant laissez-faire ideals of the American democracy determined the conditions of a workingman's life.
Worker Organization. The sporadic efforts made to improve working conditions before 1860 are most significant as a consequence of their failure. In Philadelphia, the failure of carpenter journeymen in 1828 to obtain a ten-hour day led to the organization of a workingman's party which seems to have played a role in mobilizing workingmen to vote for Andrew Jackson. The inflationary rise in the cost of living before 1837 spurred the efforts at organization. Most notable was the formation at New York, in 1834, by delegates from six manufacturing centers, of the National Trades' Union. It called at that time for public education, homestead legislation, restrictions on child labor, and minimum hours of employment. Strikes for higher wages and the ten-hour day were not uncommon, but the instability of the economy severely reduced labor's bargaining power. One major advance came in 1842, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt upheld the right of the worker peacefully to organize and to agitate for improvement of his conditions.
A good part of the agitation for improvement in working conditions, especially the campaign for improved educational facilities, originated with the middle class, who believed that a group of educated men was less apt to disturb the status quo than an ignorant mass. In addition, there was a strong demand for the lessening of the harsh laws governing indebtedness. It was estimated in 1829 that no less than 75,000 people were jailed annually for nonpayment of debt. Such agitation helped to alleviate the worst abuses, but usually worker organizations needed help to achieve their ends. Independent workingmen's parties were absorbed into the Jacksonian Democrats by 1832, where they provided a radical leavening. In New York they became the Loco Foco faction that often fought the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, and managed in 1834 to force Tammany to nominate a trades' union leader, Ely Moore, as Congressman. The Loco Foco emphasis upon the right of every man to pursue his self-interest unimpeded so long as he did not infringe on the "natural rights" of other men reveals an important aspect of trades' union organization that prevailed before the Civil War. The unions were often organizations of small independent producers (as opposed to factory workers) who were fearful that a state with strong regulatory powers would obstruct achievement of an equalitarian state in which all were accorded equal status and treatment.
The Ascendancy of the North. By mid-century the North had achieved the stature of an industrial power second only to Great Britain. Even the most simple of observers could deduce that the industrial might of the North would continue to grow by leaps and bounds. In one area - the growth and organization of railroads - the signs conclusively indicated that further massive changes impended.