Should the future of America focus on agriculture or manufacturing?
In the early days of the United States, great thought was given as to the kind of character and economy the country would need to succeed. At its most basic level, the contest of political economies was agrarianism versus manufacturing and commerce. Thomas Jefferson is most closely associated with the agrarian ideal, believing that nothing was more virtuous than working the land that was one’s own property. In contrast was the idea promoted by Alexander Hamilton, which centered on manufacturing and banking.
Jefferson believed that manufacturing concentrated factories and people in urban centers, which only bred corruption and immorality. For Jefferson, the squalor and degradation that accompanied industrialization in Britain was something to avoid in the United States. But Hamilton knew that the country would need more than virtuous citizens if it were to succeed as an independent nation.
Even Thomas Jefferson eventually changed his mind about agriculture being dominant in the American economy. In the late 1810s and early 1820s, discussions about the economy were becoming wrapped up in a larger, national narrative about states’ rights and slavery. After slavery was abolished in the northern states in 1804, the idea of an anti-slavery tariff protecting American raw materials had become essential to the development of free labor based manufactures. The opposite was true in the South, where slave labor endured and tariffs threatened to keep cotton out of lucrative British ports. The southern economy may have suffered because of the restrictions on its shipping caused by the anti-slavery tariff, but it prompted the national economy to grow by $230,000,000 as a result.
A good measure of the progress of the competing ideas about the future of the American economy is to look at how well prepared the North and South were for the Civil War. Agriculture and manufactures were thriving hand-in-hand in the North. The North surpassed the South in the production of numerous crops, livestock, textiles, railroads, and even that southern staple, tobacco. The North produced a disproportionate amount of firearms and railroad equipment compared to the South and most of the country’s banks were in the North. By 1860, the United States, more appropriately the Union states, ranked as the second manufacturing nation behind Great Britain.
The Civil War was especially good to the iron and steel industries. Older mills were given new life and new mills were constructed to supplement their output—with New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania leading the way among the northern states. Between 1859 and 1864, the production of pig iron rose from 841,000 tons annually to 1,136,000 tons—an increase of 32 percent. The entire iron industry benefited from the need for war material. In 1867, the Lake Champlain region had at least 80 Catalan iron forges in operation, according to a survey compiled for the American Iron and Steel Association.
Only with hindsight can we say with certainty that the United States was destined to embrace a commercial and manufacturing based economy, to become an industrial nation. Alexander Hamilton had said in 1792 that the production of iron was what would make all other commerce and industry possible, if men would be bold enough to invest. There was no argument among men who led the iron industry—the Hammonds, the Penfields, the Witherbees, the Shermans, Henry Burden, Erastus Corning, or John A. Griswold—that an industrial revolution would happen. Sinking so much money, time, and effort into what to some may have seemed like risky ventures was, to them, not about whether there would be a payoff, but instead when will it come and how much of a fortune will it yield. And it yielded great fortune indeed. Their investments were made not out of hope but out of certainty.
During most of the drive—now mostly open farmland, the train would have been running along your right side. Just before you approach the hamlet of Crown Point, you will cross over Putnam Creek. Boats would have come up here from the lake, when it was dredged.
There was a sense of romanticism when it came to industry/capitalism, as Alexander Hamilton writes: “The manufactures of this article [iron] are entitled to preeminent rank. None are more essential in their kinds, nor so extensive in their uses. They constitute in whole or in part the implements or the materials or both of almost every useful occupation. Their instrumentality is everywhere conspicuous. Manufactories of Iron… with due cultivation, will rapidly succeed. The United States already in a great measure supply themselves with Nails & Spikes. They are able, and ought certainly, to do it intently. There is no doubt that an ample supply for the whole country can with great ease be procured among ourselves.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, Report on the Subject of Manufactures (1792)