Putting It Together: Industrial Transformation

How is it all connected?

A woman works at a powerloom while a man oversees the work.

Figure 1. A Roberts loom in a weaving shed in 1835. Textiles were the leading industry of the Industrial Revolution, and mechanized factories, powered by a central water wheel or steam engine, were the new workplace.

During the early nineteenth century, Southern agricultural products grown and harvested by slaves fueled the Northern production of manufactured goods by wage workers and managed by the new middle class. Revolutionary transportation methods, automated machinery designs pilfered from Britain, and the emerging organized labor movement integrated previously isolated pockets of the colonial economy into a national industrial operation.

Industrialization and the cash economy tied diverse regions together at the same time that moral and philosophical ideologies were driving Americans apart. By celebrating the freedom of choice that distinguished the wage worker from the indentured servant or the slave, political leaders claimed the American Revolution’s legacy for the North. However, some effects of the market revolution, such as industrial child labor, the workers’ need for unionization, the economic vulnerability of women, and the influx of non-WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) immigrants left many northern Americans questioning the meaning of liberty in this new industrial landscape.

The innovation and enterprise shown by Americans during the Industrial Revolution demonstrated the unique spirit of the young nation. The emerging idea of social mobility became a precursor to the 20th century ideal of the “American Dream,” allowing impoverished workers to dream that they too might reach the heights of luxury like the railroad tycoons and manufacturing barons of New England. The middle-class ideals developing in the 19th century, like hard work, sobriety, and frugality, lent themselves to concurrent social movements like temperance and the Second Great Awakening.

The Industrial Revolution set the stage for much of America’s modern economy, culture, and social policy. It allowed the United States to begin carving out a place on the world stage whilst also learning valuable lessons about the price of economic growth. The central conflict of the Industrial Revolution, free-market labor versus slavery, pushed the nation toward the Civil War and brought enslaved African-Americans closer to emancipation, while the urban tension between immigrants and WASPs caused many to leave the East Coast and press into the western territories. This westward expansion, facilitated by new transportation technologies, helped to create the landscape of the America we know today: “from sea to shining sea.”