FRONTIERS OF CHANGE: Early Industrialism in America by Thomas C. Cochran

FRONTIERS OF CHANGE: Early Industrialism in America

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The rapid industrialization of the United States between the 1780s and the 1850s has always been a slippery subject--and it still is, despite these sensible but ultimately superficial comments by one of our most prolific economic historians (Business in American Life, 1972; 200 Years of American Business, 1977). Cochran is at his best in explaining--through a synthesis of the existing literature--that things did not happen the way we think they did. American industrialization, that is, did not depend on the infusion of superior knowledge and skills from Great Britain, did not first appear in the textile mills of New England, did not depend on the creation of new foreign markets, and did not even rest upon the prior development of mechanized factory production. Just the reverse was true: American industrialization was based on native artisanal expertise and the reorganization of agricultural and small craft production; its seedbed was the Philadelphia-New York region well before the War of 1812; its chief stimuli were immigration and an expanding internal market; and it at least kept pace with, and in some cases surpassed, the progress of industrialization in Great Britain. What this all points toward, Cochran says, is a ""cultural explanation for industrialization"" that shifts the emphasis from foreign trade and technology to an existing industrial culture--the product of local conditions, domestic institutions, and homegrown values (like Yankee ingenuity). Fair enough, though Cochran's passing references to British capital investment in American internal improvements and the role of the Bank of England in the depression of 1837 remind us that the rest of the world can't quite be written off. But on the bedrock question of when and how an industrial culture became established in the US, Cochran offers a nonexplanation: it had existed for generations, he maintains, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line, and was resisted only by obscure ""back country"" interests or the ""less ambitious."" Much recent scholarship, however, which Cochran ignores--preeminently, Alan Dawley's prize-winning Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (1976)--reveals that a distinct and going pre-industrial culture survived well into the 19th century despite the efforts of an emerging capitalist class to uproot it. Cochran's salient failing is that, having shown the importance of a congenial culture, he takes its existence and predominance as given. On the actualities of early American industrialization, he's sound and relatively readable; on the reasons why, he gets nowhere--turgidly.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press