- Historic Sites
We Reap What He Reaped
Cyrus McCormick and the problem with agriculture
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
It didn’t at first. Indeed, Cyrus McCormick did not sell a single reaper for 10 years, although he continued to improve it. Finally the machine began to sell, albeit slowly, and in 1842 he sold seven of them. Events then began to move in McCormick’s direction at an accelerating pace. The depression that had struck the American economy in early 1837 finally began to lift in 1843, and in 1845 the British harvest failed. The next year Britain finally repealed its “corn laws,” which had excluded cheap foreign grain from its market. The international demand for American wheat began to grow quickly.
By now McCormick had visited the Middle West and seen firsthand the natural homeland for his reaper, the endless, gently rolling plains, with topsoil that was yards deep. John Deere’s steel plow had made it possible to farm the heavy soil of the Middle West; McCormick’s reaper made it possible to exploit far more of this verdant territory than would otherwise have been possible with the available labor supply. For while one man could reap one acre a day by hand, with the reaper he could deal with up to eight acres.
The invention was essential to turning this third-world country into the world’s largest economy.
McCormick settled in Chicago in 1847 and began building a factory to produce reapers. Chicago, founded only in the 183Os, was still a small town of no great economic importance. But McCormick had chosen wisely, for the following year the Illinois and Michigan Canal joined Chicago, with its ready access to the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, to the agricultural riches of down-state Illinois. A few years later a widening net of railroads connected Chicago with both Eastern markets and Western farmland, and the city began to grow with explosive speed.
In 1848 McCormick lost his bid to get a patent extension on his reaper, but by continuing to innovate he was able to maintain a decisive competitive edge over others who began manufacturing reapers. He introduced an early form of mass production and invested heavily in machinery and in research so as to be the low-cost producer. And he paid good wages to get and keep the best workers. (He was also, for his time, remarkably open to the formation of unions among his employees.)
Realizing that farmers are perpetually short of cash, he found a new way to make it easy for them to buy his reaper: He offered deferred payments. The reapers began to sell in much larger numbers, about a thousand a year over the five years after he opened the factory in 1848.
Sales of McCormick’s reaper soared in the prosperous 185Os, and wheat production soared with it. While production in the Northeast remained at about 30 million bushels in the 185Os, in the North Central states it went from 43 million to 95 million bushels in that decade alone. When the Civil War placed unprecedented demands on the American labor supply, sales rose yet again, and McCormick sold reapers by the tens of thousands, allowing farm output to continue to grow even while hundreds of thousands of young men left the farms to fight for the Union. (McCormick, however, though not disloyal, was a defender of slavery and a political opponent of Abraham Lincoln until the end of the war.)
By this point Cyrus McCormick was a very rich man. In the 1860 census he reported that he owned some $278,000 in personal property and $1,750,000 in real estate. By the time he died, in 1884, he possessed one of the great American fortunes. And the company he founded, which became International Harvester, has had a profound effect on both the American landscape and the American economy. Many of those farm boys who went off to fight in the Civil War returned not to the farm but to the new industries, such as the manufacture of farm machinery.
The revolution in American agriculture begun by Cyrus McCormick, however, was possible only because there was a reliable export market for the agricultural surplus his reaper helped generate. That market was essential to turning a Third World country called the United States into the world’s leading economy. That market is equally essential to helping today’s Third World move up the economic ladder. The United States and the other industrialized countries can assure that market by repealing the present-day corn laws that impede it.