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Economic Developments in the North: A Commercial Revolution

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  • 0:05 Diverging Regions
  • 2:21 Inventors & Inventions
  • 4:10 Northern Commerce
  • 6:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In the Antebellum Era, the Northern part of the United States was revolutionized by a series of innovations, triggering a shift from an agricultural to a commercial economy. These economic changes sharpened the differences between North and South.

Diverging Regions

Samuel Slater built the first textile factory in the U.S. in 1790
Samuel Slater

The Industrial Revolution in America was a century-long process that moved the production of goods from skilled artisans in home business to machines in factories. When Samuel Slater built America's first textile factory in Rhode Island in 1790, he steered New England on a clear economic path. Then Eli Whitney demonstrated interchangeable parts in 1801, setting off half a century of innovations and inventions in American business and manufacturing. By 1850, the value of industrial output surpassed the value of agriculture, signaling a secondary commercial revolution - and almost all of it was in the North.

Although the society and economies of North and South had been different since the earliest colonial days, these differences became more clearly defined in the Antebellum Era (or the years before the Civil War). The colonial economies had evolved differently thanks in no small part to geography; the climate of the South was conducive to cash crops, while the fast-moving rivers of the North powered machinery. But even while coal started replacing water as an industrial power source and agricultural inventions transformed Western farms, the South seemed to be regressing in terms of technology. Since the invention of Eli Whitney's cotton gin, the Southern states had become increasingly more dependent on slave labor. And though there was industry in the South, it formed a relatively small percentage of their economic output.

By contrast, with the transfer of large-scale farming to the West, the North came to depend on a commercial economy for their livelihood. The output of goods and services in America increased twelvefold between the turn of the century and the start of the Civil War; two-thirds of these goods and 70% of the workers who made them hailed from factories in the Northeast. Growing transportation networks created a web across the Northeastern and Middle states and connected the North to the West beginning with the Erie Canal and, by mid-century, by railroad tracks. These improvements encouraged even more commerce and population growth, leaving the South increasingly more isolated from the rest of the nation.

Depiction of southern slaves using the cotton gin
Cotton Gin Slaves

19th-Century Inventors and Inventions

The power-driven machinery of New England textile factories spread to many other industries, creating a surge in American inventions and innovations. In the two decades between 1830 and 1850, the number of successful patent applications nearly doubled. The invention of the sewing machine midcentury meant all that fabric produced in Northern factories could now be sewn into clothing in Northern factories. Steam engines were adapted for all kinds of machinery, including ships and mills and printing presses. Skilled blacksmiths and small forges gave way to the massive furnaces and rolling mills of Pennsylvania. Even farmers benefitted from machinery such as Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper and John Deere's steel plow.

One of the most important patents of the mid-19th century was the process for vulcanizing rubber. This keeps it strong even when heated, and Charles Goodyear's rubber was eventually applied in more than 500 different uses and allowed for the development of the automobile industry. Unfortunately for Goodyear, he was a man ahead of his time. He died a poor man before his inventions became widely used.

Another inventor did see the fruits of his labor during his lifetime. An artist named Samuel Morse needed a supplemental income, and after failing to reach his dying wife's bedside due to a lack of efficient communication, he invented the electric telegraph and Morse code in 1844. His little side job revolutionized communication, allowing for messages to be passed almost instantly over long distances. Within 16 years, telegraph wires crisscrossed the East Coast and reached as far west as the Mississippi River.

McCormick invented the mechanical reaper and Deere created the steel plow
Cyrus McCormick John Deere

Effects and Consequences of Northern Commerce

Factories and industrialization led to more than just economic differences among the regions; they had profound social, political and demographic effects on the young nation. The government stepped in to protect fledgling American industries by passing a series of protective tariffs throughout the first half of the century. These taxes raised the cost of imported goods, making domestic goods more competitive. Praised by industrial regions of the nation, tariffs were a disaster for Southern cotton-growers since the tariffs not only raised prices, they also lowered Britain's ability to buy American cotton. The economic controversy was a more important political issue than slavery at the time, nearly causing a civil war in the 1830s when South Carolina threatened to secede over the so-called 'Tariff of Abominations.'

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