The Consequences of the Industrial Revolution in America


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The triumphant success of industrial growth in America rapidly bred imitation. In 1823, a mill complex designed to copy the Lowell mills was built at Chesapeake, Massachusetts, followed by dozens of smaller copies of the Waltham system in Pennsylvania. Let us see whether these developments had positive or negative consequences in the republic.

A painting of a factory on a river in Pennsylvania in 1857.
A major impact of the Industrial Revolution was seen in the mushrooming of industries in America. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Where industrial entrepreneurs did not imitate, they adapted. Building cotton mills required machinery; machinery required machine shops. The explosion in cotton manufacturing sponsored, as a kind of industrial byproduct, a similar explosion in the manufacture of machine tools and parts.

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Whitney’s Inventions in the American Manufacturing Industry

Eli Whitney, who had revolutionized one world with the invention of the cotton gin, revolutionized another by manufacturing government-issue muskets with identical and interchangeable parts.

These parts were put together by workers who specialized only in the making of one part in the process. By assigning to each worker one and only one part in the process of manufacturing, Whitney could ensure absolute uniformity in the shape and size of that part.

That meant, in turn, that repairing or assembling something like a weapon required nothing more than a replacement part or any random assemblage of musket parts.

Whitney actually owed a large part of this idea to two other government weapons manufacturers, but it was Whitney who publicized the speed and efficiency of the “interchangeable parts” principle. Thus, he opened the way for transferring that concept to the mass manufacture of clocks, tools, and, in 1846, the first sewing machine.

Coal Industry and Agriculture in America

Alfred Jenks opened the first steam-powered factory for manufacturing cotton textile machinery. His factory had a miniature steam railroad for moving iron around the four-acre plant and steam machinery for cutting and shaping material.

An illustration of the twine binder version of the McCormick reaper.
McCormick’s reaping machine changed the face of agriculture in America. (Image: McCormick Harvester Company advertisement/Public domain)

Powering steam machinery, in turn, required fuel, and with that yet another American industry was born: the coal industry.

Even agriculture began to absorb the products of the new industrial factories. It began with Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the mechanical reaping machine. It was mass produced on the Whitney principle at McCormick’s plant in Chicago in 1848.

Social Consequences of the Industrial Growth in America

The problem hidden behind all of this industrial growth was that it could not go on forever, or at least not without serious social consequences. The more imitators the cotton mills had, the more competition between all of them.

The more competition between all of them, the more likely that prices would fall, as one mill sought to undercut another and keep market share, or be cut in order to keep up sales. As they did so the old artisans, shops, and small manufacturers would find themselves undercut, and finally, bankrupted and bitter.

As they were put out of the business by the big and bigger mills, those artisans and small-time manufacturers would be only too willing to take out their bitterness on the legislators. These legislators had chartered the mill corporations in the first place.

The illustration shows workers leaving the Lawrence, Massachusetts, factory at the end of their day.
Mill operatives became vulnerable to the consequences of increasing competition amongst the industrial entrepreneurs. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Just as vulnerable, however, were the mill operatives, since the only place where mill owners could cut prices and still find the money to keep their profit margins up was in the pay envelopes of the workers. That could be done either by increasing the workers’ hours or by actually cutting wages.

The Rise of Trade Unions in America

To protect themselves, fearful and disgruntled industrial workers began to organize themselves for protest—and, if necessary, for retaliation—through work stoppages and strikes. Philadelphia mechanics formed a citywide trade union in 1825: The Mechanics Union of Trade Associations.

In 1834, they expanded that to create the General Trades Union of the City and County of Philadelphia. In 1831, the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen was organized in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1833, nine New York City Workingmen’s Associations assembled to form the General Trades Union of New York.

Finally, in 1834 an attempt at national union organization was made in New York City, with the creation of the National Trades Union. Between 1833 and 1836, 172 strikes were organized in the Northeastern states.

Trade Unions and the Law

Union organization in the 1820s and the 1830s was, by all reckonings, a comparatively primitive affair, however. State courts in the 1830s did not hesitate to convict union organizers and strikers on the grounds that union organization was an illegal interference in the rights of free trade.

Other mill owners didn’t even bother to resort to courts to get their way. They used the threat of mass firings or the use of immigrant labor as replacements to whip workers into line. When the Lowell mills proposed a 15 percent wage cut as a cost saving measure, in February of 1844, nearly 2,000 of the mill women walked off the job. In a few days, the strikers had crept back to work, and the leaders of the strike were fired.

Industrial Workers Join Politics

The era of industrial paternalism was very definitely over. The one avenue of protest that remained open afterward, was politics. In 1829, 5,000 New York workers met to nominate a slate of candidates for a workingman’s party.

To the horror of established New Yorkers—mill owners, investors, and bankers—the Workingman’s Party actually elected one of their candidates to the state senate and pulled in a third of the total vote in New York City.

In September of 1830, a committee of workingmen of Northampton called on factory workers in western Massachusetts to seize a place for themselves in the administration of government. The committee asked the workers to seize it “from the money holders, money lenders, penny shavers, men selfish in the extreme,” in their transactions with those around them.

In Boston, workingmen actually forced the adoption of a new city charter. They threatened to step in “with our leathern aprons on and choose a man of our own sentiments for the city’s government and the city’s mayor.”

They almost did that, in fact, in 1830, when the Massachusetts Workingman’s Party ran Samuel Clesson Allen, a radical Congregationalist parson, for governor. The party declared that “All wealth is the product of labor and belongs of right to him who produces it, and,” added Parson Allen, “thanks to our free institutions, the people can now do it without violence or wrong.”

So, the Industrial Revolution led to both prosperity and bitterness in the American republic.

Common Questions about the Industrial Revolution’s Influence in America

Q: Was trade unionism in America a consequence of the Industrial Revolution?

Yes, trade unionism in America was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution.

Q: How was agriculture affected by the Industrial Revolution in America?

With Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the mechanical reaping machine, the Industrial Revolution found its way in American agriculture.

Q: What led to the rise of the coal industry in America?

As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the entrepreneurs began to use steam machinery in their mills. The coal industry came up in America to provide power to the steam machinery.

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