The Young Republic 1787 To 1860

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by Merritt Roe Smith (1977; Cornell). This book, by an MIT colleague, offers an unconventional perspective on American industrialization and its human impact. Interchangeable parts were not invented by Eli Whitney, although somehow that myth goes on and on. The idea began, like so many “American” innovations, in Europe, in this case France, and was developed in the United States under government sponsorship at federal armories, particularly the armory at Harpers Ferry, now West Virginia (the site of John Brown’s famous raid). The reason was simple: The Army would benefit enormously if it could repair broken guns with parts from other broken guns.

The ingenious machinery created to make firearms with interchangeable parts had, Smith argues, wide applications in other forms of manufacturing—of bicycles and sewing machines, for example. The new ways of manufacturing also required a disciplined way of working resisted by workers accustomed to the more relaxed routines of craft production. A final comparison of Harpers Ferry with the contemporary federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, raises broad questions about the impact of culture on work habits and an openness toward change.

A book whose illustrations include the parts of a rifle and a milling machine won’t appeal to everyone. And, whatever historians of technology like Smith say, some will suspect that innovations in textile manufacturing were more important than those in gunmaking. There are terrific books on the country’s pioneering textile industry at Lowell, Massachusetts. Thomas Dublin’s Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 focuses on the country’s first generation of female factory operatives and the changing conditions that shaped their lives; Robert F. Dalzell’s Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made examines the story from management’s side.

All these are scholarly books first published by university presses. But they’re clearly written and important for anyone who wants to understand the beginnings of American industry.

Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge

by Charles B. Dew (1994; Norton). This gem of a book tells the story of an antebellum Virginia ironworks that used slave labor; its Pennsylvania-born owner; and the enslaved men who worked there. Because he discovered an extraordinary set of records, Dew was able to describe in detail the characters in his story and their interactions; indeed, an entire section focuses on individual slaves. Dew set out, as one critic wrote, to “ask large questions in small places” and he succeeded in providing answers to such basic questions as how anyone could consent to own slaves, how masters controlled their enslaved workers (force, it seems, was of limited use), and how those workers shaped their circumstances in a “never-ending struggle against the dehumanizing aspects of their bondage.”

Although Bond of Iron focuses on an atypical industrial setting, it shares themes with other modern studies of slavery. Back when college courses assigned Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South, slavery seemed a remarkably monolithic institution. Since then scholars have discovered how dramatically it changed with time and place, and also how the enslaved themselves shaped the functioning of the institution. For a book on American slavery that builds upon and summarizes a mass of contemporary scholarship, see Ira Berlin’s admirably readable Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852; many editions). Did President Abraham Lincoln actually say to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you’re the little lady who caused this big war”? Whether or not the story is true, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most important novel, and perhaps the most important book, in American history. First written for an antislavery newspaper in installments—later chapters—that unfold like a soap opera, the book grasps the reader’s attention and won’t let go despite the improbability of its final part.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prompted Stowe to write, but the book attacked the entire “sinful” institution of slavery. Stowe made her points through characters such as Eliza, Little Eva, the slave girl Topsy, and Uncle Tom, who quickly became stock characters in American culture. The novel also tells a lot about the mid-nineteenth-century world of which Stowe was a part, including its Protestant religiosity, its concepts of women, even, despite Stowe’s message, its racism. In short, if you haven’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, your knowledge of this country’s past is seriously incomplete. The deficiency is, however, easily and painlessly overcome; the book’s 500 or so pages are easy reading.