A Highly Complex Industrial Economy
The modern American economy traces its roots to the quest of European settlers for economic gain in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The New World then progressed from a marginally successful colonial economy to a small, independent farming economy and, eventually, to a highly complex industrial economy. During this evolution, the United States developed ever more complex institutions to match its growth. And while government involvement in the economy has been a consistent theme, the extent of that involvement generally has increased.
North America's first inhabitants were Native Americans -- indigenous peoples who are believed to have traveled to America about 20,000 years earlier across a land bridge from Asia, where the Bering Strait is today. (They were mistakenly called "Indians" by European explorers, who thought they had reached India when first landing in the Americas.) These native peoples were organized in tribes and, in some cases, confederations of tribes. While they traded among themselves, they had little contact with peoples on other continents, even with other native peoples in South America, before European settlers began arriving. What economic systems they did develop were destroyed by the Europeans who settled their lands.
Vikings were the first Europeans to "discover" America. But the event, which occurred around the year 1000, went largely unnoticed; at the time, most of European society was still firmly based on agriculture and land ownership. Commerce had not yet assumed the importance that would provide an impetus to the further exploration and settlement of North America. In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag, set out to find a southwest passage to Asia and discovered a "New World." For the next 100 years, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French explorers sailed from Europe for the New World, looking for gold, riches, honor, and glory. But the North American wilderness offered early explorers little glory and less gold, so most did not stay. The people who eventually did settle North America arrived later. In 1607, a band of Englishmen built the first permanent settlement in what was to become the United States. The settlement, Jamestown, was located in the present-day state of Virginia.
Early settlers had a variety of reasons for seeking a new homeland. The Pilgrims of Massachusetts were pious, self-disciplined English people who wanted to escape religious persecution. Other colonies, such as Virginia, were founded principally as business ventures. Often, though, piety and profits went hand-in-hand.
England's success at colonizing what would become the United States was due in large part to its use of charter companies. Charter companies were groups of stockholders (usually merchants and wealthy landowners) who sought personal economic gain and, perhaps, wanted also to advance England's national goals. While the private sector financed the companies, the King provided each project with a charter or grant conferring economic rights as well as political and judicial authority. The colonies generally did not show quick profits, however, and the English investors often turned over their colonial charters to the settlers. The political implications, although not realized at the time, were enormous. The colonists were left to build their own lives, their own communities, and their own economy -- in effect, to start constructing the rudiments of a new nation.
What early colonial prosperity there was resulted from trapping and trading in furs. In addition, fishing was a primary source of wealth in Massachusetts. But throughout the colonies, people lived primarily on small farms and were self-sufficient. In the few small cities and among the larger plantations of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, some necessities and virtually all luxuries were imported in return for tobacco, rice, and indigo (blue dye) exports.
Supportive industries developed as the colonies grew. A variety of specialized sawmills and gristmills appeared. Colonists established shipyards to build fishing fleets and, in time, trading vessels. The also built small iron forges. By the 18th century, regional patterns of development had become clear: the New England colonies relied on ship-building and sailing to generate wealth; plantations (many using slave labor) in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas grew tobacco, rice, and indigo; and the middle colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware shipped general crops and furs. Except for slaves, standards of living were generally high -- higher, in fact, than in England itself. Because English investors had withdrawn, the field was open to entrepreneurs among the colonists.
By 1770, the North American colonies were ready, both economically and politically, to become part of the emerging self-government movement that had dominated English politics since the time of James I (1603-1625). Disputes developed with England over taxation and other matters; Americans hoped for a modification of English taxes and regulations that would satisfy their demand for more self-government. Few thought the mounting quarrel with the English government would lead to all-out war against the British and to independence for the colonies.
Like the English political turmoil of the 17th and 18th centuries, the American Revolution (1775-1783) was both political and economic, bolstered by an emerging middle class with a rallying cry of "unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property" -- a phrase openly borrowed from English philosopher John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690). The war was triggered by an event in April 1775. British soldiers, intending to capture a colonial arms depot at Concord, Massachusetts, clashed with colonial militiamen. Someone -- no one knows exactly who -- fired a shot, and eight years of fighting began. While political separation from England may not have been the majority of colonists' original goal, independence and the creation of a new nation -- the United States -- was the ultimate result.
The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787 and in effect to this day, was in many ways a work of creative genius. As an economic charter, it established that the entire nation -- stretching then from Maine to Georgia, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi Valley -- was a unified, or "common," market. There were to be no tariffs or taxes on interstate commerce. The Constitution provided that the federal government could regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, establish uniform bankruptcy laws, create money and regulate its value, fix standards of weights and measures, establish post offices and roads, and fix rules governing patents and copyrights. The last-mentioned clause was an early recognition of the importance of "intellectual property," a matter that would assume great importance in trade negotiations in the late 20th century.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation's Founding Fathers and its first secretary of the treasury, advocated an economic development strategy in which the federal government would nurture infant industries by providing overt subsidies and imposing protective tariffs on imports. He also urged the federal government to create a national bank and to assume the public debts that the colonies had incurred during the Revolutionary War. The new government dallied over some of Hamilton's proposals, but ultimately it did make tariffs an essential part of American foreign policy -- a position that lasted until almost the middle of the 20th century.
Although early American farmers feared that a national bank would serve the rich at the expense of the poor, the first National Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791; it lasted until 1811, after which a successor bank was chartered. Hamilton believed the United States should pursue economic growth through diversified shipping, manufacturing, and banking. Hamilton's political rival, Thomas Jefferson, based his philosophy on protecting the common man from political and economic tyranny. He particularly praised small farmers as "the most valuable citizens." In 1801, Jefferson became president (1801-1809) and turned to promoting a more decentralized, agrarian democracy. Cotton, at first a small-scale crop in the South, boomed following Eli Whitney's invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine that separated raw cotton from seeds and other waste. Planters in the South bought land from small farmers who frequently moved farther west. Soon, large plantations, supported by slave labor, made some families very wealthy.
It wasn't just southerners who were moving west, however. Whole villages in the East sometimes uprooted and established new settlements in the more fertile farmland of the Midwest. While western settlers are often depicted as fiercely independent and strongly opposed to any kind of government control or interference, they actually received a lot of government help, directly and indirectly. Government-created national roads and waterways, such as the Cumberland Pike (1818) and the Erie Canal (1825), helped new settlers migrate west and later helped move western farm produce to market.
Many Americans, both poor and rich, idealized Andrew Jackson, who became president in 1829, because he had started life in a log cabin in frontier territory. President Jackson (1829-1837) opposed the successor to Hamilton's National Bank, which he believed favored the entrenched interests of the East against the West. When he was elected for a second term, Jackson opposed renewing the bank's charter, and Congress supported him. Their actions shook confidence in the nation's financial system, and business panics occurred in both 1834 and 1837.
Periodic economic dislocations did not curtail rapid U.S. economic growth during the 19th century. New inventions and capital investment led to the creation of new industries and economic growth. As transportation improved, new markets continuously opened. The steamboat made river traffic faster and cheaper, but development of railroads had an even greater effect, opening up vast stretches of new territory for development. Like canals and roads, railroads received large amounts of government assistance in their early building years in the form of land grants. But unlike other forms of transportation, railroads also attracted a good deal of domestic and European private investment.
In these heady days, get-rich-quick schemes abounded. Financial manipulators made fortunes overnight, but many people lost their savings. Nevertheless, a combination of vision and foreign investment, combined with the discovery of gold and a major commitment of America's public and private wealth, enabled the nation to develop a large-scale railroad system, establishing the base for the country's industrialization.
The Industrial Revolution began in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it quickly spread to the United States. By 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, 16 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas, and a third of the nation's income came from manufacturing. Urbanized industry was limited primarily to the Northeast; cotton cloth production was the leading industry, with the manufacture of shoes, woolen clothing, and machinery also expanding. Many new workers were immigrants. Between 1845 and 1855, some 300,000 European immigrants arrived annually. Most were poor and remained in eastern cities, often at ports of arrival.
The South, on the other hand, remained rural and dependent on the North for capital and manufactured goods. Southern economic interests, including slavery, could be protected by political power only as long as the South controlled the federal government. The Republican Party, organized in 1856, represented the industrialized North. In 1860, Republicans and their presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln were speaking hesitantly on slavery, but they were much clearer on economic policy. In 1861, they successfully pushed adoption of a protective tariff. In 1862, the first Pacific railroad was chartered. In 1863 and 1864, a national bank code was drafted.
Northern victory in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), however, sealed the destiny of the nation and its economic system. The slave-labor system was abolished, making the large southern cotton plantations much less profitable. Northern industry, which had expanded rapidly because of the demands of the war, surged ahead. Industrialists came to dominate many aspects of the nation's life, including social and political affairs. The planter aristocracy of the South, portrayed sentimentally 70 years later in the film classic Gone with the Wind, disappeared.
The rapid economic development following the Civil War laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. industrial economy. An explosion of new discoveries and inventions took place, causing such profound changes that some termed the results a "second industrial revolution." Oil was discovered in western Pennsylvania. The typewriter was developed. Refrigeration railroad cars came into use. The telephone, phonograph, and electric light were invented. And by the dawn of the 20th century, cars were replacing carriages and people were flying in airplanes.
Parallel to these achievements was the development of the nation's industrial infrastructure. Coal was found in abundance in the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania south to Kentucky. Large iron mines opened in the Lake Superior region of the upper Midwest. Mills thrived in places where these two important raw materials could be brought together to produce steel. Large copper and silver mines opened, followed by lead mines and cement factories.
As industry grew larger, it developed mass-production methods. Frederick W. Taylor pioneered the field of scientific management in the late 19th century, carefully plotting the functions of various workers and then devising new, more efficient ways for them to do their jobs. (True mass production was the inspiration of Henry Ford, who in 1913 adopted the moving assembly line, with each worker doing one simple task in the production of automobiles. In what turned out to be a farsighted action, Ford offered a very generous wage -- $5 a day -- to his workers, enabling many of them to buy the automobiles they made, helping the industry to expand.)
The "Gilded Age" of the second half of the 19th century was the epoch of tycoons. Many Americans came to idealize these businessmen who amassed vast financial empires. Often their success lay in seeing the long-range potential for a new service or product, as John D. Rockefeller did with oil. They were fierce competitors, single-minded in their pursuit of financial success and power. Other giants in addition to Rockefeller and Ford included Jay Gould, who made his money in railroads; J. Pierpont Morgan, banking; and Andrew Carnegie, steel. Some tycoons were honest according to business standards of their day; others, however, used force, bribery, and guile to achieve their wealth and power. For better or worse, business interests acquired significant influence over government.
Morgan, perhaps the most flamboyant of the entrepreneurs, operated on a grand scale in both his private and business life. He and his companions gambled, sailed yachts, gave lavish parties, built palatial homes, and bought European art treasures. In contrast, men such as Rockefeller and Ford exhibited puritanical qualities. They retained small-town values and lifestyles. As church-goers, they felt a sense of responsibility to others. They believed that personal virtues could bring success; theirs was the gospel of work and thrift. Later their heirs would establish the largest philanthropic foundations in America.
While upper-class European intellectuals generally looked on commerce with disdain, most Americans -- living in a society with a more fluid class structure -- enthusiastically embraced the idea of moneymaking. They enjoyed the risk and excitement of business enterprise, as well as the higher living standards and potential rewards of power and acclaim that business success brought.
As the American economy matured in the 20th century, however, the freewheeling business mogul lost luster as an American ideal. The crucial change came with the emergence of the corporation, which appeared first in the railroad industry and then elsewhere. Business barons were replaced by "technocrats," high-salaried managers who became the heads of corporations.
The technological revolution of the 1980s and 1990s brought a new entrepreneurial culture that echoes of the age of tycoons. Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, built an immense fortune developing and selling computer software. Gates carved out an empire so profitable that by the late 1990s, his company was taken into court and accused of intimidating rivals and creating a monopoly by the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division. But Gates also established a charitable foundation that quickly became the largest of its kind. Most American business leaders of today do not lead the high-profile life of Gates. They direct the fate of corporations, but they also serve on boards for charities and schools. They are concerned about the state of the national economy and America's relationship with other nations, and they are likely to fly to Washington to confer with government officials. While they undoubtedly influence the government, they do not control it -- as some tycoons in the Gilded Age believed they did.
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