The United States in 1800

How has the United States — far from being one of the first societies of the industrial era — progressed in leaps and bounds from its agrarian roots?

November 30, 2002

How has the United States — far from being one of the first societies of the industrial era — progressed in leaps and bounds from its agrarian roots?

It has to be counted among the major ironies of history that the 13 colonies which became the United States seceded from the British empire at the very moment that Britain was becoming the laboratory of the industrial revolution.

Far from being one of the first societies of the dawning industrial era, however, the United States was one of the last countries to be born in the final years of agrarian civilization.

A few visionaries — among them Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury — understood the importance of the new, steam-powered industrial economy arising in Britain. That’s why he wanted the United States to become a great manufacturing power.

But the Hamiltonian vision of America’s future was defeated by the rival vision of Thomas Jefferson and his allies. They hoped that the United States would remain a republic of farmers, which was a message that resonated with America’s rural majority.

The U.S. economy was almost wholly agrarian well into the 19th century. Back in 1790, only 5 percent of the 4 million inhabitants of the United States (including 757,000 nonwhites, most of them slaves) lived in urban areas with 2,500 or more residents.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, 10 out of every 11 Americans lived on family farms. In its technology and economy, the United States of 1800 was closer to ancient Greece and Rome or medieval Europe than it was to the United States of 1850 — or 1900 or 1950.

The major sources of energy at the time were still wind and water. Mills still had to be located on streams. And just as in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, canals were the major infrastructure projects.

Before 1840, inland waterways like the Erie Canal were much more important than railroads in providing transportation.

Steamboats made it possible to extend commerce up previously unnavigable rivers. Between 1817 and 1840, the number of steamboats in the trans-Appalachian West grew from 17 to 536.

Nonetheless, travel remained so difficult that Jefferson believed it would take centuries to settle the territory of the Louisiana Purchase — and speculated that Anglo-American settlers on the remote Pacific coast would form new countries.

The market in the first American republic was rudimentary and weak. Joint-stock corporations usually had to be chartered for specific public purposes by state legislatures — a relic of the medieval idea of the corporation as a monopoly chartered by the king.

The formation of an integrated national market was retarded by the powerful tradition of states’ rights and localism. Despite the political independence of the United States from Britain, the southern plantation economy in effect was part of the British economy.

Cotton, which displaced wool as the chief raw material for the British textile industry by 1801, could only be grown in tropical climates like that found in the Caribbean and the American South.

The South became Britain’s principal supplier, and before the Civil War the South got most of its capital from Britain.

In those years, the government sector was as undeveloped as the business sector. Indeed, in most respects the state governments were more important than the federal government.

The main source of federal revenue was the tariff, a tax on imported goods. And the largest federal government agency was the post office, which provided presidents with a source of patronage appointments.

The federal presence in the economy was minor. The states — rather than the federal government — paid for most infrastructure projects like canals and early railroads.

The United States greatly expanded its continental territory during this period — usually by means that did not require a powerful federal army.

For example, in 1804, Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, and so-called filibusters — American settlers covertly encouraged by U.S. leaders — detached Florida and then Texas from Spanish and Mexican rule.

There was a small, highly competent U.S. military, but Jefferson and his successors rejected Hamilton’s plan for a federal military academy. West Point was a scaled-down institution that focused on civil engineering.

The American military effort in the Mexican War of 1846-48 was handicapped by reliance on the militias, whose members tended to be disorderly and insubordinate.

There was no uniform standard of U.S. citizenship, which meant that one had to be a citizen of a specific state to be a citizen of the republic.

This enabled the southern states to exclude black slaves from citizenship. Among the white population, citizenship and voting rights were gradually extended by the individual states.

By the 1840s, most states had abolished property qualifications for voting and religious tests for holding public office. But suffrage was still limited to adult white men.

Racist immigration laws, meanwhile, limited legal immigration and naturalization to “free white persons.”

The informal conception of American identity in this era held that the United States was an Anglo-American Protestant nation.

The first American republic, then, was a largely agrarian society. Extensive development — in the form of expansion of the plantation and family farm economy to the South and West — took the place of intensive development in the form of industrialization.

Nevertheless, long-term technological, economic and demographic trends were working slowly to undermine those agrarian concepts.

Regional industrialization and large-scale European immigration shifted the balance of power in America away from the conservative, agrarian South — and toward the modernizing North.