the revolutionary war transformed manufacturing in america -- 11/21/16

Today's selection -- from Manufacturing Independence by Robert F. Smith. Before the Revolutionary War, America was the simple, agrarian society that Thomas Jefferson so revered. It was the Revolutionary War itself that transformed America into a manufacturing powerhouse that within a few short decades would overtake and surpass the manufacturing prowess of Europe's greatest countries. It was the American government itself that led this effort, organizing and teaching the small craftsmen of the country how to become large scale producers, and providing them with the necessary cash, raw materials, and transportation resources. The short-term result was the effective arming of the nation, but the long-term implica­tions involved placing the government at the forefront of industrializa­tion in the United States:

"When the American Revolution began, the ... colonies in rebellion were not prepared for war and were slow to understand how to support themselves productively. As Amphitrite's tale displays, it was also unlike­ly that Americans could rely on foreign supplies. So the US government embarked on a program to harness the resources of the nation's manu­facturing sector and direct the production of equipment for the Continental Army. ...

Iron workers casting a cannon at Hopewell Furance
during the Revolutionary War.

"Using arsenals, government agents, and military discipline, the Continental Congress overcame the manufacturing limitations of the nation's wartime, craft-based economy to mobilize and manage the domestic production of military stores. The results were the successful equipping of the Continental Army and the demonstration of new forms of production to America's manufacturing community. The government initiated its program of domestic manufacturing in winter 1776-77 under a commissary general of military stores, whose department man­aged the program until 1794. The department comprised three divisions of oversight, the first of which gathered private craftsmen and hired workers into three national arsenals for the large-scale production of weapons, accouterments, ordnance, and other stores. The second over­sight component, made up of government inspectors, directed private manufacturers in the production of military stores by instructing produc­ers on their work and inspecting their finished products. Finally, the gov­ernment provided private manufacturers with cash, raw materials, and transportation resources. Together, these three elements constituted a sys­tem not only to provide the army with military stores but also to main­tain those stores once in use. While the system itself was important for the army's survival, the system also served to introduce new forms of production to the United States and demonstrate new technologies. The government then became a promoter of domestic manufacturing in the postwar period. Proponents of manufacturing used the Department of the Commissary General of Military Stores (DCGMS) as a model for how the nation could be secured against its enemies by producing its own goods. This was fitting, since the central government's oversight of manufacturing began as a result of the fact that the United States was unprepared for war and because the war had a destructive effect on the nation's infrastructure. ...

"The colonies had never needed large supplies of military stores; they received most of what they needed for defense from Britain. ... American craftsmen were independent producers who made small batches of finished products. Colonial society had little experience with centralized coordination of labor or production. Without central­ized management, which the colonies failed to implement, craftsmen pro­duced as they always had, a few custom-made pieces at a time. Domestic manufacture in the early years of the war was a slow and precarious source of weapons for the American war effort. ...

"Congress created a management hierarchy to oversee the private and the public production of military stores. ... The range of fighting equipment the army needed was vast, a fact belied by use of the term military stores. A report compiled by the DCGMS in 1784 listed 838 distinct items of hardware being held in stor­age by the department. ... The breadth of American military items produced and procured by the DCGMS serves to illuminate the innovations initiated in manufacturing by the department to support the war effort. It did not simply direct the production of military stores; the stores themselves were too complex for that alone to be useful. To produce and/or repair the 838 items that ended up in government warehouses, the department had to transform the production potential of the nation. It did this by turning craft opera­tions into managed production sites, building factories to coordinate unskilled labor, and introducing domestic manufacturers to new tech­nologies. Craftsmen at government arsenals were managed by officers and master craftsmen alike, not only within their crafts, but also across craft disciplines. Gunsmiths, for instance, were supported by blacksmiths and carpenters to make all the items necessary for a musket. Workspaces were made for laborers to assemble both musket and artillery ammuni­tion. And the DCGMS introduced domestic metalworkers to the wide­spread use of anthracite coal in their operations. The department adopt­ed these changes from the ideas of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The American Revolution created the same opportunities for manufacturing development in the United States that had allowed industry to flourish in Europe. And so, Americans imported the Industrial Revolution to mobilize the resources they had available. The short-term result was the effective arming of the nation, but the long-term implica­tions involved placing the government at the forefront of industrializa­tion in the United States."


Robert F. Smith


Manufacturing Independence: Industrial Innovation in the American Revolution


Westholme Publishing


Copyright 2016 Robert F. Smith


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