Canals And Railroads Essay, Research Paper
Canals, Trains, and Knick-Knacks
Initially, prominent American figures did not want the nation to be dependent on manufacturing. They feared the poverty they witnessed in European factory towns would be mimicked, and feared that it would erode American ideals. But as people realized that a stronger economy was needed to ensure the future of the nation, they began to advocate industrialization and feel that it was vital.a
Alexander Hamilton can be said to have been a proponent of facilitating industrialization. Heilbroner speculates that Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, sought to encourage manufacturing by solving the debt problems of the United States. He wanted to refinance all outstanding bonds with a money reserve built on fixed taxes, and have the federal government absorb all state debts. He also established a national bank. This, he felt, would be a secure place for tax generated revenues and would at the same time provide credit for people willing to take risks in the manufacturing industry. Despite his efforts, it was too easy for people to continue with their established economic tendencies, and few felt compelled to move away from agriculture. Not until the Embargo Act of 1807 would people really begin to change.1
The Embargo Act of 1807, encouraged Americans to find ways of producing needed materials at home. Heilbroner has asserted that the Embargo Act, which prohibited US ships from leaving port for foreign countries and called for the monitoring of coastal trade, ruined anyone and everyone involved in exporting. Simultaneously, importation became heavily retarded. This left many people jobless and idle, and the economy, he says, “ground to a halt.” The result? People began to turn to manufacturing to make the goods that were no longer available. Fifteen cotton mills that had been built by 1808 turned into eighty-seven within a year.2
For all intents and purposes, manufacturing in America was not practical. Heilbroner has noted several factors that were hindering the development of manufacturing in America. America’s expansive size created a couple of problems. There was no cost-effective way of transporting manufactured goods from their origin to the other far away regions of the country.
Also, with so much land available, a concentrated population of willing industrial laborers failed to exist. People were more apt to tame a piece of the available wilderness to farm for themselves than to toil in someone else’s mill. Of equal importance was the lack of a technological foundation – one that could produce complex machinery with a large variety of complicated parts. An effective means of transportation would be the first step in overcoming these problems. Railroads and canals would provide a solution. 3
The Erie canal ,which was completed in 1825, had a profound impact on the economy of the northern region. Heilbroner notes that, as a result of the canal, the cost of transporting freights to New York from the west was reduced by 90%. He states that the cost of shipping one ton of cargo from Buffalo to New York was 20 cents a mile in 1817. By the mid-1850s, after the completion of the Erie canal, the cost fell to less than one cent a ton-mile. This caused the volume of goods entering the economy to increase drastically. In 1836, about 58,000 tons moved along the Erie canal. By 1860, the number of tons increased to 1.8 million.4 The Erie canal significantly reduced the cost of moving goods and raw materials, and it had other effects on the economy as well.
The Erie canal encouraged the planning of other canal projects. Heilbroner claims that at least one hundred major canal projects were planned within a year of the completion of the Eerie canal. The cumulative cost of canal building in the 1820s and 30s was $125 million; a significant portion of that came from foreign investors. And Heilbroner has stated that more than a few canal projects were over extended financially. Despite being a disaster for the investors, these failed projects still had an enormous benefit for the economy as a whole. The canals allowed goods to be shipped from the interior to the coast, and then off to Europe or vice-versa. Also, the canals promoted westward expansion, as people could travel more comfortably and cheaply. By 1840, 40% of the national population had moved to the more fertile lands west of the Appalachians.5
The efficiency of transporting material via canal was supplemented by the invention of the steam-powered boat. Heilbroner has noted that in 1815, the Enterprise sailed up the Mississippi in one month from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. Before that, the trip had taken four months. By 1840, there were over 500 steamboats moving through western canals and rivers. Upstream rates had been reduced by 94% from 1815 to 1860. Downstream rates were down 75% from 1815. This encouraged more farmers to move to the mid-west, in an effort to increase their output of goods for the expanding market.6
Along with the canals and steamboats, railroads became an important component of transportation in the early 1800s, and their stimulation of the economy extended beyond the immediate benefits of efficient transportation. According to Heilbroner, $200 million was spent on railroads in the 1840s. The cost of building a single mile of railroad was equivalent to the cost of building an average sized steamboat. To put it simply, railroads were expensive. Heilbroner has further noted that most of the money for railroad building came from private investors. Some were financed by sales of stock or property mortgages, while some were financed by European investors. Moreover, almost half of the iron and steel output of the 1840s was poured into the railroad industry.7
Together, the canals and railroads tied America together. The large distances between regions became figuratively shorter. Nash notes that this has been called The Transportation Revolution.8 It helped America overcome the difficulties that had been hindering the development of an efficient manufacturing industry. Heilbroner recounts that with transportation problems pretty much solved, manufacturers began to find willing laborers in the flood of immigrants that came to Boston in the early 1800s. They were desperate and easily exploitable, and willing to work for meager wages under barely sustainable conditions. Meanwhile, American enthusiasm to experiment provided a wide variety of improved tools and gadgets that would increase productivity and efficiency.9 With things set into place, industrialization was under way.
To entrepreneurial capitalists, the benefits of industrialization outweighed the negative aspects. More goods could be produced for less cost. In addition, they could now unload their increased amount of products in the far away markets that had previously been inaccessible Many factory owners shared the view that factory work was good for their employees and helped build character. Industrialization produced heavy pollution, but to most capitalists this was of little concern. 10
Industrialization created new products such as clocks, books, and other various knick-knacks that improved the qualities of life, were inexpensive, and were available to the general population at all class levels. 11But more importantly for the working class, industrialization brought long hours, low wages, and immoral working conditions. Industrialization transformed the working class into “wage slaves” and the factory owners became the masters. It created larger gaps between the distribution of wealth. Industrialization encouraged people to turn to a more consumer oriented lifestyle, and pulled them away from living as individual farmers. The negative aspects, however, were overshadowed by the economy that was growing rapidly and unstoppable.